Article: Choosing the right path through the energy transition

By Kirstin Crothers

For energy executives leading their organisations through the transition, picking the best direction is made more complicated by the uncertainties of a sector undergoing enormous change. We asked three leaders from completely different parts of the industry for their perspectives on choosing what to prioritise whilst the industry is in flux.

Hear from:

  • Stephanie Unwin, Chief Executive Officer, Horizon Power
  • Ben Burge, Member of the Team, Telstra Energy, Telstra
  • Bess Clark, Chief Executive Officer, Marinus Link


Position and priorities

We started by asking how their organisation differs from others in the energy industry and how that shapes their priorities. Stephanie Unwin says that Horizon Power’s distinctiveness stems from being Australia’s only vertically integrated energy utility. Based in WA, Horizon is responsible for the largest geographical catchment of any Australian power provider, covering an area more than one quarter of the Australian continent. She believes that location puts them in “a unique position to design renewable energy solutions that consider the full supply chain.”

Stephanie identifies decarbonisation as a priority for Horizon, saying, “In our footprint, the effects of climate change are quite profound. And they're profound because many of our coastal regions experience much more severe flooding, increased frequency of cyclone events, and you feel the brunt of the fire season, particularly in the Goldfields-Esperance region.”

She is optimistic about the impact Horizon can have, noting that decarbonisation is a “ great opportunity” to leave a legacy of environmental rehabilitation.

Stephanie says, "We're very much aligned with our state government on making sure that 2050 is the latest date to get to net zero. And I think, given the broad range of our customers, we're going to be at net zero across our footprint much earlier and for all of the right reasons.”

For Bess Clark from Marinus Link, the main difference is technology. "We’re developing Australia’s first high voltage direct current (HVDC) subsea interconnector based on modern voltage source conversion (VSC) technology.”

Bess explains that Marinus Link will use this VSC technology to connect to the Tasmanian and Victorian power systems and allow two-way clean energy exchange, unlocking Tasmania's wind and hydro resources to the national market.

Ben Burge from Telstra Energy shies away from comparisons, saying, "It doesn’t matter what I think. Our customers spend less than three minutes per year thinking about energy.”

He suggests that consumers are cynical about the energy sector’s “Olympic-level performance in the ‘Consumer Pentathlon’: climate-warming; loyalty-taxing; green-washing; favour-seeking; and scare-mongering.”

For this reason, he wants Telstra Energy to “spend our time in the library and the lab, working on stuff that might save customers time, money and emissions. If we get that right, customers might realise that we don’t train for those sports. Until then, we probably look like another aspiring Pentathlete.”


Hidden shoals of the energy transition

When it comes to the less well-known challenges arising from the transition, Bess Clark says it will take "clever brains" to keep the power system in balance as coal-fired generation continues to retire and more distributed energy resources are connected to the grid. She notes that the challenge is understood by the experts, including market bodies, but “is not widely recognised by the broader community.”

Bess is confident that the expertise exists to resolve these issues, boasting that Marinus Link engineers are “thinking about grid-forming requirements for the converter design, in considering how the link will support Australia’s customers for over 40 years, in a transforming power system.”

Ben Burge is concerned that headline issues divert attention from vital energy efficiency and device control standards, wasting opportunities to drive down energy expenditure and emissions.

The example he gives is everyone’s attention being captured by the “big stuff”, like should we have a Capacity Market? (he says we probably shouldn't, by the way). Meanwhile, “a failure to adopt basic monitoring standards in rooftop solar means the nation's "biggest generator" is invisible to the system. Network companies' tariff structures exacerbate the oversupply of energy during the day and discourage customers from adopting smart meters.”

Expanding on the problem, Ben says, “Vehicle emissions standards impede the electrification of transport. Infrastructure policy squanders the opportunity for efficient vehicle charging networks. And the default market offer structure leaves little room to reward customers for doing easy things that would alleviate pressure on the system.”

Ben warns that the consequences of these oversights are exponential in the current environment: “In a less volatile market, the “smearing effects” that flow from counterproductive policy measures are manageable. Not anymore. The connectedness of policy is unavoidable and significant."

It is ironic then that Stephanie Unwin offers an example of the kind of 'joined-up thinking' which Ben demands when asked we asked her about the challenges of the transition. Horizon has been working on maximising renewable energy while maintaining network stability and integrity.

She explains, “what we’ve done – and this is something we’re immensely proud of – is implemented a really important piece of technology, a Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS) in our energy system in Onslow, Western Australia.”

DERMS monitors generation from distributed energy resources in real-time and uses predictive analytics to forecast generation and demand, even looking at cloud movements to predict how they will affect generation.

Stephanie is optimistic about the technology and its wider impact. "It's the first time DERMS has been deployed for this purpose in Australia. It is ground-breaking because it enables rooftop solar, customer batteries, centralised solar and energy storage, and gas to all work together to deliver safe, reliable power for our customers.


What will change dramatically, what will stay the same?

Ben Burge predicts that the next generation of voters will not tolerate the existing inefficiencies and inequities of the energy system, “Nearly 3 million Australians who are today aged 8-17 years will become eligible to vote. That's 7% of the vote in five years and 15% of the vote in 10 years. These citizens will directly experience planet earth in 2080-2100, and their outlook will differ dramatically from today's average voter. Try telling these new voters that our energy system must be the same now and in the future, as it was in the past!”

As for what will stay the same, he nominates “Governments and companies underestimating the pace of change.”

Stephanie Unwin says, "Everything excites me about the future. And we're not just imagining the future, but we're right at the cusp of decision making for our future.”

“I think it's going to be radically different in 2030 compared to where we are today. I say bring it on, bring the EVs into our footprint. Let's look at new sources of energy like green hydrogen and biofuels. And let's make sure that we are providing all of the right answers so people can exercise the choice they want to, to have a better impact on the environment.”

Bess Clark predicts the pace of change and decarbonisation is going to accelerate, anticipating “unprecedented investment in new generation, storage and network resources to support cleaner generation sources, and greater electrification of load.”

She sees the power system becoming more ‘tidal’, with large energy flows across state boundaries as weather systems move across Australia. What will stay the same is the focus on good customer outcomes by energy businesses, particularly sharing the benefits of the transition with landowners and communities impacted by the new infrastructure.


Where our leaders hope to be in five years

Collectively what stands out is these leaders’ optimism, belief in their colleagues and faith that technology can answer the demand for a more flexible and agile energy system. When asked where they see themselves in 5 years, they all wanted to remain part of the transformation and decarbonisation of energy.

Stephanie Unwin said she would like to be “at the front”, whether leading a large and global infrastructure company, impact investing or accelerating energy technologies. She sees the transition as a group effort, noting that she hopes to have the “enormous privilege of leading great people recognised for their work”.

Bess Clark hopes for "quality time with family, friends and colleagues, a spot of gardening, and the odd trashy novel to read" between celebrations at the Marinus Link reaches its milestones.

“Who knows?” she adds, “I might be putting the finishing touches on the business case for Marinus Link stages three and four…"

Ben Burge is confident that the momentum for decarbonisation of the energy sector will be unstoppable in five years. He thinks those joining the industry “will be finding the solutions that us old farts failed to see or even look for.”

But he boldly commits to keep working for a better environment by “applying for an entry-level job in aviation or another heavy industry still struggling to decarbonise”.

Hear from Stephanie Unwin, Bess Clark, Ben Burge and a host of energy leaders at Australian Energy Week 2022

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.

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