Australian Bushfires Are a Wake-Up Call for Energy Management

(Photo: Smoke from bushfires blankets the southeast coastline of Australia on January 4, 2020. Credit: NASA)

by | Jan 22, 2020

Australian Bushfires Are a Wake-Up Call for Energy Management

(Photo: Smoke from bushfires blankets the southeast coastline of Australia on January 4, 2020. Credit: NASA)

Drought and record-breaking heat set the stage for multiple massive bushfires that began in Australia late last year. Since then, at least two dozen people died and more than 15.6 million acres burned, the BBC reported recently.

For energy managers, the fires should be taken as a warning sign, says Shuli Goodman, executive director of LF Energy, a vendor-neutral nonprofit initiative from the Linux Foundation that aims to accelerate the energy and electricity sector’s worldwide decarbonization goals through an open source-based ecosystem. Their members include RTE, Energinet, TenneT, Alliander, Elering, IBM, Recurve, Stanford University, OSISoft, Unicorn, and Root9B.

“The smoke is migrating around the world, rapidly,” Goodman says. “It is on everyone’s minds.”

Recently we caught up with her to learn more about the significance of these bushfires, and what energy management professionals around the world can learn from them.

Are the Australian bushfires affecting LF Energy’s members?

I have had several calls in the last few weeks with people from Australia. The short answer is yes, although no one has lost a home or been forced to evacuate. The fires are vastly larger and more terrifying than previous bushfires.

The Australian economy is uniquely dependent upon coal. The fires are a double hit — one is environmental, the second is a foreshadowing of economic collapse. Australians have not been able to get the political will to anticipate a transition period. This is a reckoning on many levels.

Why should energy managers around the world be paying attention to the bushfires?

Take them as a clear warning sign. Consider how the next decades will unfold. We are going to see mass migrations and major catastrophic events all over the world similar to the Australian bushfires.

Energy managers, along with their utility company partners, need to move fast if we stand a chance at achieving 100% global decarbonization. That means investing in radical energy efficiency, resiliency in terms of micro- and mini-grids, and, in general, getting our house in order.

What steps should energy managers take?

The energy transition is driving a distributed energy resource ‘generate local and consume local’ model. Additionally, we need smart grids, which move us to a multi-directional mesh-like network with devices that can be both loads and resources to the grid.

By reducing carbon output, energy managers can begin to address the effects of climate change and mitigate the risk of wildfires. The role of an energy manager is to ensure that the process is inclusive, that stakeholders feel represented, and that the plan reflects the unique qualities of the manager’s constituency. It’s about solid planning.

Ultimately, though, energy managers need to stop trying to go it alone. We have to solve these problems quickly, and the only way to do that is together.

What are the potential benefits?

The three parts to making the energy business case are ‘cheaper’ and ‘faster’ coupled with ‘safer.’ Multi-stakeholder planning ensures that innovation is socialized. The benefit of leading a change initiative like a big energy project as an engagement process is that, in the end, people will see it as theirs — and that has a great chance of adoption.

I think it is possible to reach 100% decarbonization of electricity and 100% decarbonization of transportation. Yet part of what makes that possible is the virtuous circle that will emerge as more businesses respond. Energy managers are essentially voting with their projects. That creates momentum.

Where do you see the energy landscape headed in the future given recent wildfires?

Live electricity is volatile and can create fire through lines touching dried vegetation. As a resident of Sonoma County, I am particularly sensitive to the issue. We have had three years in a row with over 120 deaths and billions of dollars in losses due to wires causing fires. This is one type of risk. The second is what we have seen in Australia, which is extremely hot fires causing weather patterns that trigger lightning and raging winds, causing more fires.

There is the mitigation of climate change through decarbonization, and then there is designing grids that are less exposed to causing inadvertent and unnecessary fires.

I also see drones and acoustic listening becoming increasingly important in helping energy managers with predictive maintenance of large equipment. There are a lot of opportunities.

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