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Successfully bringing renewable energy sources into an originally coal-powered grid system is a conundrum facing power system operators around the world.

System operators have come together to create The Global Power Systems Transformation Consortium (G-PST) to address this issue. The consortium is drawing on operators who are very focused on the mandate of trying to get increasing amounts of variable renewable energy onto their grid, as well as other low emission solutions that can assist in integration of power systems in the future.

The recent Enlit Africa digital event hosted a discussion introducing the Consortium to African utilities, moderated by Dr Jarrad Wright, CSIR principal researcher. He pointed out that system operators have to lead the way to implement this transformation, which is often imposed on them by government systems. This counts for both more developed economies quite far along the road, and developing system operators in the earlier phases of integration.

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“Of course, policymakers and other stakeholders listen to system operators, they take them seriously. They have deep expertise and technical skills and that can obviously assist in helping raise the competence and ambition behind how fast new forms of clean energy can be brought onto power systems. System operators can best learn from their peers and be inspired by others in terms of what they are doing.

“System operators have an emerging role in cross sector electrification. So, sector coupling opportunities of bringing other ways in which energy can be used in mobility, as well as in potentially hard to abate sectors. The production of hydrogen, for example as an energy carrier, could be ways in which we need to understand these sector coupling dynamics. And, how these systems are going to be integrated into the future, of which the system operators are at the core,” explained Wright.

System operators need not go it alone

Julian Leslie, head of networks for national grid ESO in the UK, one of the five founding power system operators in the G-PS, said there is comfort in knowing you aren’t facing your problems on your own.

“The technical problems we are all facing can be boiled down into five key areas and there’s a lot of commonality between those. What we’ve been able to do by consolidating our research areas of interest that are challenging us all, it’s allowed us as system operators to work with people like Jared [at the CSIR] and other sorts of research institutes to try and help shape and direct research efforts. So, we get timely and focused researched outputs so that we can all help to decarbonise even quicker.”

ESO are particular involved in the knowledge sharing pillar around how they have been decarbonising their system: “How we’ve gone from 25% coal generation in the UK to just over 1% in a period of four to five years, how have we done that? What tool have we built, what processes we put in place in order to change that? That’s the thing that is really exciting to share with other system operators who are still to embark on this decarbonisation programme. G-PST is really a great forum that brings all of those people together, and it’s unique in that respect,” said Leslie.

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Localisation of technology

Dr Amy Rose, NREL pointed out the Consortium’s work is grouped around five pillars focusing on research, technical assistance to system operators, workforce development, localisation and open tools and data.

A poll question directed at audience members, asking which pillar they considered most important, showed an overwhelming preference for localised technology adoption and standard settings which can create interoperability between different system operators.

Leslie said creating common standards means you get economies of scale because manufacturers know exactly what is needed. But, he thinks it important to make sure standards are not so tightly managed they stifle innovation.

Rose was surprised by the emphasis on localisation but said it made sense the idea was of great importance to African system operators as grids from country to country are so diverse.

She still thinks it is sensible to prioritise open data and tools: “I’ve seen how access to high quality data and tools, or the lack thereof, can be an enormous barrier to enabling otherwise incredibly capable and skilled engineers from applying state of the art methods and practices to their systems.”

Isabel Fick, general manager for system operator Eskom in South Africa, said she wasn’t surprised by the emphasis on localisation but agreed no one could get by on concentrating on just one aspect: “But we most definitely need them to be very localised… most of us have got totally isolated grids, and from that perspective we need to work on that, we need to work together.”

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Predicting the future of energy

Fick said they are looking forward to sharing learnings from Consortium members, both what they can learn from and teach others. Eskom is very interested in how the energy mix is changing and how that changes the system itself. “We’re very much interested in the whole topic of inertia, I think it’s something that has got worldwide interest but, how do we actually predict it on an accurate basis? We need to go to more probabilistic models of prediction, versus deterministic models of prediction which we are currently using.

“It’s not just a question of research and learning, it’s also a question of implementation. We need to modernise our control centres. We need to look at what we have, fantastic analytic tools.

“How do we integrate at this stage the renewables that are a small percentage of our national grid… but that’s going to change and it’s going to change fairly soon and we need to be able to react to that. We need to be able to forecast,” said Fick.

Rose pointed out G-PST would take part in COP26 in November where they hope to present information on how they want to meet their 10-year goal and their strategy for scaling up their efforts. “We’ll be presenting our progress with our country partners in Africa, including South Africa, the West African Power Pool and Tanzania and we expect to have new African country partners to announce at that time, as well as a broader African system operator community of practice.”

For more about interconnectivity, black starts and research into using existing assets in different way to create non-carbon predicated solutions watch the on demand session here.