TechNOW podcast: The power flow tech revolutionising solar

30 August 2021

Australia is one of the sunniest continents in the world, so it’s no surprise Australians have embraced solar energy to cut their power bills and slow down climate change. One in five homes now has rooftop solar panels.

But all that extra energy being fed into the grid can be tricky to manage. Our infrastructure wasn’t built for electricity to move in two directions. It’s not impossible for electricity to flow backwards, but it must be managed or transformers can become saturated.

Dr Elizabeth Ratnam and Associate Professor Lachlan Blackhall have come up with a revolutionary new way of better monitoring power flow through electricity grids.

TechNOW is a podcast about Australian innovations that are shaping the future, thanks to the Global Connections fund – a project run by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and supported by the Australian Government.

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Technology that gives insights into the complex interaction between centralised and household electricity generation is being trialled in Australia.

This project is being led by Dr Elizabeth Ratnam and Professor Lachlan Blackhall from the Battery Storage and Grid Integration Program at the Australian National University. The project has deployed new sensors that monitor power flow through electricity grids in real time, and is an important step towards a zero emissions

Australia’s electricity grids are complex systems. In addition to the existing centralised approach to energy generation and distribution, many Australians now ngenerate and store their own electricity using solar panels and batteries. Managing the operation of the electricity grid through this energy transition is difficult using existing approaches.

This new approach has been funded by a grant through the Global Connections Fund (GCF). The project foundation emerged from Dr Ratnam’s work with two American companies, PingThings and Power Standard Labs. The result combines small grid monitors, known as distribution-level phasor measurement units (or micro-PMUs), with a specialised data management platform called PredictiveGrid.

The micro-PMUs record and stream time-stamped data measurements, including voltage, current and the respective phase angles. This means data on what’s happening in different grid locations at the same time can be collected and compared.

Using the data captured from these sensors, new techniques are being developed that integrate all the data into a useful read-out, offering a synchronized overview of the entire grid’s operation. This means signs of power outages and power instability can be picked up early.

“The Global Connections Bridging Grant allowed us to begin the trial of micro-PMUs in Australia for the first time,” explained Dr Ratnam.

“These new capabilities really provide unparalleled insight into what’s going on in the electricity grid.”

The project has acted as a kickstarter in other ways too, with Ratnam and Blackhall’s research teams now moving forwards to other new projects and commercial engagements.