Ergon Energy: Regional Queensland energy supplier
Ergon Energy is more than just your average energy company. Founded in 1999, the government-owned corporation is a forward-thinking electricity provider. It services more than 720,000 customers across Queensland by supplying electricity and alternative solutions to residents and businesses from the coastal population to the rural and remote communities throughout the region.
Anatomy of Ergon Energy
The Queensland company is comprised of two sides: one that builds and maintains the electricity distribution network, and one that sells electricity to residential and business customers.
Ergon Retail is the face of the company, assisting customers in everything from opening new accounts, arranging location moves and managing electricity use to locating convenient ways to pay accounts, support systems and government rebates.
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The distribution side of the business, Ergon Energy, provides energy services to residents and businesses while maintaining an electrical network that stretches roughly 160,000 kilometers of power lines across Queensland. Within the network operates 33 stand-alone power stations that provide energy to isolated communities within the region.
Additional services include accommodating connections for new technologies such as solar, as well as a small manufacturing group to handle the construction of module substations.
Unlike your typical energy provider, Ergon Energy is driven by innovation.
“Innovation is huge for us. It’s an important part of our business and we’re always looking at new ways to apply new innovation throughout the company,” said Peter Billing, executive general manager of customer service at Ergon Energy.
According to Billing, the company continuously seeks out new ways of improving service – whether through infrastructure or alternative energy sources – to better position themselves for the future.
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“We recognized back in 2007 that the price for energy would become an issue and that we would need to adapt,” Billing revealed. “It got us thinking differently and we realized if we keep doing things the way we’ve always done them, the world will change and we’ll become obsolete.
“We may not be Apple or Google but we’re striving for innovation.”
To ensure creativity is alive and well within the organization, Ergon Energy strives to cultivate an atmosphere that empowers people to speak up and bring their ideas to the table.
“We encourage everyone in our organization from the top to the bottom to read and learn new things happening in the world. We encourage them to think of new ways of doing things and ways to apply those innovative ideas to our type of business,” said Billing.
“When everyone is bringing something to the table, one idea might spur another. We encourage that.”
Putting innovation into action
For Ergon Energy, company-wide collaboration is a key component behind one strategic focus: exploring new possibilities for collecting, consuming and conserving energy. One example of this is the utilization of batteries.
“We’re seeing that batteries are part of our future,” said Billing when explaining the company’s ongoing partnership with Mitsubishi.
In 2012, the company purchased six Mitsubishi electric vehicles (EVs) and ran trials in Townsville over an 18-month period to understand customer acceptance of EVs and the eco system that supports them.
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“We were able to examine how these vehicles were used, including how and when they charge, in order to better understand their impact on our network,” Billing said.
Ergon Energy recently secured another deal with Mitsubishi to integrate eight Mitsubishi Outlander plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) into their fleet, as well as finalizing a lease offer to employees that could see up to an additional 100 EVs provided for use later in the year.
“From an electricity perspective, the use of EVs is a natural synergy,” Billing said. “It’s the beginning of a new role of technology in the energy sector: Why wouldn’t we be on the ground floor running?”
While the partnership with Mitsubishi is a great starting point, it’s only the tip of the iceberg for Ergon Energy.
In July, Ergon Energy announced it was working with the government to create an EV highway with Australia’s first solar-powered fast-charging station.
“This is an opportunity to create a need in the market,” said Billing. “If you wait for everyone to get electric vehicles, it won’t work—it will be too late. We needed to be similar in our thinking of leading by example and getting the ball rolling.”
Billing also revealed the company is about to purchase three Battery Packs for their hydraulic elevated work platform field trucks. “For us, the payback is reducing our diesel consumption while also eliminating the noise these machines make.”
Not stopping there, Ergon Energy is also seeking to utilize alternative energy solutions in other areas of its businesses.
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“We’re actually putting batteries on the end of remote and rural sections of the electricity network and using them as support in times of high load,” said Billing. “The benefits are immense because they don’t need to be augmented and they store energy in the off-peak times and then feed back into the network during high-peak times.”
According to Billing, the company is in the process of working with some developers to implement batteries in subdivisions as well. “The outcome could potentially build a type of distributed generation network in a housing subdivision, which would provide an array of benefits to customers.”
Ergon Energy is also building its retail business to reflect more opportunities for solar technology.
In August, Ergon Energy forged an alliance with Californian electricity storage developer Sunverge Energy to launch a limited commercial rollout of its power systems in Queensland homes. The partnership involves installing SunPower solar panels and Sunverge energy storage systems in 33 homes in Toowoomba, Townsville and Cannonvale in a program that will receive $400,000 of funding by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
The power system is comprised of back-up power, a six-kilowatt inverter with 11.6 kilowatt-hours of energy and communications, and control capability that allows the company to collectively manage the system to increase the efficiency of power supply on its grid.
“This partnership will help us better understand the technology and where we stand in terms of our network. It’s helping us model what our future network could look like,” Billing explained.
A major initiative Ergon Energy has undertaken is in the form of disaster relief. The company is currently running a series of scenarios to better understand the network in the event of natural disasters, as well as learning how it could improve.
“Right now we’re doing two things, the first of which is running a series of exercises to test the readiness of our network and whether we need to reconfigure it or change critical aspects to make it more resilient in the future,” said Billing.
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“The second thing is technology. We’re looking to interact with a number of technologies such as crowdsourcing and social media to find out if these are applicable for us.”
The company is also holding workshops to better understand response perspectives from people and companies with actual experience dealing with these disasters.
“Input from Rod West from Entergy in the United States has been paramount for us,” Billing. “His experience from Katrina and lessons learned were really insightful and important for us to consider with our network.”
“All of these workshops, exercises and reports are better preparing us for the future,” said Billing. “We’re thinking ahead and about where we want to be in 2020.”
With Ergon Energy at the helm, the people of Queensland are in good hands—today and in the future.
Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins
As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones.
So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?
The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin.
1. Smarter Asset Planning
A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.
With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.
The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.
As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.
2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance
Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.
The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.
3. More Efficient Vegetation Management
Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees.
If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly.
And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.
4. Automated powerline inspection
Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.
However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.
Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.
In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors.
5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response
If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.
And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?
6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders
Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road.
As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.
These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them.