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Cost saving innovation for electricity networks

The question of whether it is value for money to rebuild parts of an electricity network is coming into sharper focus as new options for providing power to homes and farms are entering the market.

For example, how do you decide if it will be more cost effective to offer a farmer a stand-alone power system (SPS) with solar panels, battery storage and a diesel generator, rather than rebuild the few kilometres of line running to a shearing shed?

Best guess won’t persuade an economic regulator to give a network operator the go ahead to offer the innovative alternative. Economic regulators want detailed analyses of the cost comparisons. Hence sophisticated mathematical algorithms and computer programs are required.

The team from Western Power and The University of Western Australia (UWA) have been developing such a tool for a couple of years and the collaboration has led to UWA securing an Australian Research Council 'Discovery Project' grant worth $381,000 to further refine their work.

Effectively they are putting a dollar value on every aspect to be considered in making such a decision.  For example, what would be the labour and material cost of rebuilding the specific line, taking into account location, land gradient and other physical factors; what would be the expected annual vegetation management costs required to keep it safe; what would be the expected maintenance costs. All of these costs are then compared to the cost of providing a SPS, its installation and maintenance, over a set period of time.

This is actually a simple example. The tool being developed has substantially more considerations built in which broaden its use. Here’s another example. Let’s say a part of the network is destroyed by a large bushfire. In a very quick time decisions need to be made about rebuilding it and whether it would actually be more cost effective to chart new line routes rather than follow the previous, often very old, original routes, or whether its more cost efficient to only rebuild a small part of the network and offer a SPS to one or two distant properties.

The new tool will be able to do all that quickly, including factoring in Aboriginal heritage sites and other social or environmental factors. In a network the size of Western Power’s the value of having a tool that can determine the most cost effective way of replacing aging poles and wires is very high. It is expected to save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Already the tool has been used to demonstrate to the Economic Regulation Authority that SPS provide multimillion dollar savings. However, in its current form, engineering and PHD student level thinking is required to navigate it. The plan is to develop a product for widespread easy use that can be offered for sale. It is hoped that it will ultimately benefit Western Power and UWA who jointly own the intellectual property.

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