Audrey Zibelman came from New York to head up the agency that manages the energy supply and plans the future of the grid in SE Australia. She is leaving at the end of the year with the master plan completed to replace most of our coal power with RE over the next 20 years or so. She spoke for almost an hour about her experience in this process. This podcast is one in a valuable series of interviews with key figures around the world in the green energy revolution.
The most revealing part of the interview starts at the 25 minute mark.
The interviewer repeated a question about the motivation of the people who work in the RE movement. It came up in an interview with a major green energy reformer in Britain, Jon Brearly. The question was along the lines “was your priority the concerns of the users and the bills they pay, or the decarbonization of the system?”
Facing this dichotomy, Ms Zibelman explained that the bright young people who come to work in AEMO generally want to make a difference, and their primary concern is probably decarbonization while at the same time they want to help consumers and Australia.
Skip forward to 24.30 and listen for yourself.
Going back to the beginning, the interview starts with an account of her mission at the Moonshot team at “X” (Google subsidiary) to take a leadership role in innovations for the green energy transition.
Then some questions. What are the big technological challenges? We are moving from a system with a limited number of devices delivering energy as required to a weather-dependent system with countless components that have to be integrated with sophisticated data systems. It is becoming a data issue.
What is the role of prices in the new market. Shelved for later in the discussion.
What will you miss most about leaving Australia? Such a friendly environment in the smaller community.
Your journey from law to energy. After working in the Peace Corps, a desire to serve a community, not good at science. Working for the AG in Minnesota, taking on monopolies. Energy is important, it involved economics, environmental issues, system thinking is required. Exciting speed of change in the last decade.
Your time has been characterized by building coalitions and not being afraid to take on hard issues. How do you handle complex issues in a difficult political climate with no bipartisan approach to energy?
The reality is that 1. coal is retiring. 2. Wind and sun are now cheaper.
There is a huge appetite for solar (fancy that, given the subsidies). “It makes economic sense”.
We are focussed on consumers and also the large amount of capital that has to be invested. “We have an obligation to the consumers to get it right.”
The economics has worked for you. And we have to deliver reliability and economy.
What about your time at AEMO and your move from private sector to public? My passion is to drive forward with new ways to do things, being the agitator to get things moving forward from the old to the new. She signed up with Cumeo in New York to shake things up and change things.
Audrey was a whirlwind that hit Australia four years ago. The ISP will be your legacy, you have consulted broadly and what do you think will come out of that approach? The people in AEMO did not know how to be loud and effective. I told the staff we had to be advocates. We see that the market is not working and we are intervening every day, this is the problem and I walked into the middle of a major about the direction of energy policy when I arrived and met Freudenbeg, the Minister at the time.
I gave my people permission to play and innovate and work out what it will take to integrate the flood of new renewables. We want to make a difference.
AT 25 MINUTES. What is the priority, keeping the lights on or decarbonizing?
[The impression emerges that for most of the staff it is probably decarbonizing the sector.]
What about the movement in the space at present when BHP and BP et al are getting into the green game.
Young people don’t want to work with firms that are destroying the planet.
How much power would you like to have at AEMO? In Australia the decision was made to split the regulatory functions into three. In the US the process was simpler with less division of responsibilities. There is also a Federal Power Act.
Working on the ISP got everyone in the room with a common purpose, it took a long time to get to this point after progress was slowed by the adversial attitudes among the regulators.
The ESB was created to consolidate the approach. “Thank goodness for Kerry Schott who chaired the ESB.”
The Federal Power Act in the US gave more power to drive the regulators to drive market reforms. Central power in Britain made it easier there compared with our dealing with the states here.
You get into academic and esoteric debates. We need people with deep understanding of the many issues involved. Moving to a system with no marginal cost, it is hard to make good investment decisions. Very difficult problem to solve. We can only get investment in dispatchable power with rewards for reliability in the pricing system.
Location issues. How can we get things built in the right places and how do we decide when to tap in to get power for hydrogen or our Tesla or our toaster? We are getting to the point where we can manage the load curve with smart metering. We are changing the business model from efficient allocation of resources to supply the demand in the direction of managing the demand (the load curve). Issues emerg like – How to manage storage (what storage?). Our customers are the utilities and their job as retailers is to manage the next step of distribution.
Gender in the energy sector. Traditionally a male industry, we are doing better than most at present (Kerry and other CEOs among the regulators). A lot of our female engineers are coming from other cultures so we have to be sensitive to cultural issues as well as gender.
Concluding with some concepts – under or over-rated? 1. The importance of ownership of the regulator. Over-rated. 2 the role of prices in the green transition. Under-rated.