Why Google wanted Audrey Zibelman

Opinion

Ben Potter

The AEMO boss knows how to run an energy grid where a new rooftop solar system is added every six minutes and that will help in her new job. Australia is a ‘postcard from the future’, she says.

Ben PotterCompanies editor

More than four years ago Ivor Frischknecht, then chief executive of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, remarked to The Australian Financial Review that demand management of behind-the-meter energy – solar panels, batteries and the like – could potentially supply 20 per cent to 50 per cent of peak demand in the future.

But he also said the community of smart software companies striving to marshal these so called distributed energy resources to support the grid as coal fired power retires reminded him of the dotcom era of disorganised internet and tech companies, and could take more than 10 years to evolve into big one stop shop platforms – the Amazons, Facebooks and Googles of energy – capable of operating at grid scale to facilitate the energy transition.

Audrey Zibelman, CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator: Off to Google parent Alphabet’s x.company to help drive “greater electrification of the economy and a diverse, decarbonised power system”.  Trevor Collens

Step forward Audrey Zibelman, who came here from the New York public utilities commission to head up the Australian Energy Market Operator and is now heading back to the US to take up a role at Google parent Alphabet’s “moonshot factory” x.company (or simply “X”), leading its early stage team developing new technologies to enable safe, reliable and affordable energy.

Zibelman witnessed all the challenges of the transition to clean energy in Australia – the extreme stresses on the grid from rapid growth in distributed solar and wind energy that isn’t supported by coherent energy and climate policy, the intransigence of federal politicians in the face of these challenges, the truth universally acknowledged that fake news travels many times faster than true news in the modern age.

She and her team at AEMO and at the other regulators – including Energy Security Board chair Kerry Schott – sought to guide policy in the direction technology and social attitudes to climate change and fossil fuels would inevitably drive the energy system.

They had some wins. But they also ran hard up against a federal government that either could not or would not – because backbench politics could not countenance it – comprehend and explain to the voters that the transition away from fossil fuels was in their long term interests, even if it created challenges along the way because of the immense scale of the challenges involved. Schott’s term as chairman of the ESB expires at the end of the year and isn’t being renewed.

As Queensland’s energy minister Anthony Lynham put it in Reneweconomy’s Energy Insiders podcast a few weeks ago, “Every minister in all states, if you’re a Liberal, Labor or Greens, they all identify that our future is renewable energy.

“There’s no doubt the only body that doesn’t identify with that is the federal government.”

Zibelman’s commentary on her departure a year before her contract expires has been limited to these comments in Tuesday’s press release announcing it: “[W]hat I have learned in Australia is how important advanced computing and the application of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning is to our industry.

“The opportunity to support these needs as part of the team at X is for me a compelling opportunity to support the power sector both here and globally as we navigate to greater electrification of the economy and a diverse, decarbonised power system.”

Such a job offer from one of the world’s most innovative companies preparing its assault on the huge challenge of building the platforms to manage the modern distributed energy system would be hard to resist at the best of times.

But the government’s intransigence on energy policy can hardly have nudged the scales in the direction of staying – even though Zibelman is a tough cookie who wouldn’t shrink from a challenge.

AEMO sees in real time all the challenges of the energy transition and Zibelman has been saying for some time that technology are as important as decarbonisation in this.

A new rooftop solar system is added to the Australian grid every six minutes, more than a third of South Australian households have solar, and the complexity of millions of individual generators instead of hundreds can’t be managed by five smart engineers in a control room.

Hence her – and X’s focus on machine learning and AI as indispensable tools in the transition everywhere.

She told the Smart Energy conference on Wednesday that Australia is “a postcard from the future” that the rest of the world will be living in before long. Only California and perhaps Hawaii come close, but Australia leads per capita penetration.

That the transition has proved difficult only re-emphasises the need for smarter tools. Zibelman saw this from AEMO’s control rooms and now has the opportunity to pursue it globally with X.

In contrast, the federal government ignored AEMO’s advice on new gas fired power and extending the ageing, decrepit AGL-owned Liddell coal fired power station.

In its most recent Electricity Statement of Opportunities, AEMO said that at most 150 megawatts of new generation would be required to plug the gap in supply after Liddell’s retirement in 2023.

And in its advice to the task force on replacing Liddell set up by the federal and NSW governments – which hasn’t yet been released – AEMO is understood to have said extending the life of Liddell would be the last resort because a lot of money would have to be spent to make it safe for a few short years of additional generation.

To be fair to the federal government, their embrace of gas came with a tacit approval of the new high voltage interstate transmission lines (interconnectors) recommended in AEMO’s 2020 Integrated System Plan (ISP).

These include new interconnectors between Queensland and NSW, NSW and Victoria and the EnergyConnect between NSW and SA.

Not all of these were included in the strict cost benefit analyses of the ISP but the Victoria-NSW one would wipe out any supply gap, as would any number of private sector battery and gas projects that weren’t included because they didn’t have financial sign off.

EnergyConnect, to take one, is said to have large consumer pricing benefits because it would more than double the interconnection between the populous east coast and solar and wind projects in northwestern SA.

Spreading the geography of renewable energy resources more widely makes them more reliable because more weather zones are included.

It goes without saying that AEMO will continue mapping out the energy transition in Australia after Zibelman’s departure.

There is some extraordinary talent and drive in the energy community here. Even so, as a smart executive who understood today’s and tomorrow’s challenges in the clean energy transition she will be sorely missed.

Ben Potter edits the companies & markets section. He previously wrote on energy, climate change and innovation, and has been Washington correspondent and opinion editor. Connect with Ben on Twitter. Email Ben at bpotter@afr.com

Read More

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here