18 July 2021

Why the ANU's new energy lab is a high-voltage initiative

| Ian Bushnell
Join the conversation

Chief Minister Andrew Barr does the honours at the new ANU lab, assisted by Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt. Photos: Thomas Lucraft.

The renewable energy sceptics out there should welcome last week’s announcement of the opening of the ANU’s new research lab that will help guide the transformation of the ACT and national electricity system.

For those who mutter about base-load power, grid instability, and what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, the Distributed Energy Resources (DER) Lab is an acknowledgment that the switch to renewables is not without its challenges.

The lab – a joint ANU and ACT Government venture – together with partners UNSW Canberra, evoenergy, and ITP Renewables – aims to smooth out those wrinkles and accelerate the charge towards a zero-emissions economy.

READ ALSO ANU lab to help power ACT and Australia’s energy transformation

It may be the best $1.5 million the ACT ever invested because it will directly benefit from its research and guide its decisions about redesigning the Territory’s electricity system, already wholly sourced from renewables, so that it can be resilient in the face of extreme weather conditions, and through the coming Big Battery storage network have the back-up to keep the lights on.

The promise is green, clean and cheap electricity.

The work that will go on there in its simulated electricity grid will help make the decentralised or distributed system of the future – all the bits and pieces, as ANU Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt so eloquently put it – work together.

It may be a baffling notion for some to grapple with, but the new energy system won’t just consist of a number of big fixed generators; it will be sourced from a multiplicity of assets and sites, including rooftop solar, electric vehicles and the built infrastructure.

READ ALSO Wombat with joey caught on camera ‘fantastic’ sign for secret ACT sanctuary

The intriguing thing is that for the boffins, it’s not so much what the lab can do now that’s most exciting, it’s what will come next.

Sure they’ll be working on stabilising the grid, battery storage and bi-directional electric vehicle charging, but they are also keeping an open mind about what will emerge from not only their labours but the start-ups and industry partners that will also use the lab’s resources.

ITP Strategy Group manager Oliver Woldring says that the rate of change is so rapid now that it is hard to predict how the lab would be used over the next decade.

“If we look back at the last 10 years, we are now surprised by what we know. If we go forward 10 years and look back, it will be amazing the array of technologies, innovations and inventions that get tested in labs such as this,” he says.

ITP Renewables Strategy Group Manager Oliver Woldring

ITP Renewables Strategy Group Manager Oliver Woldring: the array of technologies, innovations and inventions will be amazing.

If the lab doesn’t have all the answers now, it’s going to come up with some pretty interesting solutions, and soon.

Because while the PM isn’t that fond of races, the ANU and its partners, including the ACT Government, understands that the race is well and truly on to decarbonise before global warming can do its worst.

READ ALSO Another round of innovative startups given a funding boost

Professor Schmidt, one of 125 Nobel laureates who have called on world leaders to take urgent action on climate change, framed the DER opening in the context of the deadly heatwave scorching Canada and the western US, and the failure of electricity grids in the US due to extreme weather conditions.

There was plenty of back-slapping and mutual admiration going on at the lab opening, but many of us here in the ACT sometimes take for granted the significant research on many levels happening in our own backyard.

The DER lab is one of them, a world-class facility that the ANU’s Heather Logie says will show the rest of the world how to run a decarbonised electricity system.

It is a testament to the vision of a Labor-Greens government that, as Chief Minister Andrew Barr says, may be small but can also run fast when needed.

The DER lab is a big deal for the ACT, which is making a name for itself as a leading player, punching way above its weight in the energy transition and putting Canberra at the centre of a historic shift in the way civilisation organises itself. Failure is not an option.

It’s a pity that because of the murky politics of climate change, the Federal Government is not so quick and fails to share the same vision, although it is edging towards it while accommodating a denialist rump and the vested interests in the fossil fuel industries.

Mr Barr hopes that the lab’s work will help the Morrison Government see the light.

The lab opening is significant, but it did not occur in a vacuum.

It comes as Australia’s energy market operator sets an ambitious target for the country’s electricity grid to handle 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, the announcement of a European Green Deal, and China trialling a carbon emissions trading scheme.

The world is changing, even if these initiatives have their critics, and as Professor Schmidt says, Australia needs to be ahead of the curve.

He says Australia must grasp the opportunities now to decarbonise and secure its economic future. It can be a distributed energy resources superpower, he says.

And save the world at the same time.

Join the conversation

All Comments
  • All Comments
  • Website Comments
HiddenDragon6:53 pm 20 Jul 21

Thrilling news for people who have the spare time and money to amuse themselves with such things, and some practical good may come of it eventually, but in the meantime, many other Canberrans would rather see an immediate priority given to reversing the nearly 12% increase in electricity prices announced recently – particularly noting that prices would actually have fallen by 1% but for “ACT Government schemes”.

Capital Retro10:01 am 21 Jul 21

ActewAGL have been ripping me off for years. It wasn’t hard to find several other suppliers who can supply the same stuff for 25% less.

Capital Retro11:48 am 19 Jul 21

It appears that this project will deal only with renewables. How electric cars are involved beats me.

I admit I am not up on the technicalities involved so could some of the resident Riot Act experts please explain how they will exclude carbonized electricity from their experiments?

It’s very easy CR, coal electrons are black, gas electrons are yellowy-brown and recycled electrons are green.

Capital Retro1:44 pm 19 Jul 21

Thanks Switch, why didn’t I think of that?

Capital Retro,
What do you want to know? As I told you last week, these types of investments will pay themselves back many, many times over.

As for what electric cars have to do with it, perhaps you realise that these cars have rather large batteries. Maybe have a think about how they could be used to balance energy demands and provide grid stability when they’re plugged in.


Capital Retro6:06 pm 19 Jul 21

I’m glad you are not a money lender chewy 14 because your funding investors would have to have more money than sense.

I know electric cars have large batteries (subject to steady degradation) and when not in use the cars they are in will be recharging somewhere like garages in residential houses or home unit basements. Are you suggesting that the concept of grid balancing will force their owners to return the overnight recharge to the grid in the morning when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing like it was in Canberra this morning?

EV owners would be daft to fall for a scheme like that and the electricity used to recharge their cars at night will more than likely come from fossil powered generators so they will not be able to give pure, de-carbonised power back to the grid in the morning while they find other ways to commute.

Taxpayers are paying millions of our dollars to fund hare-brained schemes like this?

Capital Retro,
And I’m glad you’re not in charge of any of my investments because I’d either be going broke or stuck with dud, conservative investments.

Electric Vehicles, the same as current ICE vehicles will only be used sporadically by their owners. If those owners plug their cars in for recharging whilst not in use, there is potential to both use excess electricity generation to charge the vehicles but also for the vehicles themselves to provide energy back to the grid when there is a deficit or short term balancing requirement. The owners of these vehicles would make money out of allowing their cars to be used in this fashion.

And no, in the future they won’t be using fossil fuels to recharge. As discussed elsewhere, the move to renewables is already happening and gathering pace. Renewable energy will provide the majority of our power within 10 years and pretty much all of it within 20.

It’s funny to see you attempting to hold back the tide, when you clearly are out of your depth with modern technology and market trends.

Capital Retro8:50 am 20 Jul 21

How can EV owners make money out of charging their cars with carbonised electricity overnight and then sell it at a profit the next day to be sold to the grid as renewable electricity? And isn’t renewable electricity supposed to be cheaper that the stuff from fossils? The concept also depends on there being excess energy which would require thousands of taxpayer-funded wind generators to be built and after COVID 19 spending our federal state and territory governments will owe hundreds of billions of dollars already.

What dud conservative investments were you referring to? If you want a model for a dud “EV visionary investment” check out how many millions of our dollars the ACT government and their cronies lost “investing” in “A Better Place”.

If indeed it did work, they would face taxation scrutiny because they would essentially be energy traders.

I concede I am not up to speed with what you describe as “modern technology and market trends” but in the context of investing I have enough common sense to know that an investor cannot take a secured charge over such things.

I also know that anything that relies solely on tax-payer backed grants and massive subsidies is bound to fail so good luck with your non-conservative investment portfolio.

Capital Retro,
none of what you have written has anything to do with what I said nor what is being proposed.

There’s no point in discussing this topic with you when you don’t even grasp the basic ideas and then aren’t interested in actually educating yourself on the issues being discussed.

Displaying wilful ignorance so that you don’t have to challenge your cognitive biases isn’t a good look.

Enjoy your term deposits.

Capital Retro1:53 pm 20 Jul 21

That sounds like “the science is settled” which is a great retreat position for people who can’t deal with facts contrary to their chosen narrative.

And there is nothing wrong with term deposits in a risk environment like we have now. There is a better return from equities no doubt but when TSHTF bank shares will rank last with depositors being paid first. The government’s guarantee will be worthless.

Capital Retro,
no it’s nothing like “the science is settled”, it’s literally me making points and you:

a) not understanding the topic
b) not understanding the technologies or options being discussed
c) ignoring everything that is said and the evidence that is provided because you don’t like the facts.

If you had a reasonable point to make and could back it up with evidence, I’d be happy to discuss. But you have a set position that no matter the reams of evidence to the contrary, you won’t change and you aren’t interested in learning.

Capital Retro3:10 pm 21 Jul 21

I have raised several points but you failed to answer any except for the blanket comment that they having nothing to do with the matter.

“For those who mutter about base-load power, grid instability, and what happens when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow”, well people should be concerned, because AMEO shows over the past 3 months only 24% of electricity supplied into the National Electricity Market (QLD, NSW, ACT, VIC, TAS) was from renewables (11% wind, 3% solar, 10% hydro).

The obvious way to decarbonise the electricity sector is to install a series of nuclear power reactors across the country, and the sooner we start the sooner we will have decarbonised. This regime has funded the wrong research lab, and should instead be funding nuclear research and training nuclear power engineers. Time and money is short, so stop wasting both.

5 years ago, that number for renewables was under 15%, showing enormous growth.

There’s no need for nuclear now, by the time you could even get a project off the ground (if someone would give you the cash), renewables would already be dominant.

Chewy14, yes, wind and solar generation has grown substantially of the past 5 years, and renewables now supply a quarter of current electricity generation. But, there is now a push to phase out natural gas and switch that energy supply to electricity, and a push to phase out diesel and petrol and switch the energy supply for transport to electricity, both of which will increase the demand for electricity substantially. Nuclear power is the obvious way to meet this massive increase in demand, so let’s get moving.

Capital Retro5:54 pm 19 Jul 21

Your right, nobody. There is a risk at any time of massive volcanic eruptions (they have happened before) and these could wipe out solar PV modules all over the world: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/09/200911110809.htm

That’s whey we need nuclear in the medium term and we need to retain coal powered generators until nuclear comes on line.

There’s a push to phase out natural gas but I don’t think it will happen in the short term, partucularly when it can perform so well as a stopgap whilst the renewable transition occurs.

Honestly, even if you had a well developed plan for nuclear power in Australia, it would take 10-20 years to implement any of it. It’s now far too late.

Chewy14, instead of being far too late, now is just the right time for industry to start plans for a nuclear power network. Yes, it will take 10-20 years to build a series of reactors across the country, and yes it will take 10-20 years to phase away from gas, diesel and petrol, so if we move now we can have nuclear power phasing in over the same time frame fossil fuels are phasing out.

Also, batteries will not be able to provide all of the base load, grid stability, and power during long calm frosty winter nights. And, if the 10-20 year plan is to move to battery powered electric vehicles, this will require millions of batteries, so we will need to reserve all battery manufacture for this purpose. Nuclear power is the solution to move away from fossil fuels as soon as possible.

Capitol Retro, yes there was the Krakatao eruption of 1883, and the even larger eruption of Tambora in 1815, both large enough to reduce the amount sunlight reaching the ground around the world. Relying too much of solar in the future as we move away from fossil fuels could be a big risk when the next massive volcanic eruption occurs. We know there will be another, just don’t know when.

Capital Retro10:23 am 20 Jul 21

One thing is certain and that is it will be attributed to man-mad climate change.

if you agree that it will take 10-20 years, then why would you do it when renewables are already cheaper than nuclear and will become even more so in that time.

“Also, batteries will not be able to provide all of the base load”

I agree. Which is why batteries are only one of the technologies involved for energy storage/renewable firming and are only really likely to be valuable for localised or short term applications.

There will be a range of different grid firming technologies, which will be used over different timescales as appropriate. The focus some people have on batteries being the only solution is completely misplaced.

Chewy14, that’s the problem, there aren’t a range of grid firming technologies, which is why we need nuclear power. Currently there are batteries (we agree these will only play a minor role), there are gas turbines (burn fossil fuels so not desirable), there is pumped hydro (will play a role but again only minor), and the rest are just theories and laboratory experiments at this stage. Go nuclear!

Capital Retro3:05 pm 20 Jul 21

Careful there nobody, you are making a lot of sense but you are risking being sent to the naughty corner like I was.

My crime was “displaying willful ignorance so that I don’t have to challenge my cognitive biases”.

That isn’t correct, I’m not talking about theory, I’m talking about real world technologies that are available and cost effective now.

Here’s a report from a couple of years ago examining this exact issue.


Although I would be slightly more conservative and allow room for gas to continue to provide a stopgap generation supply for the short term. Even if you had all the problems with building a nuclear power industry in Australia sorted (which is not remotely close to being true), by the time you had the plants approved and built they would be redundant and far more expensive than the alternatives.

20 years ago I would have agreed with you and I think we missed an opportunity but now nuclear isn’t needed.

Chewy14, this doesn’t convince me we don’t need nuclear power to firm up the grid. Burning biomass releases CO2, geothermal has been put forward as the solution for Australia for a couple of decades but still doesn’t operate effectively in Australia, we don’t yet have a hydrogen industry in Australia, and concentrating solar thermal has been tested by the CSIRO but not yet taken up by industry and the Whyalla Solar Oasis was dismantled and scrapped in 2014. Maybe something will appear on the horizon, but at this stage nuclear power is the best option.

Capital Retro11:36 am 21 Jul 21

Here’s a link to another report from ARENA revealing details of the millions of dollars in grants paid out for “renewable energy research”. Absolutely scandalous and ANU are one of the multiple recipients:


Small modular nuclear power plants take between 3 to 5 years to build and produce enough energy to power 60,000 homes.

Whack 4 or 5 of these in and nearly half of Canberra’s power needs are working closely with the renewables and gas.

Build two or three large modular nuclear power plants (5 to 10 years to build) and you can power Canberra without renewables. More reliably and cheaply too.

Not sure about Nuclear. It’s often listed as the most expensive method to produce electricity.

The technical complexity, failover/safety requirements plus design licensing is apparently huge components in the energy production costs.

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency as of 21 July there are 443 nuclear power reactors in operation with a net capacity of 393 GW, and currently 51 nuclear power reactors under construction with a net capacity of 53 GW. To date so far during 2021 there have been 3 new reactors connected to the grid (India, China and Pakistan), and 2 new constructions have started (Turkey and China). This number operating and under construction suggests they are viable.

Except under the IAE agencies own figures (which are meant to spruik the industry), the proportion of the world’s energy coming from nuclear will continue to drop in the next 20 years.

Nuclear will continue to have a niche place in areas where other options are not viable or too hard to implement but it’s already on the way out as a global energy source.

The number of “planned” facilities for the future keeps dropping. Because they will never happen.

Chewy14, the IAEA actual figures for the past 20 years show the number of operated reactors was 438 in 2001 and 448 in 2020, with a net capacity of 356 GW in 2001 and 398 GW in 2020. Nuclear power is not a niche, and is not on the way out.

Those numbers actually show the opposite of what you’re claiming.

In that same period, electricity usage doubled, making Nuclear far less important proportionally as a generation source.

And in the early part of that period renewables were significantly more expensive. Now they are far cheaper, the transition will only accelerate and Nuclear will only continue to decline. Particularly when the older plants (and there’s lots of them) are decommissioned and not replaced.

Chewy14, the IAEA shows electricity supplied by nuclear reactors in 2001 was 2,511 TWh and in 2020 was 2,553 TWh, with a high of 2,661 TWh in 2006 and a low of 2,346 TWh in 2012. Nuclear supplies about 10% of electricity around the world, and new plants are being built to replace old ones. These numbers show nuclear is not a niche and not on the way out, the opposite of what you are claiming.

I have no idea why you keep providing figures that prove my point but there you go.

If demand doubles but generation barely moves, it means that technology is being supplanted by other sources.

You can’t say nuclear is the answer when by your own figures the market is moving away from it.

In the same period that you say nuclear barely grew, renewables more than doubled. The market has spoken.

The latest figures from the IEA (2018) show wind has 5% of global production and solar has 2%, and over 65% of global electricity production still comes from burning fossil fuels. About 75% of Australia’s electricity still comes from fossil fuels, so to get away from that as soon as possible, and maintain grid reliability and stability, we need series of nuclear power generators across the country.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.