*Douglas Ferreira

It is a notorious and well-known fact that the fires that have plagued Australia since September 2019 are among the worst in history. Fact: just turns on the television or watches any news to be impacted by the apocalyptic photos and the worrying and tragic environmental, human and economic data. In this article, I will summarize the current numbers of this catastrophic scale disaster and how energy generation is indirectly related to the issue. For a better understanding, this text will address the following aspects: 1. The proportion, extent and impact of fires, 2. Indeed, how energy generation impact on climate change, 3. Is it all about politics?; and 4. The a-ha moment: how innovation in the energy sector will aid the reduction of bushfires and its effects.

1. The proportion, extent and impact of fires

First of all and most importantly to contextualize this disastrous situation, one has to face the consequences and numbers of destruction. Since September last year, the fires have lefts at least 27 dead and dozens missing. More than 100.000 km² were consumed by fire. By way of example, in New South Wales, more than 4 million hectares were burned (for a better understanding, one hectare is the size of a football field). Still, one billion animals decimated, 2.000 houses destroyed, tens of thousands were forced to leave their cities and 370 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO²) were emitted into the atmosphere.

In total, bushfires have been burned Australia for more than 120 days. To demonstrate and compare the severity of the situation, the bushfires so far in Australia burned 5 times more than Amazon fires in Brazil and 2,5 times more than Californian fires in the USA.

As a consequence of bushfires, Sydney and other cities were taken by dense smoke and famous seen sights from Australia, like the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge were barely visible. The smoke even reached Australia’s capital, Canberra, placing it first in the rank of poor air quality and pollution city rank.

It is a fact that bushfires have always happened in Australia and might be considered a natural phenomenon, but the intensity and frequency of the fires are increasing and starting earlier than ever.

The severity of the bushfires this year is explained by three main factors: dry vegetation, very high temperatures and strong winds. Here in Australia temperatures commonly reach more than 35ºC in summer time, but extreme temperatures over 40ºC are becoming more common in the past years. According to the Climate Council, Australia’s capital cities are experiencing hotter, longer and more frequent heatwaves, which have a major influence on bushfires, since it creates the perfect conditions to ignite a fire.

There are numerous studies confirming that the global average temperature is changing. The idea is not to go in depth on theme climate change[1], but to explain and clarify that there is a direct relation among bushfires, heatwaves, climate change and, last but not least, greenhouse gas emissions, that I will call “carbon emission” to make a better understanding. Now let’s talk about how energy has anything to do with that.

2. Indeed, how energy generation impact on climate change

Initially, it’s important to understand how energy is generated. The most common way to generate energy is by spinning a turbine and there are several energy sources that can be used to spin one. Many countries that cannot count on the nature of rivers use steam to spin turbines. The most popular way to make steam is to heat water by burning coal or other less, but still pollutants, fossil fuels like natural gas. Those are called Thermal Power Plants and can be fired by coal, natural gas and other primary sources. It’s also possible to use controlled nuclear reactions to turn water into steam or even use the clean power of the wind to make a turbine spin or the direct power of sun to generate energy.

The main problem is that, due to the abundant and cheap nature of coal, most countries relied many years on coal-fired power plants to generate energy. Coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change. The burning of coal is responsible for 46% of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.

What all that have to do with bushfires in Australia? Astonishing 60% of the Australian energy matrix still rely on coal-fired power plants. If we add natural gas on top of this number, which is less pollutant but still produces lots of carbon emissions, this number raises to 80% of the total energy matrix.

In one hand, we have an energy matrix majority driven by fossil fuels and carbon emissions contributing to droughts. On the other hand, aged powerlines[2] — transmission or distribution poles and wires — have also a significant risk parcel, since downed powerlines may generate sparks and ignite fire in dry vegetation areas. A powerline can be downed by several reasons, including strong winds, vehicle collision accidents and, even worse, bad maintenance conditions.

The idea of this article is to show the importance of innovation, especially under a catastrophic scenario. The energy matrix needs a balance among three main pillars: reliability, sustainability and affordability. Renewable energy like solar and wind were sustainable and are becoming every day more affordable but was still not reliable due to the lack of storage capacity to handle its natural intermittency. That is now changing with new and innovative forms of conservation! And this is where Fohat’s energy intelligence work stands out. But first, let me briefly explain how storing energy works.

Batteries are becoming increasingly cheaper and prices will continue to fall driven mainly by the adoption of electric vehicles (EV) but also by the adoption of large-scale batteries as well. Several states in Australia have their own policies to incentivize early adopters to install solar photovoltaic panels (PVs) and home batteries through aid of state government subsidies. In South Australia, an ambitious commitment between Elon Musk, Tesla and the government created the world’s biggest battery. The battery installation is connected to a wind farm and a larger grid and serves as an electricity reservoir for times when power demand peaks or the wind isn’t blowing.

3. Is it all about politics?

Just like in any other countries, political power in charge has a great influence in the interplay amongst energy, environmental and economic issues. It would be no different in this case. Australia newly elected Prime-Minister, Mr Scott Morrison, from the Liberal Party, faced some criticism among clean energy groups mostly due to errors and delays in addressing the forest fires and due to lack of commitment concerning the climate crisis. Therefore, it is no surprise that the majority of the Australian population is calling for an immediate transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies, topics that were not originally a priority for Mr Morrison.

4. The a-ha moment: how innovation in the energy sector will aid the reduction of bushfires and its effects

There are a few companies around the world working on solutions to promote the 3Ds of the energy sector: Digitization, Decentralization and Decarbonization.

For a better understanding, the decarbonization is the piece that will support a cleaner energy matrix, by allowing faster adoption of renewable resources that are carbon-free, like solar and wind energy.

Still, decentralization[3] means allowing people and businesses that produce their own energy through PVs or that have smart appliances like batteries, EVs, smart Air Conditioning (AC), to collaborate and get awarded to contribute to the grid. Those are called Distributed Energy Resources (DERs).

Lastly, digitization means processing all information generated in real time by smart meters and other intelligent devices coming to the grid.

At Fohat, we develop energy intelligence solutions to solve issues in the energy sector. Currently, there are two major software platforms under development. The first one is a Distributed Energy Resource Management System (DERMS) or also known as microgrid controller. In simpler words is the software that manages the intelligence to control solar panels and batteries, or any other mentioned DER, to aggregate them and connect to the energy operator, so they can united behave as a powerplant, also known as VPP. The second platform is a digital energy market place. This software will allow people and businesses to trade energy among each other, allowing them to get paid properly by the energy they generate on their rooftop PVs or even to buy energy at a cheaper price. By doing it people and businesses will have a better return of their investment in DERs, allowing faster adoption of renewable resources and diminishing the dependence on fossil fuels. It is a step-by-step process to increasingly detach ourselves from polluting energy generation.

To contextualize the importance of microgrids in this bushfire scenario, I’ll briefly paint a hypothetical scenario for a better understanding. First, it is a well-known fact that most parts of bushfires occur in rural areas or suburbs where the incidence of bush and other vegetations are higher. Poles and wires — which include big towers (high voltage transmission lines) and smaller poles (medium and low voltage distribution lines) — are commonly crossing those areas to bring energy to everyone and are de-energized to prevent the risk of its infrastructure causing more wildfires. Great idea? Not so much since this method of de-energizing has obvious and calamitous consequences: no power, refrigerator, traffic lights, petrol pumps, mobile phone tower, etc.

By prevention and to get independent from the grid in times like these, many people have their own backup diesel generators at home to maintain essential appliances working. But wait, remember that with no energy, no petrol pumps? That’s right, these diesel generators won’t work long without power. That explains its limited capacity. So, if a diesel backup generator cannot generate energy if you run out of diesel reserve., what’s the solution? Microgrids!

If you have your own microgrid or even your neighbourhood have a shared microgrid you solve the problem. A microgrid is the combination of three elements: energy generation, storage and software. A microgrid has the capability to work in island mode, which means it can work independently from the main grid. Solar panels plus battery storage (or other generation and storage devices) are installed to generate and store their own energy locally, so when the main grid is not available — in a bushfire for example — people still have access from their own resources.

What about running out of fuel?

The problem is solved when you generate your own energy. If the sun is shining energy is available. What if there it’s too much smoke or long cloudy days? Don’t worry. That’s why software intelligence is an essential part of microgrid. At Fohat, we are developing a system that will use cutting edge technology like big data and artificial intelligence to analyse weather forecasts and data to make sure the energy in your microgrid will be managed and optimized to last as much as you need. We believe in the movement of democratizing access of people to consumer goods and making more balanced use of natural resources. To make it possible, the process must go through simplification and innovation in energy generation and usage, our main focus and purpose.

I hope this article supported you in the understanding of the issue.

For those that still are in doubt on how the Fohat is contributing to a more renewable and decentralized energy sector, I invite you to visit our website www.fohat.co or even one of our offices in Australia and/or in Brazil for a coffee. You will be very welcome!

*Douglas Ferreira, Head of Global Business Development and Co-Founder.

[1] If you want to go a little deeper into climate change, I recommend reading this report from the Australian Climate Council.

[2] If that seems unlikely to you, it is worth remembering that the episode known as Black Saturday Bushfires had 173 fatalities and burned 450.000 hectares of land in 2009, was caused by ageing powerline that fell under high winds conditions near to a pine plantation, according to The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission.

[3] Historically the energy generation have always been a centralized process, being generated in large power plants, usually located far from the cities or consumption centres.

Douglas Ferreira

Author Douglas Ferreira

A atuação no exterior e a abertura de mercado global da Fohat está sob o comando do co-fundador e engenheiro eletrônico industrial Douglas Ferreira, 32 anos, que já atuou como engenheiro no Brasil e na Alemanha em multinacionais como Bosch e Volvo. Sediado no escritório da companhia em Melbourne, Austrália, desde 2018, é ele quem atua como gestor do inovador projeto de viabilidade de uma microgrid na renovação do Queen Victoria Market, mercado municipal da cidade de Melbourne, segunda maior cidade australiana, com mais de 4 milhões de habitantes.

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