The rise and scalability of renewables is creating vast opportunities for utilities to embed sustainable sources of energy generation across their infrastructure and reduce their reliance on expensive grid electricity.
Expanding the concept from a residential setting, utilities are discovering the ability to harness the generating capacity of solar panels, and economic merit of energy storage devices and other innovative technology on a large scale, by unlocking value from their existing footprints and operational processes.
SA Water’s goal of a zero-cost energy future is leading the Australian water industry in its unique approach, which is set to neutralise one of the utility’s largest operating expenses and deliver sustainable environmental outcomes.
An ambitious goal of a zero-cost energy future
Through a range of complementary initiatives, underpinned by increasing its renewable energy generation and storage exponentially, SA Water is working towards zero-net electricity costs in the future.
As one of South Australia’s single largest electricity users, the utility’s energy-intensive drinking water and wastewater pumping and treatment operations across the state cost $83 million in 2018-19.
Stimulating innovative thinking, SA Water embraced the opportunity to electrify its own energy sources and is investing more than $300 million to install 242GWh of energy generation from new solar arrays and 34MWh of energy storage devices across its sites.
The power generated and stored on-site will reduce SA Water’s reliance on expensive grid electricity and create a revenue stream from carefully timed sales back to the market, to offset the cost of electricity that will need to be purchased at times of peak demand or low solar productivity.
SA Water Senior Manager Supply Chain and Zero Cost Energy Future, Nicola Murphy, said more than 500,000 solar photovoltaic panels will be deployed over the next 12 months as part of the program.
“We’re delivering initiatives to keep our operations as efficient as possible to help keep customers’ water prices as low and stable as possible,” Mrs Murphy said.
“Large operational circuit breakers like this are essential to achieving savings. “Our water and wastewater treatment and pumping operations provide up to 1.7 million people across South Australia with safe, clean drinking water every day, but are very energy intensive and make us one of the largest electricity users in the state.
“In the same way that many South Australians have harnessed the benefits of solar panels at home, we’ll make some of our physical assets work harder for us, taking advantage of our large buildings, roof spaces and land holdings to generate a sustainable source of energy.
“Across our major treatment plants and pipeline pump stations, to some of our depots and workshops, the rate of return makes this an obvious investment to help neutralise a substantial operational expense, while demonstrating the way renewable generation can be integrated at large utility scale.”
In an average weather and water consumption year, SA Water projects its solar generation capacity will provide 70 per cent of its electricity consumption – enriched by energy efficiencies and complementary sources of renewable energy.
“Locating generation behind the meter will improve our resilience to grid interruptions, significantly reduce our network charges and isolate our business from electricity market price volatility, in both the short and long term,” Mrs Murphy said.
“We’ll always need to use and buy some electricity, but we can be smart in our approach to managing it as we work towards a zero-cost energy future.”
The Australian water industry is energy intensive, requiring approximately 3,000GWh of electricity annually, with SA Water consuming almost one fifth of the national total.
Significant environmental benefits will flow
SA Water’s program to pursue a zero-cost energy future is not only driven by a desire to sustainably cut costs for the benefit of its customers, but is also in recognition of the organisation’s social responsibility to reduce its environmental footprint.
Mrs Murphy said it’s vitally important that water and wastewater utilities explore opportunities to reduce their carbon emissions.
“The most significant challenge facing the industry right now is climate change and its impact on water supply,” Mrs
“A warming climate, rainfall and carbon emissions are all intertwined, and we’re actively responding by harnessing innovation to deliver sustainable water services.
“Our high electricity bill in 2018-19 is attributed to more energy-intensive pumping and treatment required to support increased water demand and lower reservoir inflows during last year’s dry summer and winter, which ultimately impacted our ability to limit emissions.
“By enhancing our sources of clean energy, we’re pushing ahead on our path to tackling the effect of climate change.
“Our investment in 242GWh of energy from solar generation will deliver substantial positive environmental outcomes, helping reduce our emissions by more than 89,000 tonnes a year – the equivalent to planting seven million trees or removing more than 32,000 cars from the road per year, every year of operation.
“Solar generation is a proven form of renewable energy, and its availability, and scalability, enables the technology to be integrated swiftly within our existing energy management portfolio, achieving the greatest impact on our environmental performance.
“Importantly, our progressive leap forward will help the global transition to a low-carbon future.”
Integrating diverse energy management initiatives
SA Water’s deep understanding of energy’s role and influence as part of its operations, and expertise in embedding innovative mechanisms that provide greater flexibility and control, demonstrates how it is evolving from ‘energy procurement’ to ‘energy management’.
The new solar arrays are only one piece of the energy puzzle – the utility’s integrated approach is the cumulative effect of seven initiatives that include demand scheduling, energy efficiency, energy storage and generation, and energy market levers.
Mrs Murphy said the diversity of initiatives were positioning the utility to effectively manage its energy portfolio for the long term.
“Our pursuit of a zero-cost energy future builds on a strong foundation of energy management, which has delivered savings of more than $3 million a year from our electricity bills since 2013, so we know it’s within reach,” Mrs Murphy said.
“Biogas and hydroelectric generation, and trading as a market participant, are a few of the initiatives contributing to our industry-
“Two of our wastewater treatment plants in metropolitan Adelaide are already 80-90 per cent energy self-sufficient, achieved by burning the natural biogas created through the sewage treatment process to extract the methane content and generate electricity, effectively turning waste into energy.
“Hydroelectric systems integrated within our water network harness the force of moving water and contribute around 7,000MWh per year, equating to 14 per cent of the total electricity we currently produce.
“Augmenting our energy portfolio with an abundance of solar generation and storage devices underpins our vision of zero-net electricity costs and elevates our ability to achieve it.
“We’ve set ourselves an ambitious goal, but this kind of innovative thinking can shake up traditional models and deliver sustainable savings – and we’re backing ourselves and our key partners to deliver it.”