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The Magazine


Direct control, instant response

Thanks to the Monitoring and Support Center that Siemens built, Australia’s Origin Energy has its whole power fleet at their manager’s fingertips.

Red lights suddenly flash on the computer screens in Origin Energy’s Monitoring and Support Center (MSC) in Queensland. Output from a big wind turbine farm, 2000 kilometers away in South Australia, has abruptly dropped to zero as a previously strong air current dies.

The wholesale electricity market across Australia reacts in seconds, rocketing the price from AU$50 a megawatt to the capped peak of AU$12,500. If supply is not restored immediately costs will soar and losses will be huge.

People outside this vital industry could see it as a crisis, but for the two controllers sitting in the high-security, high-tech MSC where Origin Energy keeps constant surveillance over its generation and distribution system spread across the vast distances of eastern and southern Australia, it’s all in a day’s work. The high-tech control system Siemens built for Origin, makes solving such emergencies vastly more efficient. 

The loss of output from South Australia was flagged across the communications network in milliseconds; the reaction – raising output from a big Siemens gas turbine plant 1,900 kilometers away to the southeast in rural Victoria – was a few taps on a keyboard. No human turned a switch at the power plant. Control from the MSC was direct; the response instant.

Origin Energy, Australia’s leading electricity generator and retailer, spent three years working with Siemens engineers and technologists to build this system covering its network of lines and generating stations spread over 4,000 kilometers of eastern and southern Australia. It is the largest and most comprehensive of its kind in the world, and also unique.

It is built for the future upon what Origin’s chief executive, Grant King, sees as his industry’s most important objective: maintenance of reliable supply. Mr. King says the consequences of a major failure in electricity supply would be horrendously expensive for a nation. Even a failure to identify and deal promptly with a problem could have far-reaching, expensive effects.

Great Challenges

Australian distances are huge over an often-empty landscape marked with long straight roads and even longer power lines. Yet electricity must be supplied just as reliably to small, scattered communities as to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, the three main cities that hold nearly half Australia’s 24 million inhabitants. Great weather challenges tax the industry – torrential rains bringing monster floods, tropical cyclones hammering buildings, and power lines with 200 kilometers an hour winds are regular events.

Probably very few organizations in the world are capable of doing what we are doing at the moment.
David Smales, General Manager of Origin’s Generation Division

David Smales, the Yorkshire-born general manager of Origin’s generation division, says the MSC is “a significant investment that has already started to pay for itself. It is surpassing all the challenges we set.”

Before this system was built the problem was to get information rather than make decisions. “Now everyone is making decisions around information; a very good place to be. We had to prepare for optimization of our organization and performance in a world of high complexity with lots of options. We wanted to be sure we could manage continuous improvement and make sure we could prevent recurrence of losses, and continually improve our performance. Our performance now is just fantastic. We have global leading performance levels.”

Mortlake power plant is managed and controlled from Origin Energy’s MSC

Origin currently has a 2600 megawatt portfolio – eight plants and 22 generating units. “But our responsibilities go beyond that,” he said. “We also have three joint venture companies, and we support operationally and technically a “gentrader” agreement helping our wholesale and trading customers manage their commercial relationship on an 800 megawatt coal site and a 240 megawatt hydro site. Probably very few organizations in the world are capable of doing what we are doing at the moment.” 

Our job is to manage things so that Origin is not exposed to that volatility – to manage Origin’s risk.
Jim Cooley, Manager at Origin’s Monitoring and Support Center

Jim Cooley, manager of the MSC is at the system’s sharp end. The main centre is duplicated at another site, a valuable precaution proven when Cyclone Yasi hit Queensland, causing AU$4 billion worth of damage. “So we packed up the guys from here, flew them to the other site and they ran everything nationally from there.”

“The Australian electricity market is incredibly volatile,” Mr Cooley said. “Demand from market operators determines what power stations need to be operating at what load. That’s reconciled at 5-minute intervals; it’s that volatile. Our job is to manage things so that Origin is not exposed to that volatility – to manage Origin’s risk.” 

Garry Barker, technology editor at The Age in Melbourne
Picture credits: Justin Besser, Sam Collins / Video: Sam Collins