Systems central to net zero progress

There are many parallels between the water and electricity distribution industries, particularly when it comes to achieving net zero. Federation University Dr Rakibuzzaman Shah provides unique insight into the water industry.

There are many parallels between the water and electricity distribution industries, particularly when it comes to achieving net zero. Federation University Australia Dr Rakibuzzaman Shah provides unique insight into the water industry.

Bangladeshi-Australian Dr Rakibuzzaman Shah (known as Rakib Shah) has been in Australia since 2010. After finishing his studies in electrical engineering at Khulna University of Engineering and Technology and the Asian Institute of Technology, he found himself at the University of Queensland (UQ) for his PhD.

“Initially, I followed my supervisor to UQ,” said Shah. “I was passionate about doing my PhD on power systems, so I just followed him. I also got a bunch of offers from universities around Australia (The University of Melbourne and others), but I wanted to stay with my supervisor.”

Net zero at the core of research

While power systems do not seem directly related to the water industry, both work towards net zero. The big question is… what does net zero mean?

“There are different concepts and definitions for net zero,” he said. “My team is looking to increase the use of renewables in different industries and sectors. There are lots of different processes for dealing with carbon dioxide. We’re seeing industries investigate carbon sequestration, carbon capture and storage, and various other ideas.”

At the individual level, the goal towards being carbon neutral can be seen as a null or zero point when it comes to carbon emissions. Shah argues it empowers people and businesses to buy into the renewable energy market.

“Being empowered means that by partaking in the electricity market, those consumers or businesses get additional benefits from generating renewable energy,” Shah said. “Using rooftop solar panels as an example, people are creating electricity for the grid, while also receiving a tariff from putting electricity back into the grid.”

Where does the water industry fit in?

Shah believes that a few different factors impact the water industry when it comes to net zero. Legislation is one area where the water industry is being shepherded towards net zero.

“Government legislation is pushing the water industry to be net zero, while policy is actively encouraging the uptake of renewable energy within the sector,” Shah said. “South Australia is installing huge amounts of solar panels in the water industry, and Victorian water utilities are doing different things in the renewable energy space.”

One challenge for some water utilities is the need for the right geographical space. They may have lots of room for their infrastructure, but the right conditions are needed to install solar panels. Regional water authorities may need help distributing energy to the highly distributed populations. It requires a rethink of how renewable energy infrastructure is installed.

“An alternative approach we identified is demand shifting,” he said. “If the individual authorities can shift their most power-intensive operations to a time when energy is cheaper, it is easier to interact with the demand response mechanisms of the electricity market. This also applies to consumers. Running the dishwasher or the washing machine at night can be most cost-effective and energy efficient.”

Data is key

Understanding the entire system within a water authority is fundamental to improving the net zero outcomes. Collecting and interpreting the data from across the system can help water utilities improve their operations.

“One of the biggest questions for a water utility is working out where they are using most of their energy,” said Shah. “Smart technology is certainly helping with that because water authorities can get a better image of their network. They had no idea what was happening in the past, but things are getting better. Smart meters are among the technologies that can help.”

In the eyes of Shah, he can see a range of technologies that would help water utilities improve their knowledge of their networks.

“Batteries could be beneficial for water utilities,” he said. “Storage, integrated with intelligent control of electricity use, can support the water utilities as they work towards net zero.”

Floating solar

Floating solar panels provide a unique opportunity for water utilities and catchment management authorities across Australia to expand their renewable energy collection and distribution.

“This is a fascinating and emerging area for water utilities,” Shah said. “I had the opportunity to present our outcomes to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DEWLP), now the Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA), in Victoria. There was a lot of interest in different areas around the state, while different water authorities will find it more viable than other water authorities.”

One of the benefits of floating solar is the increased performance of the solar panels. Shah points out that when the solar panel’s temperature gets too high, it becomes less effective. Installing the solar panels on water reservoirs reduces that effect and keeps the solar panels operating at peak efficiency for longer.

“It’s not just the water industry that would benefit from this,” he said. “One of our other partners is from the timber and forestry industry. They believe using water areas this way would also support them.”

Collaborating with Central Highlands

Central Highlands Water is headquartered in the same regional city as Federation University. As such, there are many opportunities for Shah and his colleagues to work with Central Highlands Water.

“We are currently working with them on a demand response project,” Shah said. “We’ve been collaborating for years on various optimisation and planning projects.”

One area in which Central Highlands Water is working with Federation University is in the deployment of smart water meters. While it seems easy in an urban area, it gets more challenging in regional and remote areas.

“Central Highlands Water wants to implement smart water meters throughout its service area,” he said. “We’re working with them to see how they can best utilise the data from the network. One of the challenges is ensuring that the devices they use have the right energy and water nexus to maximise operability. That information should be extremely helpful when assessing savings. Those savings could be financial, energy, water, or some combination of all three.”

Smart meters are just one thing that Shah is working on. There are also projects looking at the local agriculture industry, which touch on biogas-driven microgrids.

“We are also planning on working with the food and dairy industries to help them achieve net zero through optimal planning and operations,” Shah said.

Hydrogen needs a cautious approach

Much has been said about the potential for Australia to be a hydrogen superpower. Shah is encouraging a cautious approach, given that hydrogen production is a key question for the country and the world.

“There are many different ways to produce hydrogen,” said Shah. “It can be blue, grey, turquoise, brown, pink, yellow, gold, white or green. If we are producing green hydrogen, that’s fantastic because it comes from water electrolysis. That’s a renewable source of hydrogen. Grey and blue hydrogen comes from steam reforming (SMR) primarily from natural gas.”

Shah believes Australia can be a big player in the hydrogen industry, but a significant amount of research and development needs to be done.

“How can we produce the hydrogen and take it somewhere? How can we convert the energy that we have now? One of the largest challenges is increasing the efficiency of the hydrogen fuel cells above the 60 to 65 per cent we are at now. No one wants to lose that hydrogen, and with the water industry, there are many opportunities for future research.”

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