The virtual brain controlling your power this summer

In a large, temperature-controlled room swamped with monitors, set just off the Brisbane River, technicians are operating an information and control hub that manages a large proportion of power on ‘s eastern seaboard.

While it looks like an ordinary room at first glance, what the people in it are doing affects you every time you switch on a light, the TV or your air conditioning.

From gas turbines in South and Queensland to coal and hydro generation in NSW and generators in Victoria, every one of Origin assets is monitored and controlled – although not necessarily run – from this room.

Origin’s Monitoring and Support Centre (MSC) acts as one of the hearts of the National Electricity Market, able to swiftly increase demand as needed, in real time. About 2264 megawatts of power – all of Origin’s assets bar the Eraring and Darling Downs power stations – can be mobilised from this room.

Elise Ring, the MSC’s manager, describes it as a virtual brain.

The facility collects reams of data from thousands of sensors on gas turbines, hydro storage facilities, and power plants, from eight locations across four states, and currently holds more than 3 trillion points of operational data.

“It uses neural network modelling that is self-learning, it uses AI to improve efficiencies,” Ms Ring told Fairfax Media.

“It calculates what happened, and what is expected to happen.”

It was the MSC that worked with the n Energy Market Operator to help bring power back to South after the state-wide blackout in 2016.

“We were called upon by AEMO to restart the grid, and get the generation units back online. Through the MSC, we managed to sync the first unit to the grid,” she said.

During a visit to the MSC, the ability of the National Electricity Market’s gas peaking and hydro assets to quickly provide peaking energy was seen when energy traders called for one of its hydro pumped storage generators to come online.

Controlling it from more than 1000 kilometres away, the control centre opened the valves and within minutes it was up and running at 40 megawatts, immediately driving down the afternoon peak by bringing more power into the market.

The control hub is part of Origin’s future energy focus.

Greg Jarvis, Origin’s executive general manager for energy supply and operations, told Fairfax Media it was looking at a number of technological and customer developments to drive down power costs and make energy more reliable.

These include microgrids as well as behind-the-meter technology, which enables small-scale solar installations and for households to feed power back into the grid.

“We have the metered data of customers to help them change their habits or build energy efficiency,” Mr Jarvis said. “Data is everything.”

In terms of the National Energy Guarantee – the proposed government policy setting out new energy generation reliability and security rules – Mr Jarvis said Origin supported good policy.

“The National Energy Guarantee conceptually makes sense,” he said.

“Renewables are here to stay but are bringing in more reliability issues.

“In time, we expect more batteries to be installed, but it can’t just be batteries, it has to be a real mix of generation, and we need gas for that flexibility.”

This would be an area Origin would be investing more on in future.

“There’s a lot of change taking place in this space.”

Fairfax Media visited the MSC as a guest of Origin.