Turnbull, ScoMo and coal-lovers look out: Here comes Audrey Zibelman

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Audrey Zibelman (image via @Sandy_Pitcher)

Once they work out that Audrey Zibelman is pro-renewables, her appointment as AEMO's new CEO is bound to upset the Coalition, writes Dr Norm Sanders.

WHO IS Audrey Zibelman

On 17 March 2017, she became the new CEO of AEMO, that's who! And what is AEMO? It is the Australian Energy Market Operator. 

Although few are aware of it, AEMO plays a major role in our lives. It manages the NEM (National Electricity Market) and the Victorian gas transmission network. It also oversees retail electricity and gas markets in eastern and southern Australia and is working on the establishment of a Short Term Trading Market (STTM) for gas.  

AEMO is also responsible for national electricity transmission planning. It investigated the South Australian blackouts and had a brief moment of media fame when the results of the investigation were released. 

According to a statement from Minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg, the report showed: 

... leading up to the event demand was higher than forecast, wind generation was lower than forecast and thermal capacity was reduced due to forced outages.

AEMO also confirmed that after it contacted generators to explore options to increase supply, it became apparent there was insufficient generation to meet demand and load shedding became the only option to restore system security.

The Government managed to hype this into another hysterical attack on renewables which The Australian newspaper pounced on with glee.  

The blackout served to focus attention on the electricity grid and the way it operates. Everybody agreed that something had to be done. AEMO was the obvious choice and landed the daunting job of overhauling the creaking system.  

The Turnbull Government has been missing in action in dealing with the energy crisis. They tried “clean coal”, which mercifully sank without trace. Then there was “The Man From Snowy River 2” which even The Australian belittled in an article by Ron Pike, a retired water consultant, who pointed out that the Snowy pumped storage scheme had been studied and rejected as too expensive over 20 years ago.

Since the Turnbull Government was too busy shooting itself in the foot to exert any leadership over the energy situation, the task was left to AEMO. That organisation surprised some observers and delighted others by recruiting Audrey Zibelman from New York to head the task of sorting out the mess. 

Once they understand what this means, the Government will be appalled by the appointment. Not only is Ms Zibleman extremely knowledgeable in the field of electricity generation, she was a major force in New York State's the Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) plan, which has 50 per cent renewables by 2030 as one of its goals. (Hang in there, Bill!) REV's other 2030 goals are to achieve a 40 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels and a 23 per cent decrease in energy consumption from buildings from 2012 levels. Ms Zibelman's appointment is an indication of a new direction for AEMO's culture and technology.

Audrey Zibelman is a formidable woman indeed. A mother of four, she is a lawyer and was CEO of PJM — a regional transmission organisation (RTO) that operates one of the world's largest wholesale power markets, serving 14 states on the U.S. east coast – before moving on to be the founder and CEO of Viridity Energy.  

From that company's website:

Today’s electric consumers no longer accept the traditional transactional view where they receive a bill and pay it without thinking about ways to impact their energy costs. Today’s electric customers are also increasingly sophisticated about their energy assets and are making investments in renewable energy and storage technologies. These customers desire an opportunity to maximise the return on these investments.

Audrey Zibelman left Viridity in 2013 to become the Chair of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC):

As PSC Chair, [Audrey Zibelman] ... is Chair of the New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment. She also sits on the State Energy Planning Board; the board of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the board of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative Inc. (RGGI), the Audit Committee of RGGI, the New York State Disaster Preparedness Commission, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Task Force. Ms Zibelman was appointed to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Board of Directors and is a member of NARUC Committee on Electricity. She is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Electricity Advisory Committee; a member of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s Future Electric Utility Regulation Advisory Group. She is also a board member of the Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center (AERTC).

It is very clear that Audrey Zibelman has the qualifications to smarten up the Australian grid. The coal industry and its captive Turnbull Government will be furious over Ms Zibelman's obvious renewables bias but there is absolutely nothing they can do. The simple fact is that AEMO is its own boss. It is incorporated as a company and operates as a business on a cost recovery basis, through fees paid by electricity market participants.

Turnbull should actually be pleased, since this is an example of capitalism at its best. AEMO's customers want to make the most profit that they can. They have determined that coal generation is a loser and want to progress into more profitable renewables and battery storage — hence, the new CEO. 

Audrey Zibelman and AEMO are leading the way to Australia's smart energy future. The Turnbull Government can either climb on board or get left behind, choking on black, unclean coal dust.  

Dr Norm Sanders is a former academic, TV journalist, Tasmanian MP and Australian Federal senator. 

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