Researchers develop tool to help businesses reach net zero targets

The researchers used their expertise in power and distribution systems, retail energy businesses, software development, and graphical user interface design to develop the tool. Image: onephoto -

Federation researchers have used their expertise in renewable energy generation to develop an online tool to help businesses make informed decisions about their future energy investments.

The tool, CEREI (Cost-Effective Renewable Energy Investments), was developed by researchers in the Centre for New Energy Transition Research (CfNETR). It is a free, open-source Java desktop application that models the energy market using spot market charges and network and retailer tariffs.

The tool is the outcome of several funded research projects, including one funded by the National Institute for Forest Products Innovation – a body backed by the Australian, South Australian, Tasmanian and Victorian governments to support forest industries in regions including Gippsland which is home to one of three National Institute for Forest Products Innovation Centres.

CfNETR researcher Associate Professor Rakibuzzaman Shah, who led the project, says the tool will help industries plan to hit their net zero targets by investing in renewables.

“Australia has ambitious net zero targets, and with the move away from coal-fired power stations and fossil fuels generally, there is a need to explore all options to get to 100 per cent renewables,” Associate Professor Shah said.

He says several key sectors are leading the way in the energy transition. Australia is targeting a 43 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and net zero by 2050.

Victoria’s water sector aims to be the first in Australia to reach net zero emissions by 2035. That will require some water corporations to offset the impact of their ongoing emissions through activities like planting trees.

“They will meet the net zero target by putting in more solar and more distributed energy resources such as energy storage, fleet electric vehicles for their wastewater treatment plants, and they may start generating hydrogen from their wastewater treatment plants,” Associate Professor Shah said.

“For the forest products industry, there are some challenges in getting to net zero, and this is where a decision support tool like what we have developed can help.”

The study carried out in the Latrobe Valley considered the energy use of various industries, including large industrial operations that are heavy electricity consumers, as well as the retail tariff pattern of energy delivery services business AusNet Services. Associate Professor Shah says the net zero target means the industry will need to explore alternative means to achieve it.

“The forest product industry is facing many regulations in reducing its emissions, and there is also a need to generate income from alternative sources,” Associate Professor Shah said.

“As a byproduct of timber production, vast amounts of chips are leftover, which are then sold for a very low price – these smaller bags are not generating significant income.

“The timber industry then wanted to see if it could use these chips to generate heat, which is needed to season the timber.”

The study found this was a viable practice for the industry. It then looked at whether the heat generated could be used to boil water and, as a result, generate electricity to power the operation.

“Instead of virtually giving those shredded timber chips away, it was found that they could be used to ultimately generate electricity,” Associate Professor Shah said.

“The initial idea was to find out whether this could be done and whether there was technology available that could do this. Then, the industry became interested in any potential commercial opportunities within its energy spectrum. Was there an opportunity for it to generate funds from doing this?

“To answer that, they would need a decision support tool.”

Associate Professor Shah says any industrial and commercial consumer can use the tool to calculate their localised energy generation. It could work for any distributed energy resource, including solar, a microturbine setup, or biogas.

He says a key component of the tool is an easy-to-use interface that allows users to enter information like energy consumption, and the software will return information on energy generation, payback period, annualised costs and how much income can be earned.

The project is a collaboration between Federation University and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). The tool was developed at CfNETR at Federation with support and collaboration work from UTS researchers.

Associate Professor Shah says the tool took 18 months to develop and was built on the researchers’ expertise in understanding how power and distribution systems work, as well as knowledge of retail energy businesses, computer software development, and graphical user interface design.

The tool is free to download, and Associate Professor Shah says the researchers are likely to develop an improved version with forecasting capability in the future.

“This project aligns with our living values charter at Federation – it’s a project that we can empower the community by providing it for the community,” he said.

“This is the first step. We plan to keep developing, and after a few more versions, we may consider commercialising the tool.”

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