Reliance on solar 'a risk to security'

October 24, 2023

24 October 2023
Colin Packham
The Australian


Australia is developing plans to mitigate the threat of a cyber attack on the country’s rooftop solar network, amid fears an assault could cripple the country’s energy system.

Australia has the world’s largest penetration of rooftop solar, which is expected to be the linchpin of the country’s energy transition away from coal. But the rise in solar has created a quiet security flaw, with the bulk of the solar inverters – which convert the power from solar panels into energy that can be fed into the electricity grid – made in China and connected to the internet.

Australia’s relationship with China is improving, but security officials remain concerned about Beijing’s control of critical components in hot demand due to the global drive to decarbonise, and previous cyber attacks launched from within China.

Under questioning from officials, David Fredericks – secretary of Australia’s department of Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water – said the threat to solar inverters is significant and work is underway to mitigate the prospect of significant harm.

“The issue is critical. Government has given us extra resources. We are working with [the Australian Energy Market Operator] and Home Affairs, but we can’t say much more,” Mr Fredericks told Senate Estimates.

The senior official said the department was in early talks with the Australian Energy Market Operator about a technical solution that could be applied in the event of a successful cyber attack, to restore functionality and stability to the grid. Mr Fredericks did not reveal the specific solution under consideration.

Earlier this year, Western countries accused a China-based group of cyber intrusions on critical infrastructure, while Australian intelligence in 2019 determined China was responsible for a cyber attack on its national parliament and three largest political parties before the general election.

Australia in2018 banned Chinese giant Huawei from its nascent 5G network, a move that soured economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries.

While Australia is unlikely to want to or even to be able to undercut Chinese infrastructure, Canberra is increasingly alive to the threat of cyber attacks to what is expected to be a major component of the country’s electricity market.

Australian households have been bolting solar panels on their rooftops at a record pace as they seek to lower their electricity bills.

Households with excessive solar generation export electricity to the grid, and on sunny days Australia’s wholesale electricity price is often in negative territory.

A low wholesale price will limit electricity bills for households in the coming years, but the rise of solar will heighten pressure on coal power plants.

Coal stations –still the dominant source of electricity run throughout the day – often make losses during sunny daylight hours before recouping and returning to profitability when the sun sets.

With wholesale prices moving into negative territory for longer and longer, two-thirds of Australia’s coal power fleet is expected to be retired within the next decade.

Australia will need to replace coal with more batteries and pumped hydro or the wholesale price will jump during the evening or on grey, cloudy days.

Australia’s energy industry is pushing hard to develop so-called firming capacity, but hopes to develop a network of households with solar and small batteries to replace coal generators as part of a so-called virtual power plant (VPP).

A VPP pools thousands of households or businesses with rooftop solar and batteries. Batteries are used to store excess energy generated through rooftop solar. But if a user is deemed to have sufficient energy in their battery, it could be discharged into the wholesale market when prices are high, offering them a financial return and helping to ease the squeeze on the grid.

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