Carrying on with our Employee in the Spotlight series, this month, Energy Live is excited to shine a light on AEMO’s Executive General Manager for Operations, Damien Sanford. Holding a string of military, government and emergency related roles in his career, Damien shares his insights on the changing energy industry, and what it’s like to sit at the helm of the world’s longest interconnected grid!

Energy Live (EL): What is your current role at AEMO?

Damien Sanford (DS): I am the Executive General Manager of AEMO’s Operations department, which means my team looks after the real-time operations of Australia’s east coast gas and electricity markets. Our role can be quite different in each state. In Victoria, AEMO is the physical gas transmission operator, which means we can open and close valves, start or stop compressors, and schedule the market. In New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, our operational gas function is limited to the market operation of the Short-Term Trading Markets.

In east-coast electricity, AEMO has more of an oversight role, which means we maintain frequency and voltage, provide advice and directions to the transmission networks, and look at any other issues that might impact security and reliability.

Operations also oversees AEMO’s engineering services for gas and electricity, where we research and plan required network augmentations. At the moment we have about 190 projects that we’re managing through our Network Development team in the electricity space alone.

EL: Can you let our readers know more about your work and study history?

 DS: I spent the first 10 years of my career as a Combat Officer in the Armoured Corp, after receiving my commission from Duntroon, and earned my Bachelor of Business Management during my service. After that, I worked for the Federal government for Emergency Management Australia, before moving to Ambulance Victoria, and heading up their business continuity and risk management function.
In 2009, I moved to AEMO to work in the Emergency Management team, before moving over to Real-Time Operations, and eventually landing the role I’m in today. I think that goes to show you never really know where your career can take you! 

EL: Absolutely - and in your position of overseeing Australia’s gas and electricity markets, what are some of the changes you are noticing in the industry?

 DS: Traditional market participants and network business models are being challenged, and technology is changing at a rapid rate – even in my nine years in the industry – disrupting the status quo. With technologies like wind, solar and batteries becoming more accessible and development costs reducing, we’re seeing new participants enter the market, which creates new opportunities and challenges for AEMO, the industry and the consumer. 
I’m also seeing a genuine shift and reflection of the industry and AEMO’s social license to operate, and the growing emphasis on providing value for end consumers – this is a good thing. I encourage my team in particular to always imagine what it’s like to be in our stakeholder’s shoes, and factor that in when delivering AEMO’s services.

EL: You recently came back from a trip to China, where you were lucky enough to see how they operate their market. What are some of the trends you are seeing in international markets?

DS: In China I saw high levels of automation and interconnection. There was also a heavy emphasis on research and development, and big, bold infrastructure. When I visited their electricity market dispatch centre, the demand at the time was around 840,000 megawatts. To put that into perspective, the demand in Australia’s National Electricity Market at the same time was roughly 24,000 megawatts. The overall size and complexity of their system was incredible to witness.

EL: What do you love about your role?

DS: I love the people. I’ve worked in a range of organisations and industries, and at AEMO I really feel that the people are here for a genuine cause and purpose. Knowing that everyone is pushing hard towards the same goal is something I’ve only ever experienced before in the military. I also don’t think I’ve ever worked with such a talented, and highly educated work force. A fair number of the employees in my team, and other departments, have doctorate degrees in a wide range of fields, which means I am constantly learning and expanding my knowledge in this industry.   

EL: Lastly, what advice would you give to people looking to join AEMO?

DS: If you don’t like change, don’t come to AEMO! [laughs]. The industry is changing, so naturally AEMO is changing with it. If you want a role that takes on new challenges and truly makes a difference, then this is the place for you. My second piece of advice would be to view everyone as your customer – whether they’re internal employees or external stakeholders. We all have needs and we all serve someone, so there’s always value in thinking about things from their perspective, and seeing what it is they need.