Wind energy not to blame for South Australia power outage

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When rolling blackouts occurred for some consumers in South Australia late in the evening of November 1 last year, the fossil fuel industry, the nuclear lobby, conservatives and many in the mainstream media were quick to point the finger at wind energy, in particular, and renewable energy in general.

Andrew Bolt, the right-wing, climate denying News Corp commentator, declared “wind don’t blow, South Australia don’t glow” and proceeded to blame the outage on wind energy “because wind power did not supply energy because it often does not start until 3am.”

His comments were followed by similar remarks by a collection of analysts, fossil fuel lobbyists, and nuclear advocates, and by stories in the local press and TV that sought to demonise renewable energy. Anti-wind blogs, favoured by many Coalition politicians, chimed in:

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It became clear quite quickly that wind energy was not the culprit. And a full report released by the Australian Energy Market Operator last week confirms this, saying that the problem lay elsewhere.

The outage itself was caused by a faulty signal that caused the line linking South Australia to the rest of the grid to trip and then disconnect.

Then, as the operator tried to re-connect power, the actions of a gas-fired generator which ignored instructions to alter its output caused frequency levels to surge, and for the blackout to last nearly four times longer than it should have.

The scare campaign against wind and solar is reaching almost hysterical proportions in South Australia, and from vested interests in other states keen to slow down the roll out of renewable energy across the nation.

Not only are the renewables being blamed for blackouts, they are also being accused of causing huge price spikes in the market for frequency controls, which makes sure the grid is stable.

But another report, this time from the Australian Energy Regulator, criticises the actions of the market operator, and the bidding patterns of coal- and gas-fired generators, for the huge price spikes that caused a minor scandal, and $20 million of possibly unnecessary market costs, in October last year.

First to the blackout.

On Sunday, November 21, one of the two lines that links South Australian to Victoria was out for maintenance, when at 21:56 the second line “tripped” because of a faulty signal. It was blamed on “non-compatible protection relay configuration” that had been recently installed as part of an upgrade. It was probably human error.

This “trip” caused the the South Australian grid to be “islanded.” This should be a routine situation. 160MW of capacity was shed to deal with frequency issues, and under normal circumstances the power should have been re-established quickly, in less than 10 minutes.

However, the local network could not solve its frequency problems as it expected, but not because of too much or too little wind energy.

sa frequencyFirst, frequency levels were affected by a rise in output from “non scheduled” generators that lifted frequency levels – most likely co-generators and diesel gensets. Then, the situation was made much worse when the large Torrens Island gas generator ignored requests from the market operator to cut down its output. Instead, it kept raising it, by 65MW all told.

This pushed the frequency level above 50.58 Hertz, outside the normal frequency band, which meant that the South Australia grid was insecure and could not be synchronised with the main grid.

The result, says AEMO, was that instead of power from the inter-connector being restored within 9 minutes, it took an extra 26 minutes for the frequency control problems to be resolved and the link restored.

Since then, AEMO has taken a couple of actions: one is to find out why the tripping of the inter-connector caused a trip in the Cathedral Rocks wind farm. This was producing 11MW at the time and its trip did not impact the situation, but it has the market operator and the wind farm operator scratching their heads.

The second action is to try to fix what went wrong with Torrens Island. Its owner, AGL Energy, blamed “the governor control system” of these units. In the end, the situation had to be resolved manually, which invokes images of someone shouting something down a phone. AEMO and AGL are trying to work out how to prevent a repeat.

Now to the spikes in the cost of ancillary services, known as FCAS (frequency control ancillary services), which ensures grid stability.

The closure of the Northern power station in May will take away one of the main generators that provides FCAS services on the local grid. AEMO says this should not be a major issue, but it may have to lift its game.

In October there was a series of incidents when the cost of FCAS – normally supplied by the coal and gas generators in South Asutralia, but increasingly by other sources including battery storage elsewhere – soared to more than $13,100/MW.

The incidents have been investigated by the Australian Energy Regulator which has criticised AEMO for a sudden change in procedures that gave the market little opportunity to respond, and questioned the bidding pattern of Alinta’s Northern coal-fired generator and AGL’s Torrens Island gas plant.

It’s complicated stuff, but the brief summary is this:

AEMO, according to the AER, did not do a good job advising the market that extreme FCAS price volatility was very likely, even though they knew this was going to happen many months in advance. It gave too little notice for other potential providers of the market to offer their services.

And the situation was exacerbated by strategic bidding patterns by AGL and Alinta. AER noted that prices for FCAS soared to more than $13,000 on numerous occasions. It could not see that these price surges were justified.

The AER also suggested it is not convinced that regulation FCAS needs to be purchased within SA every time one circuit of the interconnector is down for maintenance.  If the AER is correct, then AEMO just wasted over $20 million purchasing something that wasn’t needed.

None of this, of course, has made it to the mainstream media or the vested interests who are happy to push headlines creating fear and loathing about a disruptive technology, rather than to delve into technical details that might find fault with the incumbents.

Moving to a renewables-based system does have its challenges. As Sven Teske, an energy analyst with the Institute of Sustainable Futures suggested this week, it is like the transition from analog communications to digital.

This was a point recognised by AEMO itself in a report that said there are no security or reliability risks in South Australia, even when the coal fired generator closes down, as long as it is managed properly.

As Liu Zhenya, the chairman of China’s State Grid Corp, the largest provider of electricity in the world, said last week: “The only hurdle to overcome is ‘mindset’. There’s no technical challenge at all.” Some people just won’t accept that.

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