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BHP’s Olympic Dam “blackout”: AEMO says it didn’t happen

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BHP Billiton Olympic Dam

BHP Billiton Olympic Dam

You probably remember the headlines and the stories from earlier this month focusing on the loss of power (again) for BHP Billiton’s massive Olympic Dam mining operations in South Australia in the early hours of Thursday, December 1.

Everyone reported it.

The Guardian said the Olympic Dam operations was “off the grid for four hours”, the ABC said Olympic Dam was without power for four hours”, and the Sydney Morning Herald said it was “without power for four hours”.

The Australian Financial Review said the “prized” Olympic Dam mine was “without power for more than four hours overnight.” The claims were repeated by other journalists in numerous articles in those and other publications over the following days, including in their newspaper’s thundering editorials about the risks of renewable energy.

The Murdoch press also reported it with gusto, saying “Olympic Dam was  …. “left without power for hours”. Its commentators blamed “unreliable wind power” and the “abandonment of sensible, coal-fired power generation”, in the case of Terry McCrann, while Nick Cater warned “South Australians haven’t seen the last of the blackouts.”

The AFR’s Jennifer Hewett quoted the blackout in an opinion piece where she described South Australia’s support for an emissions intensity scheme “as barking mad as SA’s rush into ever greater amounts of renewable energy.”

The right wing blogs also attacked.  “BHP Billiton had its giant Olympic Dam mine shut down for the second time in two months by South Australia’s dodgy wind farms,” wrote Andrew Bolt, while fellow climate denialist Jo Nova said it was all the fault of wind energy (there wasn’t enough of it blowing, she reckoned).

The federal Coalition jumped in too. Malcolm Turnbull used it to harden his line on state-based renewable energy targets, insisting that he would not take any advice from a South Australia premier “who could not keep the lights on.”

BHP joined in, saying the outage showed that “it cannot fall to renewables alone ” to lower emissions. Its media team circulated information that “a power outage overnight as a result of an interconnector failure and lack of generation in South Australia saw Olympic Dam without power for more than four hours.”

That “lack of generation” was an important contributor to the debate, because everyone presumed it implicated, by its assumed absence, wind energy. CEO Andrew Mackenzie was quoted widely in the media, saying such blackouts were “crippling business” and were a “threat to jobs.”

Except there was just one problem. The blackout did not happen.

According to the Australian Energy Market Operator, the Olympic Dam mine, contrary to all those reports, and contrary to the advice of BHP, did not lose its connection to the grid. It did not suffer a blackout.

It did, under the terms of its supply agreement, have to shed some 70MW of load – a responsibility it holds as the largest single source of demand in the state – but at all times in those early hours it retained 100MW of continuous supply and got it full allocation back within three hours and seven minutes.

“To stabilise the separated SA power system, AEMO Directed ElectraNet to reduce supply to BHP’s Olympic Dam site to approximately 100MW under a 2015 protocol agreed by AEMO and BHP for such events,” the AEMO report says.

“Prior to the event, BHP’s Olympic Dam site was consuming approximately 170MW. The duration of this reduction was for three hours and seven minutes.”

The report by AEMO into those events also makes it clear that wind, or any amount of renewable energy, had absolutely nothing to do with the event. Zero. Nada.

Yes, many homes in South Auaatralia went without power for up to 90 minutes after the state was “isolated”, as load was shed while the grid operator tried to rebalance load and supply after the unexpected failure of the transmission lines.

That is normal practice when equipment fails, and it was little different to a similar outage in Western Australia in September that was caused by the unexpected tripping of a gas-fired generator. That affected as many people for a similar amount of time.

In the case of South Australia, the problem was caused in Victoria when a broken conductor cable on one of the main transmission lines fell to the ground, causing the outage.

It was sod’s law. The grid had been left exposed by two planned outages, one on one of the two main transmission lines linking Victoria to South Australia and another on a major line linking Heywood to the Alcoa Power plant.

This second outage had actually been requested by Alcoa, but it left the plant – and South Australia – badly exposed to any unexpected events. There was no redundancy. Alcoa lost all power, because the only line left to supply power failed. It is an impact that could yet have devastating effects on its future operations.

AEMO says its response mechanisms – including the load shedding – worked as expected. And for the anti-renewables set everything else worked perfectly too – wind energy and state-based renewable policies were blamed for an event that it had nothing to do with, and didn’t actually happen.

This morning, RenewEconomy doubled checked with AEMO. So the power did actually stay on at Olympic Dam? we asked. After checking, the spokesman rang back: Yes, the power stayed on at Olympic Dam, he said.

RenewEconomy then asked BHP how it was that they advised journalists that the blackout occurred, and how that tallies with the market operator’s insistence that it didn’t occur.

Interestingly, on December 6, four days after sending RE an email – in response to our questions – that the mine was completely blacked out, BHP sent RE another email (in response to another question about its supply contracts), where they spoke only of “supply constraints”.

After our latest question, early Monday morning, the spokesperson said she would ring Olympic Dam. We are still waiting for the response. Maybe the line is down.

(Update: BHP did respond but only “off the record”, which is worse than useless. But it seems they don’t agree they had 100MW of power available).  

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  • Rod

    Yes, as part of their contract they would be interruptible for load shedding purposes.

    I wonder if they would like to share with South Australians exactly how much they are paying per Mwh for their astronomical amounts of electricity.

    If you are looking for one reason our power prices are so high, I would suggest it is because we are subsidising the likes of Olympic Dam.

    • solarguy

      Bet your house it will be subsidised.

  • disqus_gF5uXVTUbL

    Despite the unwarranted attacks on wind and solar, us lefties bring this about by opening ourselves to attack by not focusing upon variable RE with storage.

  • Chris Fraser

    Tch, Tch. But don’t worry … all this blaming renewables is really a cover for spruiking nuclear … and it will come to nothing. Even for 200 MW Olympic Dam.

    • Cooma Doug

      They can spruik their heads off but nuclear wont happen.
      Not possible to locate a construction site for it.

      • Richard

        The problem is that RE plus battery is already cheaper than Nuke. Nuke is too expensive even before you factor waste disposal.
        Newer Nuke tech is getting cheaper and cleaner(by Nuke standards). But solar/wind plus battery prices are falling like a stone and no one knows when it will hit bottom.
        Coal cooked, Nuke cooked.
        No wonder Libs are hoping mad.
        Where are the bad guys going
        to invest now!?

  • Chris Fraser

    Yesterday Ausgrid got the wobblies by deciding to convey us only 100 volts out of the required 240v, for two hours when we needed to cook dinner. It was a local substation problem. Renewables were not to blame, but you wouldn’t want to put it past the AFR because of the stories they simply make up out of nothing.Because our inverter is grid-tie we couldn’t even access our own solar during the outage. Hybrid sounds like the plan …

    • Rod

      Had a similar experience a few years back.
      Polemount transformer in our street. Received $160 from memory for them not meeting SLAs. Not much comfort for sitting through the hottest day in years watching a ceiling fan rotate at about 10 RPM! and no solar export.

    • Alan S

      Many years ago living in a Snowy hydro town in NSW the voltage dropped below agreed levels. One of the operators rang up the ECNSW threatening to sue if his aircon motor burned out due to under voltage. They installed a step up transformer that same day.

      • Cooma Doug

        What town was that.

        • Alan S

          Talbingo. There’s a 1500 MW power station there but the town is supplied from Yass.

          • Cooma Doug

            The ps is 1800 mw now after upgrade to 300mw each unit. Plus a small hydro on jounama.

            Supply from yass via tumut. It doesnt like the storms much and trip reclose often in summer.

            Worked at Yass in early 70s and went to T3 before they finished constructing the PS. There are things in there still that I made as an apprentice.

          • Alan S

            I worked at LTGCC and T3 from 1978 to 1981 in communications then moved to Adelaide. The transmission system here doesn’t like storms either.
            Actually Yass was a guess – am I right?

    • Calamity_Jean

      Sounds like you have a battery in your future.

  • Dennis Kavanagh

    BHP seem to be so incompetent that they probably didn’t know they had the 100 MW available and so didn’t use it and claimed a blackout!

  • solarguy

    And they call us conspiracy mongers. Seems there’s no lengths to what their prepared to go to.

  • John Saint-Smith

    So, all that remains is an apology from BHP, the MSM, Bolt, Nova, Uncle Malcolm and all.,,

    No, I don’t believe in Santa either!
    ‘Cept when he’s delivering coal to these naughty children!

  • ChrisB_SA

    The 100MW may have included supply to the township (~10MW) and Prominent Hill mine which is supplied out of OD West switchyard. If we only had another $1 billion/1400MWpeak of wind farms installed or the wind blew that bit harder there wouldn’t have been any need to shed load that night as we would have been feeding into Vic.

    • disqus_gF5uXVTUbL

      We’ll never get any truth on this website, until the true cost of wind/storage is compared to the cost of running synchronous generators with inertia.

      • the csiro/ENA report last week made it quite clear that wind/solar/storage was going to be cheaper than fossil fuels/synchronous/inertia. It also makes clear storage not needed until 40-50% penetration.

        • Ian

          Thank you Giles for this article. BHP might be the single biggest Tax payer in this country but they are demonstrating a rogue mentality persuing their own agenda and not subjecting themselves to the wishes of the State government and the people of South Australia. The Paris Agreement clearly sets out the goals of mitigating climate change, and this bunch of leaches seek to increase their fossil fuel use and force the South Australian government to abandon its renewables ambitions. Shame on them. They might pay 6 billion dollars in tax but they have the protection of the Australian community to pursue their business in peace and freedom. Corruption and graft is almost non- existent, agreements and contracts are honoured, let them try enjoy this level of decency in other continents. We in return do not want to be bullied and coerced by this sort of outfit. They need to figure out a way to decarbonise their operations, just as other major international companies are doing. In South Australia there is a 600MW wind farm that has stalled in its development partly because companies like BHP have not pulled their weight in developing renewables. Google can go 100% renewables why can’t these ****. ( insert your own choice of expletive)

          • ChrisB_SA

            In the case of the proposed Palmer wind farm, the locals don’t want it and are dragging through the ERD court, just like the locals in south east SA don’t want unconventional gas.