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Blackouts: How market operator BoM-ed out on weather forecasts

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The Australian Energy Market Operator has been relying on private weather forecasters who have been predicting milder conditions than the Bureau of Meteorology, and likely led to the AEMO being under-prepared for the recent weather-related blackouts in South Australia.

It is now clear – from its latest report into the rolling blackout, or load shedding, in South Australia on February 8 – that AEMO does not use BoM forecasters, but instead relies on predictions from private operators Telvent and Weatherzone.

thermometer warming

The problem for the market operator on February 8 was that it was relying on forecasts that were 3-4°C lower than what the BoM was forecasting.

Which may explain these words of exasperation by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in the recent Senate committee hearings into the resilience of Australia’s electricity grid.

“My 10-year-old daughter knew all week it was going to be stinking hot in Adelaide. All the kids at school were talking about how it was going to be stinking hot and they would go swimming after school. I cannot see how the energy operator did not foresee that demand would be high.”

It turns out that it was because they were not looking at BoM forecasts at all.

“For South Australia demand forecasting, AEMO uses an equal weighted average of hourly weather forecasts provided by WeatherZone and Telvent5 based on measurements taken at Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) weather stations at Adelaide Airport and Adelaide.

This was crucial for those blackouts. As AEMO has revealed, it completely botched its forecasts for that afternoon, progressively expecting lower temperatures and more wind, when the opposite happened.

By the time it realised its mistake, it was too late to call on the country’s most efficient gas-fired generator, Pelican Point, to fire up its idle second unit.

The failure and absence of another 300MW of gas-fired generation meant it had not enough capacity to meet demand, forcing it into “load shedding” or cutting power from consumers.

Andrew Stock, a former senior energy industry executive and member of the Climate Council, says he doesn’t understand why AEMO wouldn’t be using the BoM forecasts as well.

“Surely if you have a circumstance like what happened on February 8, and BoM said it will be 41°C two days ahead of time, and 40°C three days ahead of time, why wouldn’t you take that into consideration.”

The difference in forecasts equates to roughly 500MW of demand – that is how much extra air conditioning is switched on to deal with such high temperatures.

With the benefit of advance notice, AEMO not only could have got Pelican Point ready, it could have – like it did in NSW – given consumers sufficient warning and joined with state ministers in asking them to moderate their electricity use.

“I believe the SA load shedding could have been completely avoided if AEMO had been using BoM forecasts,” Stock said.

That advanced warning and pleas to moderate use had a dramatic effect in NSW, cutting around 200MW of demand.

That was crucial for NSW because it now appears that the interconnectors to Victoria were overloaded, 1GW of coal generation in NSW was out of action, nearly 1GW of gas generators failed just at the time of peak demand, and rolling blackouts were only narrowly averted thanks to a decision to cut 300MW of capacity to the Tomago aluminium smelter.

The non-use of BoM data and predictions has stunned many in the industry, and led for calls for AEMO to change its operating practices, which have been criticised intensely in the Senate hearing.

Dr Don Russell, the former Keating adviser who now serves as head of the Premier’s department in South Australia, lamented why AEMO had allowed the inter-connector from Victoria to run at full pelt and called for no back-up as the devastating storms built up in South Australia, eventually knocking down three transmission lines.

“A lot of people have commented that that was quite a risky strategy in an environment where a lot of people knew that an extreme weather event was approaching,” Russell told another sitting of the inquiry in Adelaide this week.

“You might think that looking out the window and listening to the radio might have led them to take a more cautious view, but that would have been straying outside their procedures,” Russell said.

That may be unfair, considering that while AEMO has an office in Adelaide, its main operations rooms are elsewhere.

But the fact that AEMO has been taking weather forecasts from private operators and not the government forecaster has deepened the frustration, particularly in the renewable energy industry, which has copped the blame from conservative politicians, some in business, and many in mainstream media.

Update:

Weatherzone managing director Charles Solomon sent in this statement after the story:

“The comparison offered by your publication is materially incorrect. The statement incorrectly compares a composite hourly temperature forecast with a single daily maximum temperature. The AEMO does not rely solely on single daily maximum temperature forecasts, but instead utilises a composition of forecasts from various sources at its discretion.”

This is what AEMO said in its report on the outages:

Energy use in summer is highly dependent on ambient temperatures, with increased energy use for cooling increasing actual and forecast demand.

For South Australia demand forecasting, AEMO uses an equal weighted average of hourly weather forecasts provided by WeatherZone and Telvent5 based on measurements taken at Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) weather stations at Adelaide Airport and Adelaide. AEMO’s demand forecasting models use a 50/50 combination of forecast and actual temperatures from the same weather stations. Temperatures quoted in this report are calculated as averages of both weather station and weather information provider.

These forecasts are updated hourly and were used to forecast the operational demand for Wednesday 8 February. Figure 7 shows the evolution of the temperature forecast during the day. Errors in the temperature forecasts led to errors in the demand forecast.

  

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  • Gasp! AEMO must be so embarrassed – they look absolutely clueless here. What else are they being stupid about? Time for a serious review how they do what they do. World’s worst practice award?

    • Chris Fraser

      It does cause surprise. Personally, I heard about the warm weather three days ahead on the news … and this was backed up by a humble app on a smartphone. I can only attribute the forecasting problem to a change of leadership, or perhaps there was a gulf between the introduction of new technology, and the hammering out a proper procedure to use it.

      • 573v3

        So air-conditioners nearly broke the Grid in NSW & SA… not RE?
        It does appear AEMO is still learning how to match Demand & Dispatch on a dynamic Grid, though it has always been so. My only other theories are conspiratorial! There’s fun watching AEMO’s Data Dashboard. The price movements are exciting… & perplexing.

  • Rod

    Weatherzone! OMFG

    • Tom

      +1

  • Ken Dyer

    AEMO must have been advised by Malcolm Roberts about all those conspiracies at BOM.

    • Chris Pitman

      Malcolm is in the US learning about fake news.

  • Ian Mclaughlin

    So have they changed their procedures? With 2 forecasts causing so many problems and both being blamed on renewable energy (by the COALition) just WHO is running the NEM. Not anyone that wants to move to the future, obviously!!

  • DevMac

    I’ve tried a bunch of different weather apps, and found that the most accurate one gets its data directly from the BoM without any further modification or tweaking. Sometimes the forecasts from other apps were out by 5 degrees for the very next day.
    I don’t understand the need for any “private” weather forecasting to exist.

    • Rod

      I go straight to the horses mouth. The BoM site is easy to use and updates at least twice a day.
      It is the source for every media outlet’s weather coverage.
      I do use some wind forecasting apps but I think these use BoM inputs (with no tweaking)

      • tnomail

        I gave up on Weather Zone a long time ago. BoM is now my source of accurate information……

  • We’ve have been asked to publish this letter, which we do so happily:
    “The story, “Blackouts: How market operator BoM-ed out on weather forecasts” (RenewEconomy, 24 February 2017), incorrectly asserts that our business failed to predict the heatwave on February 8. The statement offered on your website incorrectly compares a composite hourly temperature forecast with a single published daily maximum temperature. The AEMO does not rely solely on the single daily maximum temperature forecasts, but instead utilizes a composition of forecasts from various sources at its discretion”. Charles Solomon, Managing Director, Weatherzone .

    In a broader letter to Renew, Solomon says the company “identified forecast maximum temperatures of 41-42 degrees for Adelaide five days in advance. On 8th February, Weatherzone’s forecast indicated a maximum temperature of 42 degrees for Adelaide – the actual recorded maximum for the day was 42.4 degrees.”

    This, though, begs a question. In that case, why did AEMO publish this graph in its report on the matter. Customers in South Australia would love to know the answer, and why Weatherzone says the maximum was 42.4 when AEMO says the maximum was 41.6. We’ll keep you updated.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/894222092b132a8b8d4cbfa7c5fcbdadffb814ee717518d0fd366ed8ce6e4344.png

    • Ian

      Hindsight is always far more accurate wouldn’t you say!

    • Brian Tehan

      The BOM has the second fastest supercomputer in Australia – after Defence – and very accurate taxpayer funded forecasts, why on earth would you go elsewhere. If you want some extra services, you can buy them from the BOM. Why would you go elsewhere?

    • Tom

      I’ve got a pilot’s license (only a basic one), but if I submit a flight plan using anything other than the BOM data and forecasts I know that CASA would crucify me.

    • 573v3

      Yes… the Chart does not appear to support Charles Solomon’s arguments.

  • Ray Miller

    Is no one asking why the load is so temperature sensitive i.e. 500MW for a couple of degrees? And what long term strategy could be adopted to make it less temperature sensitive?
    Maybe the level of AEMO management tools are not commensurate with the safety margins being set and not adding in the UN-reliability of the aging plant under the same extremes of temperatures?

    I had a ReachTel (I think) automated phone poll last night about my voting intentions and also had two questions at the end about energy, the first was about clean GREEN coal about my support and then about renewable energy. I was taken aback with the misleading and inaccurate wording of the coal generator, it was a very biased and inaccurate question!

    • FeFiFoFum

      Why?
      Purely based on human factors and response to feeling ‘comfortable’ vs ‘uncomfortable’.
      Houses heating up and storing more heat leading to greater use of air cond for cooling.
      That coupled to appliances like fridges ( ie a heat pump) that work more efficiently when the outside ambient temp is cooler not having to run so often or for so long.
      All these incremental load increases add to the increased total demand when the weather is hot.
      The other irony is that the generation plant also tends to get de rated when the weather is hot, due to high outside ambient temperatures affecting the ability for the cooling cycle of the power stations to work efficiently. Solution is to reduce the output of the generators. this affects both open cycle gas turbine generators as well as closed cycle steam turbine generators.

      Seems line the easiest short term solution is to use more smart technology and good communications to both control demand and modify human behavior during periods of stress on the network.

      • Ray Miller

        Yes I fully understand why, its about the physics of our buildings and the rate of heat entry which needs to use AC to pump it out when it Energy Efficiency Rating EER is only 2-3 at 40+ degrees.
        As you point out the death spiral of reduced NEM availability and reliability at a critical time when our buildings become hazardous.
        The Game changer SMART technology is reducing the rate of heat entry by better design, more insulation and better glazing.
        Controlling the air conditioning is only a band aid solution and avoids the real problem.

  • Steve Fuller

    It is most heartening to read that in NSW customers were asked to moderate usage and their response was so positive.
    In this era of instant communications available to most people including businesses it would seem obvious to ask people to moderate their consumption in times of crisis – and blackouts are a crisis that could often be avoided.
    During the drought most citizens went out of their way to moderate their water consumption to conserve this precious resource. Electricity is no lesser a resource for many.
    Part of the long term solution to our energy problems is the reduction of waste and avoiding unnecessary consumption is part of the puzzle.
    God knows that we can only solve our problems through cooperation.

  • Richard

    Just call it what it is. It’s a deliberate manufacture of power outages by fossil fuel interests which control AEMO, to discredit the renewable industry in SA.
    It’s so obvious.
    Everyone knows that weather zone forecasts are hopeless. Why would AEMO in charge of energy security use it, it beggars belief.
    There is nothing that fossil interests wouldn’t do to protect their industry. Including blowing up whole countries.
    And right now they control the media and they have large sections of our current government in their back pocket too.

  • FeFiFoFum

    Curious why there is not more of a spotlight glaring on AEMO its actions and its operations ?
    They seem to be a protected, closeted organisation that is not accountable for their poor performance.
    Elsewhere heads would roll and a review of the organisation would take place.
    Where such a critical function is required ( energy security) and poor performance and poor decision making has been demonstrated,taking no action should not be an option.
    Having experienced a total grid blackout and seeing the cover up that followed ( blame the weather) when the full analysis of the sequence of events showed a combination of a lack of maintenance plus poor operator decisions caused a preventable set of outages that lead to a total shutdown, I am suitably cynical about about the spin that comes out of AEMO while they are in self preservation mode..