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Dumb politics means we may be stuck with an even dumber grid

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It was just six years ago when Malcolm Turnbull, then deposed Liberal Party leader, attended the launch of the Beyond Zero Emissions Zero Carbon plan for 2020, which suggested Australia should and could attain 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.

Turnbull, by all accounts, was an enthusiastic participant, and was particularly excited by solar towers and molten salt storage. “There is a real opportunity there, with that technology, to generate baseload power from solar energy – something of a holy grail.”

turnbull tesla

Five years later, as a front bencher in an Abbott government, Turnbull took himself to the Tesla factory where he drove the Model S electric vehicle and waxed lyrical about battery storage and hailed the energy revolution.

“Batteries have the potential to revolutionise the energy market, reducing peaking power requirements, optimising grid utilisation of renewables and in some cases enabling consumers to go off the grid altogether,” he enthused in his personal blog.

Fast forward 18 months, and the man who insists he wears “innovation” as his calling card appears to have forgotten everything he ever learned about new technology, and its ability to overcome challenges – such as climate change and decarbonising the electricity grid.

In the fallout of the massive blackout in South Australia, and the price surges experienced in July, Turnbull has reached for the lowest common denominator. No longer does he think that 100% renewable energy is possible by 2020, he thinks states aiming for half that target in twice the time is a recipe for disaster.

It seems that everything he has learned about a smart grid and new technologies has been thrown by the way-side to appease the conservative rump that will not allow Australia to shake its addiction to and dependence on coal and gas.

Turnbull described the events in South Australia as a “wake up call” over ambitious wind and solar, even though energy authorities and the grid owners said the colour of energy – green, brown or black – would have made no difference because it was the transmission wires that collapsed and caused the massive outage.

Labor has responded angrily to Turnbull’s intervention, describing it as “ignorant rubbish”. But the demonisation of renewable energy has extended even to the ABC, where chief political correspondent Chris Uhlmann has taken it upon himself to peddle fossil fuel nonsense about the role of wind and solar. He even warned of a “national blackout” if Australia’s Labor states continued their pursuit of renewable energy.

It’s remarkable how quickly a national conversation can fall into the gutter of bipartisanship and ignorance. But the legacy could be damaging: dumb politics could leave Australia with an even dumber grid, just at the moment when the country could seize Turnbull’s “innovation” agenda and lead the world on an energy transformation.

The fact that Australia is now talking about slowing down its shift to renewables, rather than accelerating it, seems remarkable, and ignores the fact that wind and solar could actually make the grid more resilient, and not less so as claimed by the fossil fuel lobby and commentators like Uhlmann.

Indeed, in our rebuttal to Uhlmann’s dire predictions, we point to the experience in Germany, where the increase in wind and solar has actually made the grid more stable, and halved the cost of services needed to keep it from having a blackout.

Australia’s is a remarkably different reaction to other states and countries that have experience major blackouts. Hawaii had one in 2008, and when it fretted about the amount of solar that was being installed, that problem was solved with smart software. It has responded with a law that requires it to hit 100 per cent renewable energy by 2045.

Japan had one two years ago, and responded with a plan to reinforce the grid by ensuring that households and businesses installed their own generation, solar panels, and their own back-up, battery storage, to help ensure the lights stayed on.

The state of New York responded in an even more remarkable fashion. After Hurricane Sandy wiped out power for millions, and for some tens of thousands for weeks, the state responded with a plan called “Reforming the Energy Vision”.

It takes account of climate change and new technologies, shifting away from a reliance on centralised fossil fuel technologies to clean energy, micro-grids, and smart solutions that could a repeat should another super-storm eventuate.

But experts fear that Australia risks going backwards rather than forwards.

Glenn Platt is the former head of research, grids and energy efficiency at CSIRO, and now heads a start-up called Evergen, that uses CSIRO technology to provide an “energy services” company that provides solar and storage to consumers.

Platt says the conversation around South Australia has ignored the hidden benefits of renewable energy. They are not just about climate change and oher environmental benefits: they can actually make a huge contribution to grid stability.

“Sure there can be challenges to very high renewable energy penetration. But they are solvable: Just having batteries in their house – your own back-up power supply, through to the sophisticated end, where you operating with micro grids and large amounts of distributed assets.”

Those distributed assets, locally produced renewables such as wind and solar, couple with storage means that “if the grid falls down around you, you can island your area and keep things reliable.”

This has been recognized by network owners, including those in South Australia. Queensland and Western Ausralia, which proposes a whole new “modular” model of smart renewasble based micro-grids, that is says is cheaper than the current model and more reliable.

But, like Platt, Western Power also laments the fact that Australia’s regulatory environment, the rules of the market, do not allow such innovative solutions.

“The challenging question around large numbers of micro grids etc is how you make the business work. The technology is capable of doing it, but the model is no there.” And the incumbent fossil fuel generators are fighting hard against any rule changes that could accelerate that shift.

Tom Quinn, the head of the Future Business Council, says what happened in South Australia, where the whole grid shut down, as it was designed to do, is not acceptable. There are alternatives.

“Mega storms like that are becoming the new normal under climate change. Shutting down the entire grid is a not a plan for the future. We need urgent investment in a grid that is capable of withstanding increasing extreme weather whether that’s storms, floods or bushfires.”

And that means being smart about the technology we use, and fast-tracking plans for a smart and resilient power grid that’s able to withstand the impacts of a changing climate and that is built for the reality of a 100 per cent renewable future.

The Future Business Council wants state and federal government to invest in a diversified grid (rather than loading up with more gas generators), providing more incentives for battery storage, use a mix of renewable energy and storage to improve localised grid resilience, and increase investment in diversified mix of renewables.

It also wants more interconnections between  South Australia and Victoria, and a direct connection between South Australia and New South Wales, to improve grid resilience. Others even suggest a link between South Australia and Queensland. You can imagine a new set of big power lines linking discreet smaller grids and micro grids with built in resilience.

The events of the past year in South Australia could be a watershed in Australia’s energy markets. Not in the way that the fossil fuel lobby might want to imagine – they have been hoping and praying for a sequence of high price and blackout events so that they can throw their nonsense at renewables and put a “go slow” on the energy transition.

But the more dramatic the event, the more deeply we need to think about it. Australia has a simple choice – it is not just about coal and gas versus renewables, as the politicians currently want to put it – it’s about moving on from a grid from yesteryear and make it fit for the future.

The events of the last few months should be a wake-up call, as Turnbull likes to describe it, not of the threat of renewable energy, but of the dangers of business as usual and sticking with a dumb grid, dumb rules and dumb business models.

The market operator did a remarkable job restoring power so quickly in the circumstances, but Australia needs to move on. And that is about embracing new technologies, wind and solar and various forms of storage – 15 minutes of battery storage may have been enough to avert, or at least minimise, this week’s disaster – and smart software, as well new business models and smart thinking about the future – that can bring this altogether. But let’s not hold our breath.  

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  • disqus_9gWXa5XKeC

    Paragraph 6 should read “addiction” not “addition” 🙂

  • Ian Cutten

    Integrating ‘intermittent’ energy into our national electricity system is a concern. We need to ensure, as best we can, that our developing renewable energy system does not repeat a similar process to that of the development of the railway system – starting out with State based systems each with different gauges and then an expensive and protracted conversion to a ‘standard’ gauge. Thus the issues being raised by the PM are highly relevant.

    While the circumstances in which the matter has been raised are deplorable and the PM has shown little empathy for the South Australians afflicted by the severe weather conditions experienced in the last couple of days, there is an opportunity to take him at his word about ‘getting away from ideology’ and appeal to his ‘innovative and jobs’ mantra. We need to seize the moment for the advancement of renewable energy in Australia.

    For example an innovation would be to deliberately build a number of smallish ‘2-dam systems’, ideally located close by concentrations of wind farms, where ‘intermittent’ wind (and solar) can be converted into base load hydro power and at the same time provide investment and jobs. This should require little addition or adjustment to the Coalitions existing ‘new dams’ policy.

    • Kenshō

      Diversifying generation is a great benefit not a concern, especially as any generator can have storage added. The only concern is the overly centralised configuration of networks, leading to a state in darkness, falling water reservoirs, and houses with no NBN or landline and failing mobile phone towers.

    • Mark Roest

      You could also write the word ‘dam’, and paint a picture of one, on the front-of-the-meter battery arrays, and virtually utility-scale behind-the-meter battery aggregations that you start deploying, after the design concept is discovered and worked out that frees you from being a captive of the grid. Then post pictures of those wherever the Coalition shows up, as well as wherever voters gather. Make them a meme with a political impact like throwing water on the Wicked Witch of the West.
      Why batteries? Because they will be plunging to $100/kWh, and surging in performance to 400 Wh/kg, within 2+ years as stated above, and any dam that does not fit Aussie Permaculture principles is likely to be taking out parts of ecosystems, and cost much more in capital expense to boot.

  • Kenshō

    I’d feel beaten down by plutocracy and hegemony except small local solutions are now available. These will bring decreasing costs and increasing load defection bringing further decreasing costs and increasing load defection, leading to new business models and cooperative networks.

  • Geoff

    The best way to stabilise the grid is to not have one at all. Multijunction solar cells will come down in price eventually including the price of battery storage. When that happens and battery storage would have also increased at this stage, then there is no reason to have a grid connection. Sure have a generator for backup but that should be it. Also being part of a virtual power grid per suburb say would help in this also. Poles and wires really aren’t necessary anymore…

    • Carl Raymond S

      Disagree. Storage is expensive. It’s cheaper to generate a renewable kWh than to store it. A grid means less storage is required, both because you can access over-generation from regions that are blessed at that moment with more sun/wind and use the storage of other zones.
      Without a grid, you store what you might possibly need, rather than what you routinely need – a massive difference. Granny doesn’t want to pay for enough storage to cope with the once/twice a year influx of grandchildren.
      On a wide spanning grid, we may find in time that the only backup required for wind is other wind. I’ve never seen a real weather map of Australia with no isobars.

  • Cooma Doug

    Please have a look at Media Watch next Monday on the ABC.
    The Uhlmann presentation on the blackout on Thursday night was classic bad bad jounalism for me. Every sentence made me laugh.
    Fortunately he was sufficiently incompetent to guarantee it will go down in the “classic crap” file.

    • john

      Monday Media Watch that will be interesting if they can get their head about the subject remember they are journalists who do not have a clue about technology.
      I would not be in the slightest surprised if it passes over their heads.

  • Mark Roest

    Re “Evergen, that uses CSIRO technology to provide an “energy services” company that provides solar and storage to consumers” — it could be, if coupled with battery storage that will be here within two-plus years at around $100/kWh and over 400 Wh/kg, the secret to making a very profitable end-run around both the current grid and the regulations that hold up the fossil fuel / central power model.
    The silver lining of the cloud may be that their extreme intransigence, from the financial and psychic chains that bind them to the will of the coal companies, will force the good side to do a total, whole systems look at how to operate profitably with the slimmest of connections to the grid, even in its geographic and political midst. In other words, design a well-controlled utility death spiral path, that is immune to any regulations that the Dark Side is capable of passing and enforcing against the will of the States and the green industry alliance — that makes physical and tactical end runs around their universe.
    Once that takes effect, also have business systems in place to offer a soft landing and merging with the highway traffic to those left behind on the grid, without solar, when the Dark Side ratchets up their bills to keep its gold-plating intact (both grid infrastructure and their salaries and perks). Once your ability to do that is established, you might be able to effect wholesale management replacement, or company stock collapse and sale of assets (intact) to microgrid alliances. After all, doesn’t the Dark Side espouse competition and creative destruction (of others)?
    And if you can pull even the first phase of that off in Australia, then the lessons learned and the technology developed will also apply, in various ways, in markets around the world.

    • Kenshō

      I agree with the general wholistic picture you’ve painted. A few minor points:
      a) batteries coming down in price may not be an outright winner if networks counter with the introduction of residential demand charges, raising commercial demand charges and raising fixed supply charges,
      b) we need to remember they have been largely in control with website’s like this expressing a minority view, when popular voter understanding and outrage is probably necessary to make national politicians and regulators more understanding.
      In summary, this is a journey of collective awareness and a “soft landing” seems doubtful.

  • Cooma Doug

    Over the last few years when on shift I used to think ” how mad are we?”
    Regularly there would be a 400 or 500 MW fossil fuel gen trip.

    The frequency would fall to 49.2 hz or there abouts. So the response in 2016 is same as 1936. We ram the energy onto the grid to fix the problem and we dont care or know if the energy is actually needed.
    As well as this stange behaviour, we respond this way often with adjustment of fossil fuel generators in a amazingly bad inefficient manner.
    Every person in the industry knows that we could now intelligently and in milli second time remove load to match the gen loss. Done in such a knowing and market supported way that the stability would restore immediately at 100% efficiency and none of the respondents would be inconvenianced and actually be rewarded.
    This would reduce significantly the risk of major outages and the more renewable energy on the system the smaller the required response.
    This no brainer will not happen if the attitude and apparent understanding of the government remains as it is today. We will stick with the 1936 pencil and paper ram it down the line design.

    • Peter Grant

      Too right! 1930’s propaganda is pretty much the tone of Uhlmann’s and Fizzer’s contribution. It is really shameful of the media to give their nonsense so much unchallenged air time.

    • Kenshō

      There would be smart software needed at both the network and customer side. The network would need to keep track of power the customer supplies in demand spikes (attracting a decent export rate) and the customers inverter/charger would need to be programmed to respond to small frequency drops (0.5Hz?). Additionally, if there were a major network failure, precipitating an extraordinary and persistent spike in demand reoccurring millisecond after millisecond, there would need to be a limit on the exports not lowering the customer’s battery below a pre-agreed DOD suiting the customers property needs and the battery chemistry.

      • Cooma Doug

        Its is a bit easier then you might think when we measure frequency on the load side.
        In 1972 I was driving, as an 18 year old apprentice, to the Carlingford control centre with one of the system control managers.
        We were talking about system stability. I asked him the following question.
        Why do we bother to push the same ammount of energy back to fix it? Why dont we adjust the load instead? Surely we could seitch off much more then 500 or 600 MW at any time.

        He then went on to talk about load shedding and how we respond by increasing the loading of existing generation plant and then shedding selected load if the problem gets worse.

        Again I asked why we didnt switch in the homes immediately when the frequency falls? He said we couldnt. We dont have the technology to do so.

        With that response, my 16 year old friend sitting in the back said, why dont we get the ABC to transmit load adjustment signal to thr homes and then switch off home selected loads that do not disrupt the home?

        The response was Great question.
        That young man went on to be CEO of a major company.

        The question is still relevant but would not need the ABC or an effective NBN.. Just a frequency meter at home. The response within a few milli seconds would be 100% clean, efficient and effective response. Then an NBN response some time later to signal all clear.

        This process naturally would work better in cases of high frequency excursions. This is a rarer event but load side response again would be quicker and could better coordinate shutting down of generation should the problem persist.

        Naturally there are problems with this rough outline. But not as many as caused by the ” ram the energy down the line needed or not respose we have now.”

        • Charles

          Interesting comment – that’s very much how it works in Tasmania.
          The nature of Hydro – the majority of our generation – is that rather than individual large stations, we have many (about 30) small power stations scattered around the state. Some only a couple of MW of generating capacity, most in the 30-90 MW range, and a few large ones, topping out at 430MW. Basslink can import about 400MW at once. The wind farms are (on average) not supplying more than around 100MW each.
          Our load profile is unusual in that about 4 major industrial customers (smelters, etc) comprise half our load.
          In the event that a dam or a transmission line to a dam goes offline, it’s only going to affect a small amount of our supply.
          The solution to this is that the major industrials sense this and will automatically drop their demand to keep the frequency stable.
          The other benefit of hydro is that other dams can ramp up supply within 60-90 seconds, so after a couple of minutes the industrial’s load and network stability is back to normal.

        • Kenshō

          It’s not necessary to have demand response because we will be getting rid of large generators with inertia. Batteries feeding inverters ramp up and down in milliseconds and hydro 60-90 seconds. Supply and demand will already be matched within milliseconds to seconds.

    • aussiearnie

      Problem is that the NEM does not recognise load shedding the same way it does peak generation. The solutions are already available. They are used in New Zealand and WA, as well as overseas of course.

  • Geoff

    CRIKEY. South Australia surely has the dumbest and most expensive Grid in Australia….. And possibly the world.
    Just observe what they have and do the opposite.
    Maybe if SA installed one of the hundreds of advanced coal generation plants the Chinese are building all over the world……….?

    • Peter F

      Sorry but China now has 100’s of coal powered power stations that are losing money and dozens more that are under construction to make power they don’t need, sounds like a good plan to me

    • john

      Perhaps you do not know China is building the largest 2GW solar station in the world just one of the many they are putting into the system.
      China Minsheng New Energy Investment Co., is developing a 2 GW solar farm in the Ningxia region which will be made up of some 6 million solar panels.
      They have put a tax on imported coal.
      Perhaps time to get up to speed old mate.

  • MaxG

    Just to repeat myself and the risk of being boring: the Australian people are complicit in this nonsense by having voted these clowns into power. It is not about Turnbull; it is about the Australian Public, being too lazy, wilfully ignorant and stupid to make even the tiniest effort to understand what is going on.

    • riley222

      Don’t fret MaxG, the Libs just scraped back with Turnbull promising a renaissance in renewable energy thinking.
      I can’t believe he would make the statements he did re South Australia’s outage. My only hope now is that an election is forced soon. We need a real change in thinking, not weasel words.

      • Phil

        Max i agree with this and define it as Darwins theory based on the voters actions.

        So now i sit back and watch what i call the “Bloodsports” in the arena where the consumers are slaughtered by the predators.

        The Government of the Day allows “Caesar like” full control by the energy providers where either a thumbs up or thumbs down decides on whether the consumer lives or dies

        The next big bloodsport event will be the NSW one in January where the large solar Feed in tariffs are lost and TOU smart metering is Opt out only if you change to Net metering.

        So the working families not home during solar hours , or without batteries, get a double whammy of low FIT and high TOU consumption of up to 50c a kwh

  • Phil

    Off grid fast becoming THE smarter choice if you are able to do it

    Less cost , more reliability , free from politics , much less Co2 and free from slovenly dressed and unbranded meter reader subcontractors entering your property who could be anyone.

    And no rigid Poles or Wires for people to seriously injure any that collide with them or contact the wires.

    Street Lighting and traffic lights could be fully off grid with “breakaway” safer poles.

  • Kenshō

    Linesman and engineers, with Eyre Peninsula, is it possible to install some utility level battery storage at their major substation that steps down from the HV power lines? Could act as spinning reserve to get a diesel generator online or install something like the Lyon PV/storage projects they wish to install around the country. I heard Jay Weathering is heading out there due to the relative isolation and time needed to get power re-established. Would the proposed solar tower with molten salt storage help? Anything to give emergency crews time to respond without people running out of water, food, communications.

  • Kenshō

    What’s going to happen next is FF vested interests will argue for more cash cow centralised generation, when there needs to be prudent distributed RE storage, targeted to vulnerable areas, sized to the specific population and able to be islanded when challenges with wind, flood and fire happen again.

  • Sou from Bundanga

    “Power corrupts”. (Was it the carrot or the stick?)

  • Brunel

    I object to dumbed down degrees too.

    I bet reusable rockets were developed by people who are genuinely skilled and not those with dumbed down degrees that AUS now prints.

  • Kenshō

    “It (the Future Business Council) also wants more interconnections between South Australia and Victoria, and a direct connection between South Australia and New South Wales, to improve grid resilience.”

    This is more of the centralised paradigm. It’s not a targeted and cost effective response for implementing a smart grid or offsetting damage from superstorms. This just gives networks another license to print money. RE/storage targeted to vulnerable population groups is the most cost effective strategy. There needs to be more resources put into local areas being resilient in superstorms than erecting more HV powerlines.