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S.A. blackout may lead to more batteries, and micro-grids

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Not everyone was going without power in the middle of the South Australia blackout on Wednesday. Those in off the grid remote areas, or simply off the grid in the big city, had everything working just fine.

“Well, it is nice to find out there’s a power outage as without the ABC we would would never know, but staying nice and warm and in for a night of TV,” said one South Australian resident as he read news reports of the blackout.

“One remembers the questions when we said we live off the grid – ‘do you live in a cave?’. Well, who’s living in a cold cave now?”

He wasn’t the only one enjoying the benefits of off-grid living or hybrid storage. Simon Hackett, the internet entrepreneur who now heads battery storage developers Redflow, says his family didn’t realise there was a blackout until an hour into the event.

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Hackett has two 10kWk ZCell Redflow zinc bromine batteries in his Adelaide home (pictured above). Normally they are charged by his 10kW solar array, but given the stormy conditions, Hackett decided on Wednesday afternoon to start charging the battery system at home on grid energy ‘just in case’.

“The Hackett household is happily up and running as usual – I had got about 50% (charge) into the house (batteries) before the power failed (while I was on a plane to Brisbane),” he told RenewEconomy.

Hackett house

“I landed (in Brisbane) to the news of a statewide blackout… except for my house, where the teenagers are continuing to charge their smartphones and play computer games perfectly happily. (That’s his house above pictured last night)

“It took them an hour to figure out the power had failed – they had to read about it on social media – they hadn’t noticed!”

Another enjoying power in the midst of the blackout was Brian Gillespie, from the Eden Valley, who used his recently installed Tesla Powerwall battery to deliver power until 3am on Thursday, when it finally ran out of power.

Installers Natural Solar said this 12 hours of backup power was enough for Gillespie to be able to use his lights and appliances normally whilst the state was suffering.

Like other major blackouts, such as the week-long shut-down in NSW last year, and the hour long outage that affected more than 130,000 customers in West Australia last week, the event in South Australia is likely to lead to more households and businesses looking at battery storage as a back-up to the grid, or even to go off grid altogether.

Natural Solar says it received a trebling of enquiries in the last 24 hours from potential customers in South Australia and in other states, each of them seeking more independence from the grid.

“In the past 24 hours there has been a 228% increase in enquiries from customers South Australia wanting to know more about battery power, with their locations directly correlating to more severely storm affected areas,” managing director Chris Williams said.

“This trend has swept across the country with a 148% increase on enquiries Australia wide.

It is difficult to estimate exactly how many homes and businesses in South Australia have battery storage, but it is likely to be a few hundred at most. Some battery storage systems are not designed to operate independently from the grid, so like the 200,000 households with rooftop solar in South Australia, they will lose power anyway.

Battery numbers are expected to increase dramatically in coming years, however, as the Adelaide council and the state government supporting the rollout of battery storage, AGL Energy is conducting a big trial of homes that will have their solar and battery storage linked as a “virtual power plant”, and the local network operator is also launching a major trial to see if battery storage can be used to reduce the cost of maintaining the network.

Last year, more than 200,000 homes in NSW were without power for more than a week after storm damage to the network. That inspired a lot of interest for battery storage, but also for generators, which can be incredibly dangerous to households and line operators if simply attached to the household network in the middle of an outage.

A similar reaction followed the major blackouts in New York in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy left thousands of households and businesses without power for weeks, and it has led to calls from environmental groups for Australian authorities to think more about climate resilience.

That hurricane caused people to consider battery storage and even micro grids and New York has since become a world leader in taking a new approach to energy security, and not relying on centralised power.

That might be the biggest lesson that comes out of the South Australia blackouts – that it does not really matter how you generate the electricity, a reliance on a centralised grid leaves consumers open to such massive disruptions.

“The opportunity to identify solutions to the real causes of South Australia’s statewide blackout, and thereby help Australia prepare for the future, will be lost if anti-renewable energy agendas are allowed to overtake a careful investigation of the situation, said The Climate Institute’s John Connor.

The TCI’s analysis of Australia’s electricity system in 2012 found Australia’s electricity system to be “underprepared” for the impacts of climate change. It assessed the risk of damage from more extreme wind intensity and rainfall as “high”.

“These events raise difficult questions for not only South Australia, but for the entire country. How should we ensure our 50,000 km of transmission lines are sufficiently resilient to increasingly extreme weather, and how can we do this without repeating the price shock that was caused by over-build of the distribution networks?” Connor said.

Networks in South Australia and other states have already highlighted the cost of maintaining elongated grids and their vulnerability in the face of storms and bushfires, which is why many are looking at micro-grids as a cheaper and more reliable alternative to centralised generation.

So, one of the knee-jerk reactions to South Australia may be to add impetus for a new interconnector. But that wouldn’t have solved the problem. But a series of micro-grids, and a new focus on battery storage and localised renewable energy, just might. But it will take some serious efforts from governments and regulators to shift the rules that currently favour a dependence on centralised fossil fuels.

   

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  • Ian Mclaughlin

    We managed quite well with our 530ltr fridge, lights, desktop computer and satellite TV all powered by solar panels and AGM batteries. We use these every day to maximise our feed in from a rooftop solar PV. Just a hobby which started with wondering what to do with our caravan solar system when at home.

  • Kenshō

    Those refusing to accept the paradigm shift will put their families through unnecessary hardship and potentially even risk their family’s lives and the lives of any livestock. My inverter/charger islands itself when frequency drops, thus helping the struggling grid as well as continuing to supply my properties power. I’ve found I needed to economise slightly in the two grid outages (6 hours each), though the three people here were very happy. Life goes on relatively unaffected. In fact one of the tenants helped fund the solar system then it got paid back with reduced rent. Both tenants could be said to be “green”. Tenants are happy to pay for a share of the solar system’s payback instead of paying a utility out there. What’s not to like? It seems like a luxury. Why would people passionately argue against it? We like it. If our City Council one day gets the ability to island itself from larger network dramas, all the better for it too.

  • Ian

    So very right Giles, and all very obvious in the light of these blackout crises. Localised and distributed battery storage is critical to maintaining energy security. Extreme weather events can affect transmission lines from centralised generators. Home battery storage is most likely to reduce in price and become more available. A third of South Australian homes already have Solar power and will not be afraid to invest in battery storage as the price becomes economical. Home battery storage to cover overnight energy requirements, using stored daytime solar, can be quite small- in the range of 7KWH. This quantity can very adequately cover prolonged periods of grid power outage using only the minimal and essential electric equipment in the house: Such as mobile phones, lighting , refrigerators and the occasional microwave use. The choice to island the home energy system will become more commonplace when designed for emergency use. Investment in the grid to prevent outages in extreme weather events may become stranded as householders choose to ensure reliability of electricity supply with their own battery systems.

    Islands of light during a blackout, like the Hackett Home, will serve as huge billboards for battery storage! ‘Viva la batterie!’

    • Ian

      The coalition’s fossil bishops, knights and rooks might win the centralised power generator moves but it will be the distributed solar and storage queens and pawns that will win the energy game!

  • Brunel

    There is not excuse for not installing batteries at traffic lights.

    Hospitals, airports, ports, train stations, schools, unis should be getting batteries instead of 12 submarines.

    • Mirosan

      Well I’m thinking that small vertical axis wind turbines 500w ish should mean that solar or wind (lets face it most large intersections are such wind tunnels) would be available in outages and the rest of the time they can grid feed via micro inverters or such.

  • John P

    I only get to learn about a grid drop-out when my neighbour rings to ask me to record the TV show he was watching when supply failed!

  • Alex Neill

    That’s great Simon Hackett that your kids could charge their phones at home whilst the rest of Adelaide was in darkness. Not everyone is a multi millionaire capable of putting in many tens of thousands of dollars on experimental battery systems into their houses. Electricity is and should still be considered an essential service with redundancy, no matter what the make up of the generational capability. it shouldn’t take home owners propping up an ailing system with their own money for it to work.

    • Mirosan

      Careful in criticising him as you may just have to knock on his door to get you out of the crapper. He should be praised as many may need his energy should it all end sadly.

    • Kenshō

      It’s a choice to look after our families or watch them suffer. People may even die. You may die. Safety is an issue. The grid may get worse before better. Water and food might get worse before better. Have you got a plan? I got my tenants to help fund a $7.6k solar/storage setup and did D.I.Y. It has got us through 2x 6 hour outages. I’m at the bottom of the food chain with adopting new technology though I’m relying upon people like Hackett.

    • Kenshō

      Who are you appealing to?

    • Kenshō

      All of us on this website have your concern. I was a soldier. There are ex-coal workers, utility level workers, analysts. We’ve all realised its just a private grid, there to make money, with extremely little accountability to the general public in terms of reliability and quality of service. What’s different about the SA crisis, is it is causing a level of community outrage, prompting politicians to look more deeply at the private grid/s that they are regulating. Understanding and workshopping that is the purpose of this website and why we’re all here. In terms of our families, none of us with the resources are waiting for a grid to become more reliable. If you can easily put a fews things in place for future power outages I’d go for it. Things will probably get worse before getting better.

    • amyinnh

      China is working on solar and with a billion population, they are more likely to come up with affordable.
      US/western industry are acclimated to cost-is-not-a-factor when they start.

  • Batteries are fine for residential power storage, but will they will not be useful for powering the industry sector for any length of time during a power failure as just experienced in South Australia.

    • no one is suggesting they do that. but they can be very useful to reinforce the strength of the grid and reduce the number of outages.

  • Robert Latchford

    The new Sigfox LPWAN solution from Thinxtra will help power companies identify outages across the network. Small sensors will relay which section of the grid has been affected by storms or tree-falls so that providers can repair the infrastructure quickly.

  • Mirosan

    Batteries are from an enviro point of view not so great but what could and should be done asap is gridfeed inverters being able to continue to power their house during day time. That way 1/3 of Adelaide would at least have had some power ie refrigeration, telephones and cooking. Maybe even a laptop. Instead we have inverters that have been dumbed down by the regulators. How about solar islanding is a base feature on every inverter sold? Now that would have been smart? Authorities must be asked for a please explain!