S.A. blackout underlines need for smarter, quicker grid, says AEMO | RenewEconomy

S.A. blackout underlines need for smarter, quicker grid, says AEMO

Final report by AEMO into S.A. blackout underlines need for major system overhaul, with market operator saying new, faster technologies like battery storage, demand management, wind and solar need to be adopted. It says having coal generator would have made no difference.


The Australian Energy Market Operator says its investigations into the dramatic “system black” event last September in South Australia underline the need to for an overhaul of the energy market, and to embrace new fast response technologies, rather than relying on old “synchronous” coal and gas plant.

The fourth and final report into the state-wide blackout – which has sparked a huge political fight over the future of wind and solar generation in Australia, and scare campaigns about the impacts of more coal plant closures – was released on Tuesday.


It sheds little new light on the events that had not already been reported in the three previous reports, but rather than calling for a halt in what many describe as the inevitable energy transition, it underlines the need to embrace it.

This will be surely be one of the major initiatives from the newly installed CEO Audrey Zibelman, who was most recently the head of New York state’s ambitious “Reform the Energy Vision” program and its target of reaching 50 per cent renewables by 2030.

Indeed Zibelman, in her first public comments since taking her new role on March 20, underlined the urgency of change, and talked of the need of a “flexible network” that can respond in “real time and truly real time.”

“That is going to need a different approach,” she said. “Australia is leading the world …. ” She said the focus would be on better data and working on the “demand” side of the load. But because of the rapid pace of technological change “we don’t have multiple years any more” to get systems right.

The AEMO report into the system black acknowledged that there is now a need to source additional security from new technologies – such as storage and demand response, along with large-scale solar, wind farms, and household solar and storage – rather than relying on traditional coal and gas plants.

“As the generation mix continues to change across the NEM, it is no longer appropriate to rely solely on synchronous generators to provide essential non-energy system services (such as voltage control, frequency control, inertia, and system strength),” the report says.

“Instead, additional means of procuring these services must be considered, from non-synchronous generators (where it is technically feasible), or from network or non-network services (such as demand response and synchronous condensers). “

One of the big lessons of the event and subsequent reports is the need for a grid that is “smarter” and responds quicker to unforeseen events, and also for AEMO to better understand the performance characteristics of the plant at its disposal.

While the NEM has successfully dispatched and co-optimised markets for energy and ancillary services for many years, the current mechanisms may not deliver the services required for the future as traditional providers of synchronous generation retire,” it says.

Instead, it will need to turn to new sources such as utility-scale solar PV, wind farms, batteries, “and importantly” distributed generation such as rooftop solar and battery storage installed “behind the meter” in customer premises.

AGL VPP _ One of the first solar systems as part of the Virtual Power Plant

This refers to the development not just of large-scale storage linked with wind and solar farms, but also to the development of “virtual power plants” of residential solar and battery storage, the likes of which are being tested by AGL, SA Power Networks and others.

“Like all technology development, there is a need to support early deployment to ensure potentially attractive solutions can be both technically and commercially deployed in the NEM.”

Because of this, AEMO is looking to work with ARENA for more “proof of concepts” projects, although it has also argued in its submission to the Finkel Review for greater power over minor rule changes to be able to accommodate new technologies.

Already, the South Australian and Victorian governments have taken the initiative by announcing two of the biggest battery storage tenders in the world, both of around 100MW, in coming weeks and months.

AEMO also wants to look at fast frequency response from batteries and other storage technologies, inverter connected generators (wind and solar farms), DC interconnectors, supercapacitors and “improved”traditional sources such as flyweels and synchronous condensors.

Most mainstream media – and particularly the ABC and Murdoch media – used the report to once again blame wind energy for the blackout, and pursued that line in a later press conference.

But AEMO chairman Tony Marxsen said it was not about wind or any other technologies. Blackouts had been caused by settings on coal plants more than a decade ago, by gas plants (including one big near miss on March 3, and by wind farms.”

All caused massive disruption. They had very little to do with type of generation. It is not about renewables,” he said.

Pressed on whether  having a coal generator in the system would have made a different, he said, no “there are too many variables” and pointed to past blackouts caused by the failure of the ageing Northern generator that is no longer in service.

AEMO’s hunger for “good data” is not just limited to new wind and solar farms and behind the meter solar and battery storage. It has admitted – although it doesn’t make much of the issue in this 260-page report – that some legacy coal and gas generators have no performance standards, and that it may not even know what their control settings are.

AEMO also didn’t know about the software settings on fault ride through mechanisms on wind farms. While the nature of wind farms (their variability) was not an issue and the wind turbines “successfully rode through grid disturbances”, it was the control settings that its says were found to have led to the system black.

Those settings have since been adjusted, and the problem fixed, and means such an event will not be repeated, as was highlighted when the state’s two biggest gas generators unexpectedly tripped in early February. Despite the immediate loss of 600MW of generation, the grid held stable.

But the report also highlights that the big gas generators were not able to react quickly enough to the dramatic events that followed the collapse of three main transmission lines, because they needed up to six seconds to respond to changes in system frequency. By that time, it was too late

“The rapid decline in system frequency following loss of the Heywood Interconnector did not allow time for more substantial governor response from these units, as it can take up to six seconds for these generating units to increase their active power output when they participate in the contingency FCAS market.”

The issue around governor responses has been highlighted by several new reports submitted to the Finkel Review. Battery storage can provide a response in milliseconds and some say that installations of sufficient size may have helped avert the disastrous events of last September.

The issue goes further than that, though. In its own submission to Finkel, AEMO admits that many of the legacy coal and gas generators have no performance standards, and it may not even know what their control settings are.

This is underlining a push for a fact-finding mission, in the form of updating generation plant requirements, and also a push for more controls and measures across a range of issues.

AEMO has released a total of 19 recommendations, including eight that are new. Three key recommendations, including the change of the ride-through settings on wind farms, have already been implemented.

AEMO is also reviewing its own response to weather forecasts, admitting that a weather update provided on September 28 did not trigger a reassessment of power system contingencies.

It admits this is a “weakness” although it insists it still would not have prompted any further precautionary action – such as reducing flows on the interconnector or calling for more local back-up.

This was also a weakness highlighted in the recent heat-wave in South Australia, when it failed to anticipate high temperatures that led to a surge in demand and a shortfall in supply, leading to yet more rolling blackouts, more political controversy, and the push by the state government to announce its own energy plan, including its own measures to ensure system security by ensuring new technologies such as storage were introduced, and its own back up generation installed.

Indeed, AGL – the owner of the state’s biggest gas generator and many wind farms – said that its wind assets performed as expected and to their “generator performance standards and their licensing requirements.”

But it also questioned the way that AEMO had set up the network on the day – when it chose not to ramp down the flow of the inter-connector or commission additional back-up within the state.

“For example, why was there full reliance on the inter-connector and wind?” AGL said, before noting recommendations that had since been made that are directed at ensuring system strength and stability in circumstances where the interconnect may trip or fail.

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  1. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    One counselling framework I’ve studied is called gestalt. In this model the group facilitator goes with the prevailing present “energy” in the room. Personally I think all heads are turned to the borderlining cat 5 cyclone and it’s effect on power systems etc. In contrast AEMO rules could be overlooked at present. I guess it depends on the target group renew economy is focused upon eg the national discussion or a group of specialists in market rules.

  2. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    Great article highlighting how the shift to distributed generation and storage creates more resilient power systems. Great timing with Audrey Zilbelman’s arrival and cyclone Debbie will speed the process along, with Audrey’s experience with New York’s hurricane Sandy.

    • john 4 years ago

      Site to find outages in the Ergon system.

      From Bowen to Mackay a lot of outages.
      There are large generator sets stored in the area waiting for the winds to abate to be deployed where they can be used.

      • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

        I guess that’s for emergency response crews and crucial community infrastructure. Be supportive and encouraging if Audrey Zilbelman could give us updates on how the infrastructure is going and how we will be moving into a greater community resilience in the future of our grid/s.

        • FeFiFoFum 4 years ago

          It will mainly be distribution network equipment that has failed.
          Thats Ergon/Energex’s responsibility, not the AEMO.

          Audrey has nothing to do with this and it would be weird if she did turn up ?

          The prime minister and Anna turning up however would make more sense.

          • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

            Yes Ergon currently have 113 outages in the area. I think the problem is the policy workers at all levels aren’t seeing the challenges on the ground and for them it’s all rather “academic” or politicised.

  3. Alan S 4 years ago

    Not a good response from SA’s prized ‘synchronous’ generators with Port Lincoln (diesel) and Quarantine Station (gas) failing to provide backup. However we all know it’s ultimately wind’s fault – it blew the pylons down.

  4. Rod 4 years ago

    Only read the exec summary and recommendations so far but all up a pretty positive step for RE
    Not taking any responsibility though and while not blaming wind there is still just enough doubt there.
    This sub heading in the local Murdoch rag:
    “A LOSS of power from wind farms and tripping of the interconnector to
    Victoria combined to collapse the stability of SA’s network and deliver
    the statewide blackout, a new report has found. ”


  5. Ian Mclaughlin 4 years ago

    The ABC are at it again on the midday news on News 24 and ABC Channel 2 they reported on this report BUT the impression they gave was that it was this Wind Farm setting that CAUSED the blackout and no mention of it having been fixed and then stopping what would have been a blackout later. Angry!!

    • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

      Won’t happen with Cyclone Debbie…

    • Ian Porter 4 years ago

      Check out The Australian headline “‘Wind farms key’ to SA blackouts”. Yet the devil is in the details. Drilling down into the facts – some are conveniently left out and you learn that ‘ride-through settings’ are blamed. I find this even astonishing since settings are one thing, but if the transmission lines providing capacity for the wind farm generation are knocked out, what are control settings going to achieve to maintain reliability.

  6. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    Shorten on Cyclone Debbie
    Opposition Leader Bill Shorten also addressed Parliament a little while ago:

    If I may briefly associate the Opposition with the Government’s remarks. Right now, the Prime Minister’s words may not be able to be heard by the people in the brunt of the storm, there’s people at home without power, perhaps, people in shelters trying to ensure their families are save. Perhaps the only thing they can hear is cyclonic winds. It must be very harrowing for the people going through this. We’re very fortunate to have the nurses and the doctors serving in the wards, the emergency services. I think that all Australians are thinking, hoping and praying for the best possible outcomes for the people caught up in this terrible storm.

  7. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    Weakness in centralised distribution:

    “At midday, Ergon Energy was reporting more than 30,000 people were without power in Airlie Beach, Proserpine, Bowen, Mackay and Cannonvale.”

    • Tom 4 years ago

      Centralised distribution and bad weather – Snowy Pump Hydro Mk 2 comes to mind.

      • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

        Yes even an operating snowy 2, wouldn’t help the thousands in queensland without power.

        • Tom 4 years ago

          It wouldn’t help millions of Australians either when the transmission lines to 4000MW of power supply gets ripped apart in one of the Great Dividing Range blizzards.

          • Ian 4 years ago

            I didn’t realise that SA renewable energy was that powerful. Wow!

          • Tom 4 years ago

            4000MW is what would be going in & out of Snowy Mk 2 if built as proposed – not SA, although I guess on a windy and sunny day in SA power would flow through the interconnectors all the way up the the Snowy for pumping & storage.

            I actually underestimated – 4000MW could flow into the pumps, but 6000MW could potentially flow out of the Snowy in “peak” events – when Murray 1&2, as well as Tumut 1, 2, &3, plus the proposed new generators are all turned on. Murray 1&2 would not be reversible – that water would go to Lake Hume.

            My point is – if Snowy Mk 2 gets built, there will be 6000MW of peaking capacity all coming out of the one spot – and a notoriously windy, land-slippy, floody, blizzardy spot at that. It would be a very centralised, “all eggs in one basket” peaker for SE Australia.

          • Ian 4 years ago

            Tom, that was sarcasm.

          • Tom 4 years ago

            Sorry. Sarcasm detector’s a bit dodgy. Got me a beauty – well done.

  8. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    Ergon Energy said by 2:00pm there were more than 48,000 people without power in Airlie Beach, Proserpine, Bowen, Mackay and Cannonvale.

  9. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    “Police commissioner Ian Stewart said a number of communities had been cut off from communication and it wasn’t known how badly they have been hit.”

    For example, if power goes down, our NBN routers are powered by the mains, so people lose their communications from landline, computers and phone battery inevitably runs flat.

    • Alan S 4 years ago

      Don’t mobile repeaters also lose their power? It’s not like the old days when there was a roomful of 48 V lead acid batteries at every exchange.

      • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

        I worked with diverse communications gear in cambodia and it all did, from satellite earth stations, line of sight repeater stations, telephone exchanges, various scale radio base stations all tended too, today I don’t know. Important stuff also had generator backup. That was testra stuff because they got the contract for the UN there. I had to carry radio masts, did holes, carry weapon, ammunition, provide their security, learn basics of local language, help with installs or staff their stuff when they weren’t around and get paid half what they did which was still good.

        • Alan S 4 years ago

          I’ll just wait for the next blackout and check. Should be one along soon.

      • Michael Murray 4 years ago

        Mobile phone towers are supposed to have backup batteries. I think at the time of the blackout people talked about maybe 4 hours depending on usage and age of batteries etc. There is an SA government report into the response to the emergency here


    • Darren 4 years ago

      depends on what type of NBN you have.
      FTTN works like the old phone lines did, powered at the node.
      FTTP is passive, so requires power at the end point (thats why you have ups’s provided now).
      As long as you have power at the end point, you should have comms.
      If the batteries at the nodes die for FTTN users, well, SOL.

    • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

      NBN’s information on what happens in a blackout for Fibre To The Premises (FTTP) and Fibre To The Node (FTTN):


  10. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    With Cyclone Debbie, there were tips posted on how to make a mobile phone battery last longer. We also saw in the SA system black a person with a Tesla Powerwall had power for a few hours, though drained their battery to the point the inverter’s AC didn’t work, though then because the DC isn’t accessible, it can’t even charge a phone. Engineers just don’t seem to care about standardizing voltages and making the DC available.

    • Alan S 4 years ago

      For around $300 you can make your own solar-regulator-battery-inverter, 240 V, 1000 W, 400 Wh backup supply.

      • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

        I’ve got a similar setup in my campervan. It has a 180W panel going into a solar regulator then the 100Ah deep cycle battery. Off that is a little 80L fridge, LED lights, some DC sockets and USB sockets and a tiny LCD volt meter. There’s a couple hundred watt inverter for computer, bar mixer and food processor. Works well. Most of this stuff uses little power as it’s either low power or short time intervals. The fridge uses by far the most power, followed by the laptop. So it doesn’t take much to have a bit of emergency backup. People could even use the cranking battery of their car to charge their phone in an emergency, if they can easily access it. It’s possible to get 12V DC chargers for most computers.

    • Brunel 4 years ago

      I totally agree that new houses should be required to have a few USB-A power outlets.

      And there should be an extra tax on every gadget that cannot be recharged using USB.

      Save copper! My electric toothbrush, beard trimmer, torch, vacuum cleaner, cordless phone, and perhaps skateboard cannot be recharged using USB!

  11. Cooma Doug 4 years ago

    I would like to thank you for the depth and detail in this article. I have been in the middle of a few major events that resulted in major change. The retrospective research that went on was business as normal.

    Today we have crazy stuff hitting the news and outrageous assumptions circling. But your articles present a reasonable look that is respectful of those in the hot seat. This is much appreciated.

    What I want to see from the planners is a bit of detail about the rapid load side and grid battery storage response realities. I dont want to be stunned by Elon Musk landing via hydrogen helicopter explaining what we dhould already be doing.

    What would be great if he flew to the ANU to ask some of our government funded nerds how we do it so well.

  12. Hermann 4 years ago

    Before the obsession with wind and solar started, the power grid worked just fine. All the technologies in the world cannot make up for loss of power due to lack of wind during the night or on a cloudy day.

    Now for your edification have a look how the Swiss power grid works. Almost 40% generation by nuclear power and the bulk of the reminder by hydro power. Wind power accounts for 0.1% and non-hydro renewable about 3.4% in total.

    The large amount of hydro is due to the topography where wind power can only be used in suitable areas.

    In any event note the very high amount of inertia supplied by hydro and nuclear compared with intermittentencies of wind and solar. The Swiss population voted against the shutting down of nuclear power due to concerns about grid stability and increased energy dependency.


    • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

      Your ideologically driven posts are a risk to community safety. Clearly it’s better for the community to have some local power, and in emergencies every little bit helps. Renewables are clearly complimentary and only the most radicalised extremist view would suggest otherwise. Australia is unique in its low population density and has floods, fires, wind damage, lightning and cyclones.

      • Ian Porter 4 years ago

        RE is ‘complimentary’ at the moment, but that is not where its headed. Deep RE penetration is on it’s way and as a consequence, grid management, control and regulation will need to change with it. Decentralisation of power generation will address much of the chaos cited in your last sentence.

    • Brian Tehan 4 years ago

      No, there were outages long before wind and solar. However, I would say that the power grid was a bit more reliable before it was privatised. Before then, generators were turned on when they were needed, not just when the owners figured there was enough profit.
      Australia is nothing like Switzerland.

      • Hermann 4 years ago

        Before that generators ran 24/7.

        Of course Australia is nothing like Switzerland. Switzerland is ruled by it people via direct democracy, not by irresponsible and ideologically driven second rate career politicians that get voted every 3 or 4 years with us citizens having no say in between!

        And that is why Switzerland prospers despite having no or very little natural resources. Also, power generation and distribution has always been in private hands there, just like in most European countries as well as the USA!

  13. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    “The ABC’s Josh Bavas is in Bowen where he says cyclonic conditions have continued for some 10 hours.”

    “It has been 24 hours since thousands of residents right across this region were told to get inside.”

    “Tonight in Bowen, the power is still out, phone lines and towers are still out. The [weather] radar tower in Bowen was taken out as well. It is simply too early to understand the magnitude of what has happened here.”

    • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

      So people are back to AM and FM radio with good old fashion batteries from the supermarket.

      • john 4 years ago

        The place for news has been the local ABC radio, who often grew up in the area the city based ones especially TV, who fly in do not have a clue.
        For instance a slow moving cyclone, was the statement, well with an eye 50 km across moving at 10 kph or so it does take a long time to cross a point, let alone the size of the outer fringe of the system this is a large and powerful system.

        • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

          Yes with Ergon currently having 119 outages over a widish area with 59,932 properties at this moment, who knows how long they will take to restore.

          • Darren 4 years ago

            when we went through yasi it was roughly anywhere between 7 days – 14 days depending where you were before you got power back.

            We were still running a generator while the house over the back had power. They didnt want to hear it anymore so they offered us an extension cable 🙂

  14. Hermann 4 years ago

    Why doesn’t SA go and have a good look around places with stable power grids. Why this obsession with being right and wasting more public money on a questionable solution. Battery power which from what I have heard is supposed to last for 1 hour?

    Well, it does allow time to look for your candles…

    • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

      You haven’t got battery power. Your hypothesising. I have and it lasts as long as I wish it too depending upon how I choose to use it. It’s 9.6kWh, ten years floating design life and each of four batteries supplies up to 2000A. I’m happy and I’m watching even better cheaper batteries arrive every week.

      • Hermann 4 years ago

        Me hypothesizing? Really?
        “The South Australia battery storage tender is looking for only one hour of battery storage…”

        • humanitarian solar 4 years ago

          Until you get your own battery storage, you will be “hypothesising” about its meaning by “thinking” about something which exists completely in the “abstract” realm for you, trying to understand “universals” and the application of storage in a grid, when you have yet to implement something on the smallest scale, by taking responsibility for your own household. So yes the functionality of battery storage in a grid, and it’s multiple value streams for a grid, is likely to be lost to you. Especially when you are so determined to be biased and against particular new technologies.

          • Hermann 4 years ago

            I was talking about battery power as backup for the grid, not for the home. Still, even for private use, a petrol generator would be far more cost effective unless you live off the grid. In that case battery backup makes real sense. The issue is costs. I mean serious, how far can we allow power prices to surge before the country has been smashed by the green ideology?

            SA is pointing to things to come for the rest of the country! We here in WA now have a Labor government also and they have already announced that our power could increase by 7% each year for at least the next 3 years!

            Why do we have to put up with this in our energy rich country. It is an absolute disgrace! But that is the result of the Great Green Wrecking Ball.

            And is it the poor that will suffer the most!

          • nakedChimp 4 years ago

            Yeah, from more extreme weather and loss of jobs due to automation..
            What else is new?

            And the 1hour backup for the SA grid is just a start.
            It will allow them to bring the ff/bio stuff online.
            At some point they will have much more RE storage (30 years into the future) they won’t need the FF backup anymore.

            You’re a real scaremonger.

    • humanitarian solar 4 years ago
    • Alan S 4 years ago

      We know what a stable power grid involves: Diversity of supplies and locations, alternative transmission paths, storage that’s strategically located and appropriately sized and a protection system that will shut down the susceptible area – not the whole state. Ideally this would be series of interconnected mini grids.

      The one hour storage is a minimum and tenders for more are coming in. It’s a start – or would you like them to ‘waste more money’ by buying in a 24 hour battery straight away?

  15. Hermann 4 years ago

    Just how long will this madness continue until people take to the streets?

  16. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    With Cyclone Debbie, downed power lines have to be cleared before power can be restored.

    And this is Deputy Commissioner Mike Wassing speaking earlier:

    At the same time, we will be doing a lot of work in terms of understanding the impact assessment of local infrastructure. We do know that there is obviously a lot of power outages. There will be a focus from the power companies to get power back on, but even that needs to be coordinated to make sure that we don’t put power on where there are still powerlines down, so there is a lot of work ahead of us.

  17. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    I think Cyclone Debbie has proven our emergency communications procedures in natural disasters are not very good at all. Ergon Energy have 109 outages where the eye of the cyclone crossed the mainland, another 26 in Townsville and more emerging as the weather system tracks towards the south of the state. With power down and unlikely to be fully restored for days, landline telephones, routers, computers can’t be used for communications. Emergency communications fall back on mobile phones, so people are given guidelines to make their phone battery last longer, though mobile phone towers have 4x hours of battery storage. After that, people are left to monitor the AM and FM radio in their area if they had time to buy supermarket batteries. In the midst of these outages with power and communications, emergency crews then go on their search and reconnaissance. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/6077c551d2a15c66b6a6ef48b3f17cda6b2fad222337a03c6d96aa7a2b1ed253.jpg

  18. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    Whitsunday Regional Mayor Andrew Wilcox “attempting” to communicate with the people:

    Bowen looks a bit like a war zone, but the good thing about it is there doesn’t seem to be a hell of a lot of structural damage. So there are a lot of trees down, lost a few awnings, signs blown over. Probably our biggest issue at this present point of time is the amount of power lines that are down and power lines covering the road. ***If anyone is getting this***, please stay inside, let the emergency crews do their work.

  19. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    Order of Power Restoration after Cyclone Debbie:

    “No set timeframe to restore power”

    “We restore power in a sequence to communities infrastructure, hospitals nursing homes, council sewerage and water-pumping facilities, shopping centres and small business.”

    “We do that purposely to get the community back to a degree or normality so you and I can go out and have a cup of coffee and have a break from the situation. So that’s what we do first. But to do that we have to restore the power in a very safe way, safe for our customers and safe for our staff and it’s really a matter of doing it power line by power line down individual streets.”

    “It could take a while. We’re really saying if people have access to a generator, probably go and get one now and if your neighbour has one, consider sharing it with your neighbours as well.”

  20. humanitarian solar 4 years ago

    A communications technician’s recommendations for power and communications in future natural disasters:

    A) transition to renewable energy microgrids nested in larger state grids,
    B) transition to local solar/storage for all important community infrastructure including a minimum of 8 hours of battery storage especially for mobile phone towers,
    C) initiate standards for home battery storage to have a provision for access to DC power, for charging communications equipment like mobile phones directly, in the event AC equipment has failed.

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