The Australian Energy Market Operator insists it was completely unaware about the nature of the fault ride-through settings on wind farms in Australia, even though the issue had been addressed and resolved in Europe a decade ago.
In the third, and most detailed, report into South Australia’s state-wide blackout in September, AEMO says it did not know that wind farms built in Australia had limits on their “fault-ride through” settings, which govern whether a wind farm can continue operating with multiple network faults of the type that occurred when tornadoes tore down three major transmission lines.
AEMO, it seems, did not even think to ask and has sought to blame the wind farm operators for not telling them. “We don’t know what to ask if we don’t know what they are not telling us,” chairman Tony Marxsen told the AFR.
But that appears a weak excuse in light of the interim report by chief scientist Alan Finkel on Friday, which noted that the issue around fault ride through mechanisms had been identified as a risk in Europe a decade ago by market operators, and then addressed and resolved. Discussions about this issue have been held in energy circles for years. But AEMO, it seems, didn’t bother to read the manual.
AEMO also defends its decision to take no preventative action in the face of increasingly stark warnings about that nature of the storm that was sweeping across South Australia. It had no stand-by back up in place and was running the interconnector at near capacity, meaning it had little room to move.
But it admits, amid unfortunate gobble-de-gook, that maybe it should change the way it approaches such decisions, and put in a “more rigorous process” to assess changes of forecasts.
“While analysis indicates such a reassessment would have been likely to confirm the earlier assessment, the failure to undertake a reassessment has highlighted a weakness in AEMO’s processes,” it says of its decision to ignore upgraded storm warnings.
Indeed, the 160-page report highlights numerous deficiencies in the way that the Australian electricity grid is run, and nearly all the recommendations made by AEMO have nothing to do with renewable energy at all, but look at adopting practices and technologies that are currently available and widely used overseas, but have been largely ignored in Australia.
It also points to a greater malaise about the management of the Australian electricity industry, over and above Finkel’s lament of the policy stagnation and confusion in his preliminary report released on Friday.
For years energy experts have been advocating rule changes and practices that would make the grid faster and more responsive and take advantage of the possibilities of new technologies. But with gob-smacking arrogance, the market authorities have kicked these proposals down the road, saying they are not urgent, or not needed.
The AEMO report – as did Finkel’s – highlights just how urgent these reforms and rule changes are. The grid, noted Finkel, is locked in the last century, overpriced and dumb. The transition is happening and it is happening rapidly. There is no going back. And market rules, policies and practices need rapid reform.
This blackout – even with the catastrophic weather events that ripped three transmission lines out of the ground – may have been avoided. But the response of the operators and rule makers and policy makers has been as it always has been; simply to try to shove more generation and more poles and wires into the market.
There are actually smarter, more efficient, more responsive and cheaper solutions. Marxsen, in a speech to CEDA in Melbourne on Monday, acknowledged this – but a man who just about remembers how the grid was 50 years ago, still seems convinced that new technologies are 20-30, or even 50 years away.
They are not, they are here now, as Ross Garnaut and others suggested during questions, and they demand a proper recognition in case Australia goes about building a whole bunch of expensive new infrastructure – as AEMO recommends – that may not be needed.
Interestingly, Marxsen drew a comparison to the nature of internal combustion engines on a car with the spinning turbines of a coal or gas station (they both spin at around 3,000RPM). But cars are changing too, and may soon make the ICE redundant. One fears that Marxsen might try to look for a fuel cap on an electric vehicle.
A typical example is brought up in the AEMO report. The load-shedding capabilities of the South Australian grid were not exploited because they were not capable of reacting fast enough. There was no significant reduction under the demand response measures either.
Available smart technologies could have achieved this, and – thankfully – are a subject of AEMO’s recommendations. It is quite likely that had these been in place, the separation from the interconnector could have been avoided.
Indeed, nearly all the recommendations made by AEMO relate to market practices and technologies – trying to introduce ways to get the grid to act smarter and quicker. Much of this will inevitably revolve around battery storage and other smart control systems.
In the meantime, wind energy will continue to be held up by many as the principal culprit of the event, even though AEMO has made it clear that the nature of wind energy – its variability and output in high wind events – was not an issue.
It was, it says, a technology neutral event. Previous outages were the fault of coal and gas, and this time it was due to wind and was possibly entirely preventable, although Marxsen said it was impossible to predict what may have happened otherwise.
AEMO has said that because the fault ride through settings were set too low, some 465MW of wind generation was lost in the chaotic seconds that followed the failure of the first transmission line.
This in turn caused an overload on the inter-connector to Victoria, a disconnection and then a blackout. AEMO seems confident that the blackout could have been avoided without these settings, which have now largely been fixed.
Indeed, there is little mention of the problematic overshooting and undershooting of the gas plants and there is no mention or analysis of this and its impact on the grid.
The data displayed here confirms that there were “bubbles” in the output that were highlighted in the report – look at around 14 to 15 seconds. This confirms that gas units do over and under oscillate and back off power after a fault, and may have contributed.
But the issue is not analysed. Battery storage may well have smoothed out those bubbles, according to a report last week from Lloyds Register and RES.
The “black start” procedures were also found wanting. Engie’s Mintaro diesel generator’s emergency back-up tripped after just five seconds due to a fault, rendering it useless.
Origin Energy’s Quarantine gas-fired power station also failed, AEMO said, due to different switching procedures used by ElectraNet. Attempts to use Quarantine were eventually abandoned and the operator had to wait unto the Heywood Interconnector could be restored and provide power to restart the generators at AGL’s Torrens Island units.
Over at Port Lincoln, at the other end of the grid, Engie’s diesel generators did not do much better. They fired up after the blackout, and worked for just a few hours before two of them tripped and the other had to be taken off-line due to frequency issues.
Numerous attempts to get them to work failed. Power in the areas was not restored for nearly another two days before the transmission line could be fixed.
AEMO should be given credit for getting the grid back up and running in the time it did, given the failure of the gas and diesel plants at both ends of the grid.
But by that time, just about everything that could go wrong, had gone wrong.
AEMO not knowing about the fault ride through settings well known by other grid operators; it took no precautions in the impending storm; and was not aware that the black-start providers were not in a fit state to act. It did not have the technologies and the mechanisms for a smarter and quicker response that could have kept at least part of the grid going.
A full judgement on its role, and its culture, will not be able to be made until an outside group has completed its investigation. In the meantime, all we have is an investigation by AEMO into its own actions.
For some reason, AEMO still wants to investigate whether the blackout would have occurred if the coal-fired power station at Port Augusta had still been running. It is still obsessed with the amount of synchronous and non synchronous generation and inertia.
But maybe now, after this report and the Finkel review, the market operators, the rule makers, the regulators and the policy makers should stop looking for the petrol cap and look to the future, not the past, for the right answers.