You probably remember the headlines and the stories from earlier this month focusing on the loss of power (again) for BHP Billiton’s massive Olympic Dam mining operations in South Australia in the early hours of Thursday, December 1.
Everyone reported it.
The Guardian said the Olympic Dam operations was “off the grid for four hours”, the ABC said Olympic Dam was without power for four hours”, and the Sydney Morning Herald said it was “without power for four hours”.
The Australian Financial Review said the “prized” Olympic Dam mine was “without power for more than four hours overnight.” The claims were repeated by other journalists in numerous articles in those and other publications over the following days, including in their newspaper’s thundering editorials about the risks of renewable energy.
The Murdoch press also reported it with gusto, saying “Olympic Dam was …. “left without power for hours”. Its commentators blamed “unreliable wind power” and the “abandonment of sensible, coal-fired power generation”, in the case of Terry McCrann, while Nick Cater warned “South Australians haven’t seen the last of the blackouts.”
The AFR’s Jennifer Hewett quoted the blackout in an opinion piece where she described South Australia’s support for an emissions intensity scheme “as barking mad as SA’s rush into ever greater amounts of renewable energy.”
The right wing blogs also attacked. “BHP Billiton had its giant Olympic Dam mine shut down for the second time in two months by South Australia’s dodgy wind farms,” wrote Andrew Bolt, while fellow climate denialist Jo Nova said it was all the fault of wind energy (there wasn’t enough of it blowing, she reckoned).
The federal Coalition jumped in too. Malcolm Turnbull used it to harden his line on state-based renewable energy targets, insisting that he would not take any advice from a South Australia premier “who could not keep the lights on.”
BHP joined in, saying the outage showed that “it cannot fall to renewables alone ” to lower emissions. Its media team circulated information that “a power outage overnight as a result of an interconnector failure and lack of generation in South Australia saw Olympic Dam without power for more than four hours.”
That “lack of generation” was an important contributor to the debate, because everyone presumed it implicated, by its assumed absence, wind energy. CEO Andrew Mackenzie was quoted widely in the media, saying such blackouts were “crippling business” and were a “threat to jobs.”
Except there was just one problem. The blackout did not happen.
According to the Australian Energy Market Operator, the Olympic Dam mine, contrary to all those reports, and contrary to the advice of BHP, did not lose its connection to the grid. It did not suffer a blackout.
It did, under the terms of its supply agreement, have to shed some 70MW of load – a responsibility it holds as the largest single source of demand in the state – but at all times in those early hours it retained 100MW of continuous supply and got it full allocation back within three hours and seven minutes.
“To stabilise the separated SA power system, AEMO Directed ElectraNet to reduce supply to BHP’s Olympic Dam site to approximately 100MW under a 2015 protocol agreed by AEMO and BHP for such events,” the AEMO report says.
“Prior to the event, BHP’s Olympic Dam site was consuming approximately 170MW. The duration of this reduction was for three hours and seven minutes.”
The report by AEMO into those events also makes it clear that wind, or any amount of renewable energy, had absolutely nothing to do with the event. Zero. Nada.
Yes, many homes in South Auaatralia went without power for up to 90 minutes after the state was “isolated”, as load was shed while the grid operator tried to rebalance load and supply after the unexpected failure of the transmission lines.
That is normal practice when equipment fails, and it was little different to a similar outage in Western Australia in September that was caused by the unexpected tripping of a gas-fired generator. That affected as many people for a similar amount of time.
In the case of South Australia, the problem was caused in Victoria when a broken conductor cable on one of the main transmission lines fell to the ground, causing the outage.
It was sod’s law. The grid had been left exposed by two planned outages, one on one of the two main transmission lines linking Victoria to South Australia and another on a major line linking Heywood to the Alcoa Power plant.
This second outage had actually been requested by Alcoa, but it left the plant – and South Australia – badly exposed to any unexpected events. There was no redundancy. Alcoa lost all power, because the only line left to supply power failed. It is an impact that could yet have devastating effects on its future operations.
AEMO says its response mechanisms – including the load shedding – worked as expected. And for the anti-renewables set everything else worked perfectly too – wind energy and state-based renewable policies were blamed for an event that it had nothing to do with, and didn’t actually happen.
This morning, RenewEconomy doubled checked with AEMO. So the power did actually stay on at Olympic Dam? we asked. After checking, the spokesman rang back: Yes, the power stayed on at Olympic Dam, he said.
RenewEconomy then asked BHP how it was that they advised journalists that the blackout occurred, and how that tallies with the market operator’s insistence that it didn’t occur.
Interestingly, on December 6, four days after sending RE an email – in response to our questions – that the mine was completely blacked out, BHP sent RE another email (in response to another question about its supply contracts), where they spoke only of “supply constraints”.
After our latest question, early Monday morning, the spokesperson said she would ring Olympic Dam. We are still waiting for the response. Maybe the line is down.
(Update: BHP did respond but only “off the record”, which is worse than useless. But it seems they don’t agree they had 100MW of power available).