What caused South Australia’s state-wide blackout?

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Power is gradually returning to South Australia after wild storms blew across the state last night. So, what did cause South Australia’s blackout?

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Adelaide goes dark after wild storms caused the entire state’s power to fail. AAP Image/David Mariuz
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The Conversation

Adelaide goes dark after wild storms caused the entire state’s power to fail. AAP Image/David Mariuz
Adelaide goes dark after wild storms caused the entire state’s power to fail. AAP Image/David Mariuz

Power is gradually returning to South Australia after wild storms blew across the state last night, but some areas could be offline for days.

The storm – associated with heavy rain, lightning, and severe winds – damaged transmission lines that carry electricity from power generators to people, causing a state-wide blackout.

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill told ABC radio, “the system operated as it was meant to operate”.

However senator Nick Xenophon, in calling for an independent inquiry, said “there are key questions that need to be asked”. He has also questioned whether more gas-power stations would have prevented the power failure. Deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce pointed the finger squarely at the state’s reliance on renewable energy.

So, what did cause South Australia’s blackout?

Was it because of wind or wind turbines?

Dylan McConnell, Research fellow, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne

It has everything to do with wind – because that’s what blew over the transmission lines. But it has nothing to do with South Australia’s wind turbines. Transmission lines are large power lines that take electricity from generators to the smaller distribution lines that bring power to our homes.

South Australia’s energy generation mix is mixture of wind, gas and some solar, and as of this year, zero coal. The state is connected to the rest of eastern Australia’s electricity market through two inter-connectors, one of which is down for service.

Where the transmission lines, managed by ElectraNet, came down is south of Port Augusta. In May this year South Australia closed its last coal-power station at the port. If those coal-power stations were still operating, they still would have dropped offline and seen the cascading failure that tripped the generations. Having those thermal generators there wouldn’t have helped at all.

A lot of generation capacity was lost because of the transmission failure. Because of that there was a voltage drop, which triggered safety protection measures that tripped the Haywood inter-connector that connects South Australia with Victoria. This could have happened in any state or with any generation technology.

Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Energy Research Institute, University of Melbourne

These kinds of failures in the National Energy Market (NEM) which covers the five eastern states) are extremely rare. The NEM experiences a range of extreme weather on a regular occurrence and a vast majority of the time copes well.

The system contains multiple levels of redundancy and safety mechanisms, however it is impractical if not impossible to build any complex system that is completely 100% reliable. Providing additional redundancy to insure against such events would be extremely costly, and would still not completely guarantee against further extreme events.

That being said, as we find out more about the incident it may become apparent that there are weaknesses in the grid that need addressing. However it is hard to imagine how the high penetration of renewable energy in the state could be implicated in this incident.

Just under 1,000 megawatts of wind power was dispatching onto the grid at the time of the blackout with another 400 megawatts from gas plant and 300 megawatts supply from the Victorian inter-connector making up the total. Had either of the brown coal generators still been in operation the system would not have been any more resilient to this event.

Power generation across the National Electricity Market on Wednesday night, showing the dramatic cut in power in South Australia (top right). AEMO, Author provided

Was it climate change?

Andrew King, Climate extremes research fellow, University of Melbourne

The role of climate change in the storm that hit South Australia yesterday is unclear. With these types of storm systems it is much harder to see the human fingerprint than it is for heatwaves for example.

For intense rainfall events like yesterday’s you need two main ingredients: a lot of moisture in the atmosphere and a trigger, such as a deep low pressure system. We know that climate change is increasing the amount of moisture in the air, but the human influence on the frequency of the triggers is far less clear.

In general the storms that track across southern Australia are moving southwards with climate change. For very intense storms like the one that hit South Australia yesterday we don’t have enough data to make a definitive statement on how they’re changing in this region.

We can’t say that climate change was to blame for this storm without a full analysis of the event.

More to come.

Authors: Andrew King, Dylan McConnell, and Roger Dargaville.

The ConversationSource: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.

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10 Comments
  1. Matthew Johnston 3 years ago

    You notice the ADF is not deployed as with other national disasters like in QLD. So just how bad the weather was or how weak the grid is. I don’t think it can be compared to New Jersey. The damage and size of the grid. So sure 36 hours for a black start. Given the mid north will have power late today or tomorrow. If you got a flat battery hollier for a Marshall. It reminds me of Baghdad. This was the weather, but it shows you the danger of cyber warfare to cause chaos and just how reliant we are on basic services. No power, no cell network, no phone lines, no 000. Etc. No fuel.

    It is the same story government can’t afford to maintain or upgrade a service so it is privatization. Private companies are there to make a profit. So the cables that should be under ground are on poles. And get knocked out.

    Basically eventually they will remove the solar tariff, so then it will be time to get a battery and store power for night use and blackouts for at least a single circut for fridge, etc. Because it such a new technology no one knows the life span of the battery. So the high cost, vs lifespan. 5kw system a battery and say see ya later to the grid.

    • neroden 3 years ago

      If you’re in the Outback or the countryside, go off the grid now.
      If you’re in the suburbs, maybe in 3-5 years.
      If you’re in the city it may be harder.

      • Matthew Johnston 3 years ago

        Have they got power back on in the mid north, yet. It is like they don’t matter. I spent a lot of time up in the Mid North, Melrose, Mt remarkable, the bluff. The wind is aways nasty. I agree with your timeline on the tech, there is no alternative it is either this or rationing the grid in summer. It is on us for sure.

        The funny thing is up in Pirie, they voted independent and he decides who forms a minority government. You think the government would want to get the power on baxk in that mid north electorate.

      • Mike Dill 3 years ago

        If you have a place to put an array and some storage, it makes sense now anywhere if you are paying more than 35c/kWh.

  2. Ian 3 years ago

    Clearly, this type of event calls for immediate and drastic action. The grid is inadequate to supply continuous and uninterrupted electricity to homes and businesses due to the failure of transmission lines . This is the same issue as the recent outage for maintenance of the link with Victoria. The solution is to encourage and subsidise local storage solutions at the individual consumer and local street level. Many homes and businesses already have roof top solar generation resources and the cost of these systems is very low. Subsidising home battery storage has thus become a critical need in South Australia. Home battery storage systems should include the use of EV batteries as an emergency backup service and EV should be included in any subsidy programme.

    The burning of fossil fuels is linked to extreme weather events and climate change as attested by the international community at the Paris talks and other conferences. There is increased risk of power interruptions so the government is obliged to mitigate these risks if they choose to continue or increase the mining , processing , use and export of fossil fuels. The current grid in South Australia is demonstrated to be inadequate to supply power at times of emergency purely because of exposed high tension transmission lines and this is best addressed by local battery storage solutions.

    • Ian 3 years ago

      There are 600 000 households in South Australia each would require at the least 7 KWH of storage at a cost of approximately $10 000 per house hold. A subsidy to the most vulnerable such as the elderly , disabled or families with children would secure their safety in times of crisis like this and kick-start a distributed storage industry so desperately needed both to encourage electricity supply reliability and buffer the different supply profiles of renewable and fossil fuel energy sources.

      • jeffthewalker 3 years ago

        Subsidy would be sufficient at 50% as householders would happily pay for the other half as they get a benefit from storage of daytime solar. The response from existing solar owners would be overwhelming and the stimulus to new solar installations would be significant.

      • Mike Dill 3 years ago

        A centrally located 100MWh fast response battery would have ‘caught’ the voltage sag so that an orderly shut-down of limited parts of the SA grid could have been performed. Most of the SA grid could have been kept running with a fast response.

        While household battery systems would have ‘saved’ the individual households, a larger unit in a central location is currently more useful for grid events.

    • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

      It’s been suggested by one union official that AEMO has been letting the now-private network owners avoid redundancy planning and building contingency infrastructure to make them more profitable entities for ideological reasons (make the market appear more healthy and functionally adequate than it might be).

  3. MaxG 3 years ago

    When I did the numbers for my battery, I knew I was pushing it…. but, in hindsight, this was the best money I ever spent! 10k$ for 20kWh LifePO4 battery… and I am laughing, every day… even more so when the lights go out, and we do not even know the grid is gone… until neighbours tell us that they saw our lights on… 🙂
    I am not making fun of the neighbours, but, when I planned the battery, prices went briefly down; however, since then have been rising as they used. I am happy.

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