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Chris Uhlmann’s windy “truthiness” adds to policy fog

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Last Tuesday evening, after an unseasonably warm day in South Australia, Chris Uhlmann, one of the country’s most influential political commentators, tweeted:

There’s a saying “This is why we can’t have nice things”. It’s to be said in the admonishing tones of, say, a flustered parent cleaning up after a toddler who has recklessly knocked over a table, spilling milk on the rug and breaking a new toy.

Chris Uhlmann’s tweet is just the latest in a long series of biased reporting on South Australia’s energy transition — and is just one of the reasons why we can’t have nice things – “things”, in this case being an energy policy better than the fourth-rate National Energy Guarantee (Neg).

Uhlmann has form.

In 2016 after the infamous South Australian blackout, instead of focussing on the tornados that ripped up 23 transmission towers and set off cascading failures, he, along with the renewables-bashers in government and tabloid journalism, sheeted blame disproportionately to the state’s wind farms, a number of which shut down, not because they couldn’t produce, but as a result of protection systems configured to “trip” after repeated network faults.

Uhlmann went further, claiming that wind power’s “frequency fluctuates with the breeze” – total hogwash that sits to this day on the ABC’s website but has somehow escaped the eagle-eyed process that was so critical of Emma Alberici’s tax reporting.

Some of us are humbled when hasty judgements are later found to be questionable, while others double-down with more errors to defend the first.

The appropriate saying here is “when you’re in a hole, don’t dig”. Uhlmann’s tweet last week is a classic example of further digging.

When you’re in a hole, don’t dig. (Source: Mining Technology.com / GVK Resources)

Firstly, Tuesday 10 April was not a high demand day. It was unseasonably warm in Adelaide – the beginning of what the Bureau of Meteorology called a ‘low intensity heatwave’ – but those tough South Australians were gentle on their air conditioning and drew only 2297MW from the network at the 4:55pm peak, one-third below their all-time record demand of 3397MW on 31 January 2011. SA’s demand last Tuesday was utterly unremarkable.

Uhlmann’s tweet breathlessly noted that the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo) issued a “lack of reserve notice”. This is true, however the notice was also unremarkable.

AEMO has three levels of so-called LOR notices, starting with LOR1, which indicates that power reserves are below a predetermined level and the market operator would like to see more generation enter the market. SA has a large fleet of gas generators, but on 10 April more than 48% of that capacity was offline, much of it for scheduled maintenance, not particularly unusual at this time of year.

The evening before, AEMO advised the market that a LOR1 event was likely the next day. This does not mean there will be a shortfall, just that there is a risk if one of the two biggest gas generators operating at the time were to suddenly trip. So it likes to have a buffer to compensate.

Mid-Tuesday morning the gap had halved to only 87MW and the operator announced that it was likely to raise the warning to a LOR2 (risk of shortfall if one gas generator trips), only to cancel it three hours later when the market responded by bringing more capacity online.

Just after 5pm local time, AEMO confirmed that the predicted LOR1 event had arrived – the market operator wanted to see some 224MW of additional capacity to ensure a comfortable reserve margin. As predicted, around half an hour later the LOR1 was cancelled.

Tellingly, the morning after Uhlmann’s tweet, and after The Australian had written a breathless and ill informed article warning of blackouts, AEMO tweeted a link to an article explaining that, at the level of LOR1 and LOR2, “there is no impact to power system security or reliability” – emphasis theirs.

The morning’s strong winds dropped away, as predicted, and by early evening SA’s wind fleet was producing at around 10% of its maximum capacity.

This, perhaps the central element of Uhlmann’s tweet, is not particularly newsworthy. (Did Uhlmann put out a news bulletin at 4.25am that day when wind farms were powering 94% of the state’s demand? Or perhaps that renewables accounted for 44% of the SA’s demand for the day?)

Wind is variable. Sunshine is variable. We all know that, but both, surprising to many, are highly predictable within the operational timescales of the grid operator. In fact, AEMO’s wind and solar forecasts are often more accurate than their power demand forecasts.

Renewables bashing commentators and politicians speak of this variability as if it were a new discovery.

Australian grid operators have been successfully integrating wind energy into grids since the Salmon Beach Wind Farm was commissioned in 1987 in Esperance, WA and the Singleton Solar Farm was built 20 years ago in time for the Sydney Olympics.

Integrating variable renewables does present challenges to network operators but we work through these issues for three main reasons.

Firstly, renewables have the clear advantage of generating power without carbon or other environmentally damaging emissions.

Secondly, consumers enjoy, and now demand, the opportunity to take control of their power bills with roof-top solar solar.

Finally, and more recently, wind and solar are now, beyond reasonable doubt, the lowest cost technologies for adding capacity to our grid in almost every circumstance. These drivers are only intensifying – renewables are not only here to stay, the energy transition is accelerating.

The market and the grid operator well understand the variability and fast growth of renewables and have incorporated both into their planning.

Uhlmann’s unfortunate tweet claimed that SA was “dragging” power from Victoria. This loaded term implies that trade between states is bad. As with any commodity, trade increases reliability and security of supply and provides the best economic outcome.

According to electricity market analyst Geoff Eldridge, between 11:30am and 8:30pm, SA’s gas generation fleet operated at only 35% of rated capacity. The state had ample capacity to power itself, but market conditions determined that importing in that instance made economic sense.

Inconveniently for Uhlmann’s narrative, South Australian energy exports for this financial year have exceeded imports, and while SA did import during some of the week, there wasn’t a moment last week when NSW wasn’t “dragging” power from its neighbours – no tweet from Uhlmann about that!

Coal-dependent NSW relied upon imported power for the entire week. Source: opennem.org.au

SA demonstrates how power can be delivered with no “baseload” generators, using a mix of wind, solar, gas and imports.

In a final piece of “truthiness”, Uhlmann’s tweet claims that SA’s fired up its diesel generators.

In fact, SA’s much maligned state owned diesel generators – “cleaner” than coal– didn’t get a run. A tiny amount of generation from much smaller diesels in the state did generate some power – an insignificant 0.2% of the day’s power.

Uhlmann’s energy sources have fed him a diet of anti-renewables propaganda which he has regurgitated into a series of half-truths, across social media, the ABC and now the Nine Network, and has shifted our energy debate in the wrong direction.

A major energy policy is being negotiated in the middle of a culture war built upon misinformation. It’s no wonder that the Neg, widely regarded as the fourth best policy, is such a mess.

  

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  • George Darroch

    Uhlmann is a drag.

  • Jon

    The trouble is these political commentators (I’d be embarrassed if that was a label I was given) get AirPlay in community and the politicians know it.
    Even with AEMO adding a link to the facts that this is normal operation and therefore the original message is just a beat up the message stays out there and is parroted in the media and political debate.

    • Alastair Leith

      Hence his very high salary.

  • George Michaelson

    Political/Economic commentators have been trained to leap up and shout when regulators act. They take all acts by regulators, as signals of one thing only: market failure.

    I believe regulators are not just ‘last resort’ actors. They have that role, thats the statutory power part. They have other roles too. Signalling intent and desire. It doesn’t say “must act” it says “stand ready to act” which is different. If you contract to supply service (power) and don’t stand ready to supply service (power) on a foreseeable need, you are breaking your contract which includes a “stand ready” clause. So, somebody has to tell you when a “stand ready” moment could be enacted, if its foreseeable.

    Does it mean anything broke? Nope. Is it proof of market failure? nope. Does it mean only coal will do? Nope. Does it mean wind is dead? nope.

    If we called LOR1 wendy and LOR2 dorothy, then they just said wendy might arrive, and dorothy might arrive too. It let them put the kettle on, and be ready to make scones. But then dorothy said she couldn’t come, so they didn’t make scones. But wendy did arrive. Thats ok: we had the kettle on anyway. Thanks mum.

    Sorry Chris. Not newsworthy. Sorry News Ltd. Not newsworthy.

    • Simon Holmes A Court

      great explanation— and i love your dorothy and wendy story.

    • Alastair Leith

      He’s at the nine network, something I recommended he consider for years now. A perfect fit.

      • Nicko

        Wouldn’t Murdoch be better……..or nowhere?

    • Barri Mundee

      Chicken little Uhlmann: “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Eventually people will question his hyperventilating commentary.

  • nullifidian1

    Daniel Wills, SA political editor for the Advertiser, today:
    “SA households are struggling under the highest electricity prices in the nation and have been exposed to an increased risk of blackouts due to limited and unreliable sources.”
    This view is presented over and over again by him, not as an assertion by some RW politician but as if it is a statement of fact. Chris Uhlmann is not the only problem here, but he does seem to carry too much credibility with the commentariat.

    • MrMauricio

      As iunderstand it S.A’s electricity prices are moving downwards.Perhaps the fact that their grid has the greatest stretch for the fewest customers in the N.E.M might play a part in the cost of delivering it!!!

      • Alastair Leith

        Ross Garnaut made this point at a seminar at UWA last year. He said SA wholesale power prices were double that of Eastern states a decade away, now the average is lower than Eastern states.

        I like graphs. I wish I had a graph. If anybody can point me to the data I’ll make a graph and post it here.

    • Alastair Leith

      At least he’s out of the ABC, where others seemed to defer to his “knowledge” on these issues, or at least he provided them cover to repeat Govt and FF TPs and mantras.

      This kind of reflects a complete lack of energy policy smarts within the ABC news and current affairs team (some at 4Corners being an obvious exception). Fran Kelly’s interview with Oliver Yates around the NEG last week was pretty hostile towards someone who obviously knows tens of thousands of times from about energy and energy policy, politics, you name it than Fran, who kept insisting that the NEG with it’s firming rules is tech neutral — just because Frydenberg keeps saying it is. Anyone who understands how the AEMO dispatches power knows this is an artificial constraint (since removed we hear) the sole purpose of which (was) to continue the coal industry protection racquet.

      • nullifidian1

        Yes, since I listen only to the ABC (I can’t stand commercials), it was Uhlmann’s influence on their presenters, who seemed to think that he is a genius, that really upset me.

        • Alastair Leith

          Just shows what an influence cubicle knowledge (quoting Brad Pebbler) can have, or in this case a motivated misinformation in a small fish bowl can have.

      • Brian Tehan

        The ABC’s Paul Bevan on afternoon ABC Newcastle should be called in on these interviews. Here’s an ABC interviewer who’s able to understand complex technology and actually pick up holes in the argument and, unfailingly, ask intelligent and enlightening follow up questions. He has discussed a number of complex renewable energy technologies and issues on his afternoon program and never put a foot wrong. Very impressive.

        • Alastair Leith

          Obviously I don’t wish to malingn ABC journalists who’s work I’m not even familiar with. I was yinmin more of the tv network than radio. There’s many good journos at ABC under huge time pressure to produce and rely on MRs and don’t have the time to bone up on complex subjects, making them vulnerable to clever Freydenberg spin, and stupid but forceful Joyce/Abbott/Kelly bluster.

          I think I have come acros Bevan in the past and been impressed generally speaking. It’s no easy task to maintain you Witts on a subject that isn’t your own special subject doing live radio or TV. Just very irritating when in spite of poor knowledge presenters/interviewers show no humility at all and “tell us how it is” even when they are dead wrong. Then cannot actually apologise, but double up for good measure almost in a pathologicaly defensive way. I’m looking at you Chris Uhlamnn

  • JeffJL

    ‘…emphasis theirs.’ ROTFL

  • Zvyozdochka

    “Aemo’s wind and solar forecasts are often more accurate than their power demand forecasts.” Yup. Any sailor that uses PredictWind or even Meteye can tell you how accurate they are now. Thank you computer modelling.

  • Diego Fuentes

    Does anyone offer to educate these commentators face to face?

    • Joe

      They can go back as ‘Mature Aged Students’…..but immature brains.

    • Simon Holmes A Court

      yes, i have. some major journos have taken me up on it, including a couple at the oz.

      a certain sky news performer turned me down, but i haven’t given up.

      i know other energy analysts who often spend hours with journos explaining the system whenever energy is front page news.

      • Alastair Leith

        My focus would be the ABC, the most trusted news source in Australia. I’ve tried but never gotten anywhere. When I get calls from journalists (usually local papers) I’ve spent hours with them on the phone backgrounding their stories, all for a few lines of a quote in return 🙂 but we have to “educate the client” as much as possible.

      • Eric

        Keep at it Simon. And make sure you hit them between the eyes when you get the chance!

    • Andrew Thaler

      yep. but I’ve given up. I just don’t care anymore, hence why @singletonSolar doesn’t tweet out production data or info.
      Nobody really cares and its a waste of my time.
      sad… but true reflection of our inverted ‘modern’ society.

      I even had a fire in the solar farm this year… which means it released some carbon to the atmosphere… so I remain surprised Chris Uhlman didnt pick up on that!

  • Les Johnston

    The analysis of energy generation on the day in question highlights the opportunity for misinformation to displace substance. Much better to have informed retrospective analysis than idle gossip. Thanks for the analysis.

    • Joe

      Sadly we can’t stop the cherry pickers who try to advance their rubbish

    • Chris Fraser

      More and more of us can now take all of it with a pinch of salt.

  • Rod

    I’m regretting not taking a screen shot during our recent cold front. SA, Vic and NSW were all sitting on about $5/MWh thanks to wind and I’m pretty sure there was curtailment and the interconnector was throttled to 500MW.

  • Grpfast

    Chris Uhlmann has become a “fake news specialist” and now sells his trash to the highest bidder. They have a name for that!

  • Joe

    He’s back, Channel 9’s Chief Climate Scientist, ‘Dr Chris Uhlmann’. The Chris is inching closer to sideshow alley to join the likes of Jones, Joyce, Kelly etc.

  • mick

    no policy fog in my vision-it’s clear that he and they are dick heads and there is no policy

  • Colin Edwards

    w r t Chris Uhlmann: can anyone “follow the money”?

  • Alastair Leith

    “Chris Uhlmann, one of the country’s most influential political commentators”

    Is this called pumping up your opponents sense of self-worth before letting down their tyres?

    • Chris Ford

      One can only hope

    • Andrew Thaler

      Uhlman is soo good he was slated to work for Malcolm in the PMO afaik

  • Alastair Leith

    Uhlmann went further, claiming that wind power’s “frequency fluctuates with the breeze” – total hogwash that sits to this day on the ABC’s website but has somehow escaped the eagle-eyed process that was so critical of Emma Alberici’s tax reporting.

    This.

    And he claimed live on 730 (to Xenophon’s gushing enthusiasm) that when the wind blows to hard wind turbines have to stop generating. Again false, let the record show AEMO data that says all the wind farms were near there maximum output when the transmission lines and interconnector tripped.

  • PacoBella

    Perhaps its time for the RE industry to all chip in and fund a 24 hour TV channel like the Weather station on Foxtel. We could do weather-like maps of Australia showing wind and solar conditions. Field trips to existing and under-construction projects, research labs and field trials and scary visits to smoke belching coal-fired plants. There could be “push the red button to get live demand and supply and price analysis for your area”. Entrepreneurs could pitch investment opportunities and Giles could do interviews with experts and people who know what they are talking about. There could be panel discussions with LNP politicians sitting among RE experts, like Simon & David Leitch and CEOs/CFOs of RE companies who have crunched their investment decisions, all of whom could give the political guests some useful feedback live on air.

  • Alastair Leith

    Finally finished reading the article Simon. An excellent dethroning of the king of comment at ABC/Nine. One can only wonder how far Ulhmann stays from “cash for comment” I suspect it’s mostly Ideological and tribal blindsightedness on his part rather than Jones, Laws style cash for comment, but the payiff comes in the form of choice high saleried positions.

  • Tim Forcey

    In Vic, Energy Australia advertising “no price increases” electricity plan. They know which way electricity prices are headed…

  • Eric

    Excellent take down of Uhlmann, Simon. Forensically exposes him as a biased fraud
    on renewable.
    I hope producers at the ABC read this and give him a good blasting. Australia deserves better than this, especially from the ABC.

  • Rod

    I’m not sure which units were out for shoulder season maintenance but maybe that should be the story. Why are we having heatwaves in Autumn?
    I worked in a thermal power station for a while and can confirm when a unit gets stripped down, it is all hands on deck (and lots of overtime) to get it up in time for Winter.

    • Ren Stimpy

      The BOM has already issued a climate statement on the record April heat, and April isn’t even over yet.

  • RobertO

    Hi All Here is proof that a WTG may need to be shut down and the reason why. The more WTG in a storm the less power in the storm (simple maths for those whom know it take Wind Power to make Electrical Power so the effect on the wind is to reduce it power.
    http://blog.cleanenergy.org/2012/11/07/sandy-is-gone-wind-power-is-on/

  • Andrew Thaler

    The Singleton Solar farm… 20 years old, still generating clean energy and saving coal..

    #KeepItInTheGround
    the farm was officially switched on 28th March 1998.

  • AllEnergy

    Mother Nature herself has thoroughly discredited Chris Uhlmann.

    OpenNEM shows Wholesale Wind consistently as the cheapest source of power. Much cheaper than everything but Brown Coal. Wind competes with Hydro as Australia’s third largest source of electricity.

    In the week after his story of April 10, Wind increased its weekly average contribution to over 50% by the following Saturday. For three days, from around sun-up Friday April 13 until dawn the following Monday, Wind’s contribution to South Australia’s electricity generation was closer to 75%. Nationally, Wind’s contribution was around 10% of demand.

    When the wind blows, Electricity prices Nation-wide respond & extreme wholesale price fluctuations have been extremely limited. Perhaps there’s your next story, Chris.

  • Nick Abbott

    Rather than getting personally offended by Chris Uhlmann mentioning the facts, it would be better to recognise that there’s currently a gap with the use of renewables in SA, and that there’s a need for energy storage. Getting personal in debates like these creates further devision and makes it harder to reach a resolution.
    There’s a pattern in our local climate where during heat waves the wind drops off significantly. The energy costs then spike dramatically to meet demand. To overcome this we either need more energy storage or more generation.