Did Australia’s Energy Market Operator allow South Australia’s grid to fail when it chose not to take any pre-emptive action in the face of storms that eventually led to the system-black last September, and so sparked a nation-wide debate about the merits of wind and solar energy?
It’s been a conspiracy theory doing the rounds for some time. Certainly, it was one that many in the fossil fuel industry were content to see happen, because it allowed them to further entrench their own interests.
But a deliberate act? South Australia energy minister Tom Koutsantonis says he isn’t sure, but he’s not real to give AEMO the benefit of the doubt.
“I don’t know if they deliberately allowed it to fail,” he said in response to a question from RenewEconomy at a press conference in Adelaide on Tuesday to announce the state’s new energy plan.
But he did say this, with some degree of bitter irony: “They were very keen to see how their interconnector would do in strong winds.”
Readers will remember that the system black event occurred after tornadoes tore down three major transmission lines, leading to huge voltage swings, and the failure of the inter-connector to Victoria. With no extra back-up generation put in place in South Australia, all power was lost.
Contrast this to recent events. As revealed by RenewEconomy on Monday, AEMO went to great lengths to protect the NSW from any blackout or load-shedding in January, when at the peak of a heat-wave it restricted transfers on the main interconnector to Queensland from NSW to just 150MW, down from 600MW.
This, AEMO asserted, was a move designed to protect NSW consumers in case the country’s most modern and efficient coal fired generator, the 750MW Kogan Creek plant in south west Queensland, tripped and sent a voltage collapse rippling through the northern NSW market.
Dialling down the interconnector meant that AEMO had the flexibility to respond to any events. And Koutsantonis wishes that AEMO had been similarly cautious when the storms were sweeping across South Australia on September 28. The operator allowed the inter-connector to continue at full pelt (also 600MW) and dialled up no emergency back-up within South Australia in case anything went wrong.
“The first thing I would do is to contrain the interconnector,” Koutsantonis told journalists when asked what he could have done to reduce the effect of the blackout. “I would have done everything I could to minimise it (the risk). AEMO didn’t.”
The final report on AEMO’s actions on the system black event is to be released – by AEMO – at an event in South Australia later this month.
Koutsantonis suggested he was more interested in subsequent reports by the Australian Energy Regulator and the Australian Energy Market Commission. “I’m sure AEMO won’t criticize their (own) behaviour one bit,” he said.
South Australia was dealt a second blow in February, when AEMO “got its weather forecasts wrong” and failed to plan for a heatwave that everyone but its own staff appeared to know was coming. The result was rolling blackouts that affected 90,000 people and set off another political storm.
In NSW, AEMO gave three days notice and voluntary measures and demand reductions were put in place well in advance. Koutsantonis wishes South Australia had been afforded a similar courtesy.
It is this lack of faith with the market operator, in fact the whole National Energy Market, that has underpinned the South Australia government’s new energy plan.
Koutsantonis will invest powers in himself to do what he says AEMO failed to do – ensure there is sufficient supply to meet demand. He and premier Jay Weatherill say the decision to cut power rather than order an idle gas generator to switch on February 8 was a “disgrace”.
Nor are they impressed with the energy market in general, accusing the private owners of generators of putting “profits before people,” which is why the government has decided to build a $360 million, 250MW gas generator, to act as an emergency back-up.
They accused the generators of deliberately withholding capacity, a major factor in pushing baseload wholesale electricity prices above $100/MWh in South Australia, and even higher in other states.
That’s why, Koutsantonis says, they will introduce more competition. The first cab off the rank will be the battery storage plant of at least 100MW – a tender will be held soon – and the next cab will be a new generator commissioned in a tender for the government’s own direct electricity needs. That new generator could be gas, or solar towers with storage.
And finally, they are not impressed with the state of the current technology. Weatherill described the state’s biggest gas plant, Torrens Island, as an “old clunker”.
Its failure two weeks ago, triggered the tripping of the Pelican Point gas plant. Koutsantonis says he still hasn’t got a good reason why that happened, or why Pelican Point did too. He even compared it to drunken men, one one vomited, it was inevitable another one did too.
And he was also critical of plans to upgrade the network on the same weekend as one of the biggest in the South Australia calendar – with the start of the festival the Clipsal 500 motor race, and other events.
The only good news coming out of that big trip – which sparked a loss of generation bigger and quicker than the September 28 system black, was that the wind generators sailed through untouched, and unmoved.
Even though the interconnector was briefly overloaded, the stability of the wind generators, if not the two biggest gas plants, ensured that another system black was avoided.
In the meantime, the state is developing its own energy plan, almost as though AEMO and the market regulators and rule makers in the eastern states didn’t exist. “We have to look after ourselves,’ Weatherill said. “The market won’t do it.”
But they know that whatever happens, the rebound hits the politicians hardest. On Monday night, the Adele concert was interrupted when the lights went out, this time because someone pulled a plug out of a socket.
— Sen. Malcolm Roberts (@SenatorMRoberts) March 14, 2017
One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts blamed the state’s renewable energy target, and even recorded this stunning video to make this point. (Viewer warning, your sanity is at risk).
“I can’t be blamed for a roadie pulling a plug out,” Weatherill protested. “I’ve been blamed for a lot of things, but think I can’t be blamed for that one.”