Heavy weather and the transition to a 21st century energy system | RenewEconomy

Heavy weather and the transition to a 21st century energy system

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While the physical storm has passed, we’re yet to emerge from the political tempest that’s followed.

Source: ABC
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Source: ABC
Source: ABC

Australia’s energy debate hit heavy weather last week following the storms and blackout in South Australia.

While the physical storm has passed and the cleanup is well underway, we’re yet to emerge from the political tempest that’s followed. Many politicians and commentators have focussed on scoring cheap political points, rather than collaborating to understand what happened in order to strengthen Australia’s energy system.

A diverse group of industry and consumer bodies – the Australian Energy Council, Australian Industry Group, Business Council of Australia, Clean Energy Council, Energy Users Association, Energy Consumers Australia, Energy Networks Association and Energy Efficiency Council – issued a joint statement today that calls for Australia’s energy ministers to work together to craft a cooperative and strategic response to the transformation underway in Australia’s energy system.

Understanding the South Australian blackout is critical, but it needs to be approached in a mature, sensible way to help develop the sort of long-term approaches that will give homes and businesses the confidence to invest in energy supply, storage and end-use technologies. Short-term politicking will distort or defer essential investments, raising the costs of energy.

While we have a long way to go to fully analyse both the blackout and its implications, there are a few key points that can be raised already that have larger implications.

The AEMO Preliminary Report on the blackout sets out that on 28 September a massive storm whipped through South Australia. The storm damaged 22 transmission towers, and three lines north of Adelaide went down within 12 seconds. Following this, 315 MW of wind generation disconnected, around 36 per cent of the 883 MW supplied by wind just before the event.

This increased the draw on the Heyward interconnector to over 850 MW, which exceeded safety levels and resulted in the automatic tripping of the interconnector. As a result the remaining generators in the state shut down, resulting in a System Black.

The process for restoring power started rapidly, and by midnight that day 80-90% of electricity supply was restored to the part of the SA grid that was still safely connected to the southern part of the grid. Other areas were progressively connected as lines were restored and/or deemed safe.

This was an extreme event, and it’s not clear if any grid would withstand the loss of three transmission lines in such a short period of time. However, there are some salient messages for grid stability under less extreme scenarios, including both supply-side and demand-side issues.

Firstly, its critical to bear in mind that designing a grid to survive any conditions would be prohibitively expensive. Despite a major storm, supply was rapidly restored to most of South Australia. Rather than trying to keep an entire grid functional at all times, essential services (e.g. hospitals) should have emergency backups that can withstand these kinds of shocks.

Secondly, the impact of the loss of the interconnector highlights issues around diversity and risk. Increased diversity of energy services, including supply, storage and demand-management, improves system security if it is integrated properly. Following Hurricane Sandy in the US, hospitals and campuses with cogeneration systems and microgrids were among the few locations with power.

With regards to risk, buried in the AEMO report is the statement There was no local SA Regulation FCAS [Frequency Control Ancilliary Service] requirement pre-event, as there was no credible risk of separation of SA from the National Electricity Market (NEM).” In the common (rather than technical) sense of the term, it’s clear that disconnection from the NEM was a ‘credible risk’. This was an extreme event, and it’s not clear that local FCAS could have helped to keep the grid stable. However, it raises the broader point that we need to review how we assess risks.

Third, building on the point around FCAS. The energy market needs more effective mechanisms for tapping into demand-side services to manage fluctuations in both supply and demand, including both FCAS and demand-response over longer periods. This is especially true as the level of intermitted supply from wind and solar increases in the grid.

This highlights a more strategic point. The Energy Efficiency Council focuses on demand-side issues, and is neutral with regards to generation technologies. However, it’s clear that consumers will continue to install PV and that investment in large-scale renewables will continue. The debate needs to shift to how we can accommodate this transition at lowest cost while continuing to supply consumers with secure energy services.

Demand-response (the ability for larger energy users to voluntarily reduce demand in a coordinated way to maintain an efficient balance between supply and demand across the electricity system) will be a critical part of this transition for both affordability and security. Energy efficiency will reduce the amount of expenditure required in new forms of generation.

We believe state and federal governments need to work together to proactively manage the transition to new technologies for generation, supply, storage, and energy use that is currently underway.

Creating a 21st century energy system that is both reliable and cost effective will require sustained political leadership that overcomes the inertia in our energy market institutions and regulations. How we do that is a hard, long conversation. Its also a debate worth having.

Rob Murray-Leach is the Head of Policy at the Energy Efficiency Council.

The joint statement – Energy Challenges Need Cooperation – can be found at www.eec.org.au


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  1. MikeG 4 years ago

    An almost identical situation played out on March 14, 2005.

    “A fault on the Playford to Davenport 275kV line on Monday, 14 March triggered the breakfast blackouts which cut power to about 40 per cent of South Australia on Monday, 14 March, the National Electricity Market Management Company (NEMMCO) said in a preliminary report on the incident.”

    Three power stations and interconnector affected: NEMMCO said the fault triggered a series of events including:

    • the offloading of the two 265MW capacity coal-fired Northern Power station generating units;

    • the loss of the AC interconnection between Victoria and South Australia;

    • the tripping of the 478MW capacity gas-fired Pelican Point power station; and

    • the tripping of the two 40MW capacity gas-fired Ladbroke Grove power station units. ‘

    The only reason that they avoided a full statewide blackout according to Nemco who ran the grid back then is that “automatic under-frequency load shedding” kicked in

    NRG Flinders, the owners of the coal fired Northern Power Station were fined $300,000, 50% suspended for not meeting performance standards.

    The full incident report can be found here – http://www.neca.com.au/Files/NECA_Report_FINAL_for_14_March_2005.pdf

  2. suthnsun 4 years ago

    It looks like it will be a ‘hard, long conversation’ because those who know what to do and how to do it will be ‘telling’ those in political leadership, who know diddly squat, and then telling them again and again..

  3. John Saint-Smith 4 years ago

    Before that ‘hard, long conversation’ can begin, we will need to find a way to bring our political ‘leaders’ out of their bunkers and take off their ideological blinkers. It would be hard enough to explain this to intelligent, open minded adults…

    • Aerial Fencer 4 years ago

      They’re not ideological blinkers. It’s about protecting special interests. Even the Teaparty in the US is in favour of PV plus batteries.

      • John Saint-Smith 4 years ago

        With the greatest respect, they’re blinkers. They are applied by not providing LNP MPs access free and fair expert opinion about the technology of renewables and climate change. In a recent meeting with my local member, in which he informed me that the party room is currently considering the ratification of the Paris Agreement, he told me that he believed that Australia’s commitments to emissions reduction were in line with the 1.5 degree target. He assured me that the ‘experts’ who briefed them had claimed that everything was OK. When I mentioned the names of several of the more obvious experts in those areas he’d not heard of any of them or their views on the adequacy of our response to climate or renewables.
        On the subject of renewables he trotted out the usual stuff about unreliable and ‘won’t work when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine’. When we mentioned Concentrated Solar Thermal he asked what that was. I didn’t really get round to batteries, let alone smart grids.
        Just thought you’d like to know our future, and the future of the planet are in good hands.

  4. Ian 4 years ago

    Distributed solar will probably continue to proliferate, distributed battery storage is expected to come down in price and become more common and EV will follow suite. Regardless of any other grid investment, these factors would need to be considered first and foremost.

    Consumers are unlikely to be deterred from installing all sorts of behind the meter renewable generators, control equipment and storage devices. Small and large businesses would probably not baulk at installing back-up fossil fuel generators.

    How wise would be investing heavily in large scale gas generators, pumped storage , or large scale battery storage? These assets could all become stranded and obsolete very quickly.

  5. DJR96 4 years ago

    So put simply. SA network is akin to a typical residential solar inverter. It cam produce enough power to run the State, but if it’s connection to the NEM grid(Vic) ceases, it all shuts down. Seems downright absurd that an entire State network isn’t capable of running ‘island mode’.

    It would also seem that load shedding needs to be much more responsive and intelligent to be effective.

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