NT sacks energy chiefs after report into Alice Springs system black

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The two most senior energy bosses in Northern Territory sacked after report into Alice Springs “system black” identified major cultural and system problems.

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The Northern Territory Labor government has sacked the territory’s two most senior energy chiefs following a damming report from the market regulator into a “system black” event that hit the city of Alice Springs in October.

Tim Duignan, the CEO of Territory Generation, and Michael Thompson, the head of network operator and systems control company Power and Water Corporation were both sacked after the government received a report from the Utilities Commission into the outage, which affected 12,000 customers for between 30 minutes and 10 hours.

The reports point to a range of issues, hinted at in RenewEconomy’s article on Friday – Billionaires’ huge solar dream overshadows troubling energy wars in Top End.

It seems clear that this is not a problem about technology – despite some trying to sheet the blame on the amount of rooftop solar in the local grid and the impact of passing clouds – but of corporate and energy culture. And of incompetence.

An investigating report by consultants Entura – requested by the Utilities Commission – found that staff managing the system did not anticipate the approaching cloud cover, and did not know what to do when they realised what was happening and output from the Uterne solar farm and rooftop solar panels declined.

Thermal generators failed because they had not been properly maintained, and the staff had no idea how to re-start the machinery, because procedures had not been updated since the installation of a big battery. To cap things off, there was insufficient spinning reserve and the system was unstable.

Entura’s report makes clear that the outage should not have happened. “If the automatic generator control (AGC), Jenbacher generators, battery energy storage system (BESS) and under frequency load shedding (UFLS) had functioned as expected, then the initiating event would not have led to a system black,” it says.

Even if just two of these components had functioned as expected, then a system black would have been avoided.

The Utilities Commission endorsed the findings, noting that solar was not to blame, because the power system had not been adapted or made sufficiently robust to deal with such events.

Monica Tan, energy policy expert from Environment NT, said the independent investigations into the blackout exposed “deep systemic problems in the NT’s energy agencies.”

Tan said the Gunner government should take responsibility for its failure to manage urgent system grid upgrades, and for ignoring the recommendations from the Roadmap to Renewables report that they had commissioned, and would likely have avoided such issues.

“These blackouts were avoidable,” she said. “As noted in the independent report by Entura, cloud cover is a normal event and any well-designed energy system using existing technology has the capacity to handle changing weather.

“Solar energy is not to blame here. Rather, there is a deeply rooted systemic and cultural problem in NT’s energy agencies to address the vital upgrade to changing technology and execute the necessary steps for a smooth transition. 

“Reporting functions have been woefully inadequate and multiple warnings from reports from the Utilities Commision disregarded for over a decade, over multiple governments.

“The firing of the TGen and PWC CEOs does not address the abject failure of the Gunner government and relevant ministers to manage those agencies and their coordination. And with no one at the steering the wheel, a general malaise has settled into these agencies.”

The loss of T-Gen’s Duignan will be a particular disappointment for the nascent renewable energy industry in the Territory, because he had been the executive considered to be the most disposed, and with the best technical understanding, of how to incorporate renewables under the government’s 50 per cent renewable energy target.

Duignan had favoured a centralised battery in Darwin, partly to deal with the growing impact of rooftop solar in the capital city and partly to support the growing amount of grid-scale solar. But PwC has insisted that individual solar farms should match their rates capacity with individual batteries of a similar size, much to the horror of the industry.

The outage in Alice Springs – followed by a smaller one on Melbourne Cup day – sparked outrage from the Electrical Trades Union, angry about the loss of jobs in Alice Springs and elsewhere, particularly due to the decision to centralise control system rather than leave them in the hands of local operators.

The ETU had been calling for Duignan’s head for some time, and expressed satisfaction that he and PWC’s Thompson were sacked.

“This whole debacle could have been avoided if the companies and the government had shown real leadership by listening to workers and acting on their concerns raised about the condition of Ron Goodin PS and the capabilities of Owen Springs to deliver reliable power to the Alice Springs community,” he ETU said in a statement.

“For that reason it will be absolutely necessary that the new CEO’s for TGen and PWC come with the full suite of skills and attributes to do the job effectively, they will need to listen and act not blunder on and cover-up as the previous CEOs did.”

  1. The minister for Renewables, Energy & Essential Services, Dale Wakefield, said in a statement announcing the departures that the outage was unacceptable.

“That’s why the government has acted swiftly and decisively to ensure similar incidents don’t occur again,” she said in a statement.

Chief minister Michael Gunner said the reports had identified an “unacceptable” level of preparedness.

“No work had been done essentially for when this occurred to know how to respond to it in terms of role-playing, having the right procedures in place, or knowing how to respond …when it happens,” Gunner told local ABC Radio.

But Environment Centre NT’s Tan and Geoff Goodrich, director of Smart Energy NT, said the government had been warned of the potential of such events in the Roadmap to Renewables report, which had advised it to set up an independent agency. The government did nothing.

Had an Independent Implementation Agency been established, as noted in the report’s first set of recommendationsall of these problems could have been avoided,” Goodrich said.

“This independent agency would have coordinated the actions required to achieve the Territory’s 50 per cent renewable energy target, working in partnership with agencies and government-owned corporations.

“It is also clear from this report that the NT Utilities Commission Draft Position – PWC Generator Performance Standards needs a much longer review period in order to have the Northern Territory meet the government’s 50% renewables target.”

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9 Comments
  1. Patrick Comerford 1 week ago

    What galls me more than the results of this cock up is a great deal of taxpayer monies are paid to these CEO executives who when push comes too shove at the very least are asleep at the wheel. One can only hope their termination for incompetence is not sweetened by some secret bonus or contractual get out of goal free card. Whether NT polies responsible deserve the same treatment well that’s up to the voter.

  2. Craig Steddy 1 week ago

    No Ministers will be sacked/resigning I take it. Quelle surprise.

    • Craig Fryer 1 week ago

      That only happens under the Westminster system…wait a minute…

  3. Deplorable Me 1 week ago

    Funny how no one talks about what to do with these things in 10 years when they are no longer functional. Can you say toxic chemicals? Ha ha, you’re going to leave a worse planet than the one you inherited.

    • Craig Steddy 1 week ago

      more faux concern about the environment from a fossil. do you know what a solar panel is made up of? obviously not.
      it’s a myth that solar and lithium batteries are toxic. they can be safely dumped along all of the waste that you happily dump now.

  4. BB 1 week ago

    Last board meeting
    We have all this so called solar power now should we do anything
    Naah Every one knows solar does does not generate real power so nothing to do
    So Next Christmas party

  5. Pedro 1 week ago

    Good to see competency is duly rewarded. Hopefully this sends a message to the power industry that management has to be proactive with the changing energy production landscape.

  6. Rudolf 1 week ago

    Let’s get this clear – this is Alice Springs. This is a pretty dry, pretty sunny place. This is not northern Germany or the UK. If solar worked anywhere one would assume that this would sooner be Alice Springs than most other places on earth. And yet, it does not. I guess their backups were woefully undersized. To keep costs artificially down. Let’s start comparing apples to apples. If you want to compare cost competitiveness with fossil power solutions, be ready to perform the way fossil sources do. If you cant, whatever you are, you are not comparable and hence saying that you are as cheap as a fossil solution makes you a liar. Let’s see what the residents of Alice Springs think of solar if this happens a few more times – which it will.

    • Simon 1 week ago

      Rudolf. Alice Springs has had Solar for 10 Years to be Clear.

      This is a controls system issue with the instillation of the New Gas engines and the Big Battery.
      You can try to make it about Solar if you think that makes you look smart.
      lets talk about cost competitiveness, solar is cheaper than Gas or Diesel or coal i the same way as walking is cheaper than driving a car. Now try driving from your office the the office next door! Or walking from Home to the airport. A solution is a solution and it can be renewable and fossil and not one thing or the other.

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