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.”
- 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 recommendations, all 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.”