The report by the Australian Energy Market Operator into the rolling blackouts or load shedding in South Australia last week reveal a sorry tale of bad management, lousy forecasts, dud software and failing fossil fuel plants.
The System Event Report for February 8, released on Wednesday afternoon, reveals that wind energy was not the culprit, despite the efforts of the Coalition and certain vested interests to make it so. This was a case bad management, and failing technology.
AEMO’s forecasts for temperatures and wind energy in South Australia on the afternoon of February 8 were hopelessly wrong. And when the crunch came after the operator realised its mistake, key fossil fuel infrastructure failed or melted down in the heat.
And then, to make matters worse, the local network operator completely stuffed up the management of the load shedding due to “software” issues – meaning that three times more people lost power than needed.
Wind did not fail – as even The Guardian and the AFR described it – AEMO just botched the forecasts, in the same way it did for temperature.
Indeed, as the graph above suggests, there was nearly twice as much wind power generated in South Australia during the afternoon and at the time of the blackout than had been predicted 24 hours earlier, and the market operator saw no problem with that.
But during the afternoon of February 8, AEMO completely misread the weather, changing its forecasts several times to assume ever more wind and falling temperatures, and getting it completely arse-about, because the opposite happened.
What AEMO could not have predicted, though, was the sudden failures of the various gas generators, some of which basically melted in the heat.
We already know that Pelican Point, supposedly the most efficient gas plant in the country, chose not to generate, and AEMO complains it was too slow and inflexible to respond to the change of events.
But another 300MW of gas plant was lost, some of it just minutes before the blackout. (That compares to a gradual loss of 100MW of wind energy below expectations).
AGL’s Torrens Island gas generator, the biggest in the state, lost one 120MW unit on Monday because of a boiler leak. It lost a further 60MW of capacity from another two units just 20 minutes before the blackout because the gas plant could not cope with high temperatures.
Three other gas units also suddenly dropped out of the system just over an hour before the load shedding, one (a Quarantine unit) for no apparent reason, and two other units Lincoln 1 and Lincoln 3, because failed electronics caused the loss of 73MW of power.
Indeed, it seems the only generation that performed to expectations and forecasts was the state’s significant capacity (705MW) of rooftop solar, another example of the critical role played by distributed energy, and the micro generators installed on the rooftops of consumers.
The South Australian grid cracked at what AEMO says is record demand of 3,085MW. But in fact overall demand was much higher than that for most of the afternoon, but was being met by rooftop solar, which performed exactly as expected during the day.
Rooftop solar provided a peak of 525MW at 1pm and was still providing 175MW of power when the rolling blackouts began soon after 6pm. Its output helped avoid high wholesale prices during most of the afternoon.
How frustrating for solar households that bad management from the grid operator and the network owner should deprive them of power even as their rooftop panels were capable of generating. Another powerful case for battery storage.
Little wonder that AEMO’s press release talked little of the details of the event and pleaded instead for a “unified approach” to energy policy. It is obvious that the tools have to be deployed and managed properly. That may require better policies and an improved culture.
“The complexities and challenges of managing short-notice generation capacity reductions amid high temperatures and increasing electricity consumption are real. And they’re here,” AEMO executive general manager of stakeholders and information, Joe Adamo said
Events do occur. In NSW two days later, load shedding hit the state’s biggest energy consumer, the Tomago aluminium smelter, because two of the biggest coal units went down and two of the biggest gas units also failed, one of them tripping.
In South Australia, there have been two other major load shedding incidents over the past 15 months. One, in December last year, hit BHP the hardest after a network issue in Victoria. More than 300MW was lost in 2015 due to another interstate network issue.
Load shedding occurred in both instances because the fossil fuel plant was too slow to react. In November 2015, it occurred with the Northern coal-fired power generator operating at full pelt, but the gas plants actually made the situation worse and two major units had to be switched off.
This is not about renewables. This is about having good management and the best technology. South Australians, and most of Australia, are paying huge prices for an ageing and dumb grid.
As South Australian energy minister Tom Koutsantonis said in response to the report: This was a litany of errors and the load shedding need not have happened. He is still angry about why Pelican Point was not switched on, an issue barely touched on by the AEMO report.
It’s time to move on and embrace renewables, smart software, battery storage, demand management and energy efficiency – the very things fiercely resisted by incumbents and policy makers in recent years.