South Australia blackout didn’t stop energy transition, it accelerated it

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Two years on from the South Australia blackout, things are not working out quite as the renewable antis might have hoped. It has actually highlighted the grim reality about Australia’s ageing and vulnerable grid. If anything, the energy transition has been accelerated rather than stalled.

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It took a matter of minutes for the fossil fuel industry to seize on the state-wide blackout in South Australia in September 2016 and point to the so-called dangers of adding too much renewable energy into the grid. They’re still at it.

The blackout may have been caused by a freak weather incident, but climate deniers, technology troglodytes and conservatives saw it as manna from heaven. The politicians seized on opportunity to beat their ideological drums and the most trenchant critics even prayed for another big blackout – just to reinforce their point.

Two years on from the state-wide “system black” (September 28, 2016) – and things are not working out quite as the renewable antis might have hoped. Far from bringing the energy transition to a halt, it has actually highlighted the grim reality about Australia’s ageing and vulnerable grid.

It is now clear – at least to energy authorities and market operators – that the solution lies not, as the current federal government might wish, in putting a lick of paint on yesterday’s technologies and calling them “fair dinkum”. It’s about embracing the smart technologies of the 21st Century. If anything, the transition has been accelerated rather than stalled.

Not that you would know it from the press, or at least the mainstream media. The Murdoch media has not let up from a relentless campaign against wind and solar and new-fangled things, and has been so emboldened by the new Morrison government it has even dragged out ageing engineers and the fantasy of nuclear.

Even Fairfax Media on Thursday published an article from a pro-coal propaganda outfit called The Australian Power Project, claiming that Victoria and South Australia “need power from the Hunter to stay in business and to keep the lights on.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. NSW has been unable to export power for much of the last two years.

South Australia’s energy mix is a world leading percentage of wind and solar – more than 50 per cent and rising quickly. These are the so called “intermittents” – as the federal government will tell you endlessly – that don’t work when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

Fortunately, unless we are in worse trouble than we thought, the sun does rise every day and while solar and wind output are variable, they are highly predictable.

And until they reach very high percentages, the Finkel Review, the CSIRO, the network owners and the market operators tells us – wind and solar can rely on the same enormous capacity of back-up power that was built years ago to support the fossil fuel “base-load”.

And storage – exemplified by the hugely impressive Tesla big battery in South Australia – is now very much a thing.

It’s about to be joined by another three big batteries before this coming summer, and by another half dozen in the following year, dozens of new battery “trials”, and tens of thousands of individual batteries located in homes and businesses that will usher in the shift to a truly “decentralised” grid of the future.

And batteries, along with demand management products, and various models such as virtual power plant, mini-grids and shared solar –  are going to prove that they are faster, smarter, quicker, cheaper, cleaner and more reliable than the diesel and peaking gas generators they will ultimately replace.

So much so that AEMO – in its Integrated System Plan, a 20 year blueprint for the future – is confidently predicting that the entire National Electricity Market will be close to 50 per cent renewables by 2030, and could even be well over 60 per cent if a government with more ambitious targets gets in power.

South Australia is now charging towards the equivalent of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2025, AEMO tell us. Tellingly, the only thing the new Liberal state government is proposing that is different to Labor is a new connection to NSW, to add to its security and also to boost the prospects of exporting more renewables east-wards.

AEMO seems happy with this prognosis, as long as the planning it has outlined in its ISP is acknowledged followed, and investments are made in the right areas – stronger interconnections, more local system strength.

Like the CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia study of a year earlier, it finds embracing new technologies is likely to be significantly cheaper and more reliable than not.

(And on this point, I urge you to listen to the next episode of the Energy Insiders podcast, where we have a fascinating interview with Origin Energy’s Greg Jarvis, about the embrace of renewables and the shift beyond baseload. It will be published on Tuesday).

Indeed, for all the huffing and puffing of their supporters, it is the fossil fuel generators that are causing the most concern for the market operator.

These ageing monoliths struggle in the heat, which means they are more prone to failure when they are needed most – at times of extreme heat and extreme demand. So far this year, the big coal and gas generators have tripped more than 100 times.

And remember, it was the co-called “black start” fossil fuel generators that failed so dramatically in the “system black”, and prolonged the outage for so many hours. It’s interesting to note that Origin is now installing a battery at its Mt Stuart peaking plant near Townsville, explicitly for this purpose.

There is no doubt that AEMO was chastened by the “system black” and the load-shedding that followed in February, 2017, when the state’s biggest and most modern gas unit was left unused and AEMO found itself 3 per cent short of power and blackouts – worsened by a network software error – were imposed on unsuspecting, and unhappy consumers.

AEMO has responded as you might suspect.

Firstly, while the transition is underway and the ageing coal generators slowly pack their bags and new technology is added – by taking a more interventionist approach.

Not everyone likes this, and there are huge debates – mostly constructive – about the management of the grid, how to control inertia, and the role of various technologies. And its new rules on technical requirements has caused delays, angst and budget blowouts for a significant number of new wind and solar farms.

AEMO has also had to fight the market rule maker to get its way – but for at least the next few summers it will have access to emergency reserves – a mix of demand management, batteries and some temporary diesel generators – to make sure it can get through the worst days. Extreme heat, fires, and storms will be its worst nightmare.

It is noticeable that under new CEO Audrey Zibelman, who joined AEMO well after both those events, is focusing on new technologies, and some not so new technologies that had hitherto been ignored in Australia, thanks to the intense lobbying of the fossil fuel generators.

Zibelman’s fundamental points are these: Wind and solar are easily the cheapest form of bulk generation. But when dispatchability and back-up are needed, why look to building more machines that burn stuff, at high emissions and high prices, when there are smarter, cleaner and cheaper alternatives, and this includes demand management, energy efficiency and storage.

A major event that happened a month ago, the day after Morrison became PM, illustrates how these new technologies are progressing. The twin lightning strikes and sudden failure of two major transmissions lines triggered a series of events that might have been as devastating as the South Australia blackout.

Whole suburbs in NSW and Victoria were blacked out, three major hotlines at aluminium smelters in the Hunter Valley and Victoria were taken off line, and even industrial customers in Tasmania were cut off. The Queensland and South Australia grid were islanded.

All of this happened, like the cascading events in South Australia, in a matter of seconds. The difference this time was while some coal and hydro generators went off-line in Queensland, the grid held together best in renewables-dominant South Australia, thanks in part to the role played by the Tesla big battery.

Arguably, South Australia now has the most reliable grid in the country. The event rated barely a mention in the mainstream media, apart from a detailed analysis by the AFR’s Ben Potter.

The irony is that South Australia is the state facing the least dramatic transition going forward. It’s huge pipeline of new wind, solar and storage projects, flagshipped by Sanjeev Gupta’s bold plan to “solarise” the Whyalla steelworks, then the state, and then the country, will take it inevitably towards 100 per cent renewable share.

Both Victoria and Queensland have committed targets of getting to 40 per cent and 50 per cent renewables by 2025 and 2030 respectively, but it is NSW – with no stated target – that faces the most change because it has the most amount of ageing coal generators that will need to shut over the next decade.

The coal generators are responding by demanding subsidies – in the form of capacity payments and calls for restrictions on the amount of renewables allowed into the grid at any one time. It’s a nonsense argument, but with the current government you can never tell.

What have been the lessons learned? The blackout certainly underlined the need for the market operator to know more about the equipment it orchestrates, from the settings in software in wind and solar farms, to the governor controls and settings on the traditional coal and gas generators.

Along with the controversial load shedding that occurred in February, 2017, it also underlined the need to keep a weather eye on the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts, and to respond with contingency measures if a risk is assessed.

This can certainly be seen in the way that AEMO now operates the grid, its readiness to declare contingency events, and the new parameters it has drawn, and gradually relaxes, about how many spinning turbines should be operating when wind and solar are at full throttle.

Meanwhile, memories of the blackout will be rekindled when the Australian Energy Regulator delivers its report into the blackout. That is due sometime before the year end. It will no doubt scrutinise the role played by AEMO, and, as French renewable energy developer Neoen warned in its prospectus, attributing blame could lead to a suite of suits.

RenewEconomy asked AEMO what lessons it had learned since that event, and what it had done to ensure no repeat – even as another hot summer is forecast to test the durability of the generation fleet.

AEMO pointed to those increased technical performance requirements on generating systems, including a requirement to ride through multiple voltage disturbances, and the need for increased power system modelling requirements and data provision, including the disclosure of critical plant settings.

It says it has development and validated a full-scale, highly detailed simulation model of SA system against high-speed data captured during the event, and designed a “system integrity protection scheme” to pre-emptively trigger batteries followed by load shedding to avoid system separation.

The Tesla big battery plays a key role in this, as we saw last month.

AEMO has also read the riot act to the owners of coal and gas plants, and hydro for that matter to ensure they were properly maintained and it had the right quantity and combination of synchronous generators at all times to achieve sufficient system strength.

Other measures include developing an effective strategy to improve system frequency (and here it is interesting to see the contribution of batteries and wind farms to that service), and more stringent requirements on procurement and testing of black start services.

Finally, and perhaps most important of all, it has developed a deeper partnership with the BoM to “allow understanding the impact of severe and multiple weather events on power system performance.”

The reality is that 99 per cent of all outages are caused at the network level – falling trees on wires, storms, bush-fires, equipment failure. Australia has a stunningly high reliability target for generation that is set at 99.9998 per cent.

For all the headlines, it has already met that. South Australia has only been caught short of generating power for 1.9 “load minutes” this decade (0.00004%), down from 16.8 load minutes last decade (0.00032%),” notes Simon Holmes a Court, from the Energy Transition Hub. But this summer, all eyes will still be on the weather.

 

Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.

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