Freak storms trigger summer of discontent

AUSTRALIA: A violent storm last September brought the entire electricity grid in South Australia to its knees. In its wake, an equally savage political storm blew up, with renewables in general, and wind power in particular, blamed for the outages.

Extreme… South Australia saw up to 80,000 lightning strikes in a single afternoon last September (pic: Johnwestra/flickr)

On the afternoon of 28 September 2016, a cyclonic storm, described as a one-in-a-half-century event, tore through the state of South Australia, which endured as many as 80,000 lightning strikes, gale force winds and even a couple of tornadoes.

The state's wind farms initially rode out the grid disturbances prompted by the collapse of pylons and loss of key transmission lines during two tornadoes with wind speeds up to 260km/h.

Although the activation of a protection mechanism in the turbines triggered a sustained reduction in power in the state, with a drop of 456MW in a few seconds, subsequent assessments observed that the outages were primarily caused by the storm's impact on transmission, not generation, infrastructure.


29 September

Australian deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce (pictured, right), a vocal and vociferous critic of renewables, is the first to weigh in, observing that wind power "wasn't working too well last night, because they had a blackout".

He fails to observe that components integral to the transmission of electricity weren't working too well on the night of the storm either. That included 22 flattened pylons that brought down power lines, causing voltage glitches that triggered wind turbines' ride-throughs, some of which were not set to accept this happening repeatedly.

In a series of radio interviews during the day, Joyce claims South Australia has become too reliant on renewable energy, wind in particular, and that its lack of coal-fired baseload power contributed to the blackout. His comments prompt Bill Shorten, Labor Party and opposition leader, to accuse the government of playing politics with a natural disaster.

Jay Weatherill, the South Australian premier, criticises Joyce for his "ignorant" comments. "When there's a crisis people pull out their agendas," he tells ABC. "Barnaby Joyce hates wind power, so he pulls that out."

Federal energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg questions whether South Australia is too reliant on renewable energy, though acknowledging the blackout was down to the weather and not linked to renewables. "These are unrealistic state-based targets, and my job is to try and bring the states to the table with the commonwealth," he says.

30 September

ABC News's political editor, Chris Uhlmann, also wonders whether the state's heavy reliance on wind turbines might have increased the risk of a state-wide blackout. He breaks out the problems that this type of generation poses. The first is intermittency, so all of it has to be backed up by baseload power for those days when the wind does not blow.

The second, as he puts it, is a "diabolically tricky engineering problem", so diabolically tricky that he fails to provide a fully detailed explanation.

"For an electricity network to function, demand and supply have to be kept in the perfect harmony of 50 hertz every second of every day... This electrical harmony is called synchronous supply. Thermal power is very good at delivering it to the grid, while wind power is asynchronous as its frequency fluctuates with the breeze and has to be stabilised by the give and take of other sources of demand and supply," asserts Uhlmann.

He neglects to explain that synchronous supply is due to having lots of rotating mass from the thermal generators found in fossil-fuel power stations, which creates inertia in the system to absorb frequency deviations.

As grids transition to use less fossil fuels and more clean, emissions-free renewables, this inherent inertia diminishes. One way of substituting this inherent inertia is to use energy storage to inject and absorb electrons into the grid to control frequency. Another is to pay power users to change consumption. Both solutions are being facilitated by grid operators across North America and Europe, a development that Uhlmann fails to mention.

5 October

The Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo) publishes a preliminary report into the state-wide grid outage. Energy economist Bruce Mountain is quoted in a Guardian Australia article, saying the report makes it abundantly clear that the South Australian event was "a transmission failure, not a generation failure".

Uhlmann pens a second piece for ABC, writing: "Now to dare suggest that the state's heavy reliance on wind generation might have made its grid more vulnerable to a blackout is heresy."

Giles Parkinson, who writes for Australian clean-energy website Renew Economy, asks if Uhlmann is the "new face of the anti-wind lobby".

"The problem with Uhlmann's line - apart from revealing his own personal prejudice, or ignorance - was that it was still being repeated as gospel by mainstream ABC news reports, on ABC News Radio and local stations," says Parkinson. "Power was still out, the reports said, because wind power 'was not available'."

ABC admits to receiving around 180 complaints and comments concerning the one-sided aspects of its coverage of the South Australian blackout, including Uhlmann's analysis.

19 October

Aemo releases new information that reveals 13 wind farms in the state "tripped" after the freak winds blew over a number of transmission lines. "Several wind farms have already implemented revised settings, allowing them to ride through a higher number of disturbances," it said

Energy expert Dylan McConnell from the Melbourne Energy Institute says it is likely wind farms needed more conservative "voltage ride-through" settings than coal or gas generators. But he points out that if South Australia had fewer wind farms, this particular event would still have played out the same way. Although the storm was a freak event, the resulting analysis could help network operators, market operators and policymakers create a more robust network, he says.

6 December

Frydenberg succumbs to pressure from within Malcolm Turnbull's administration and announces that an emissions trading scheme is not under contemplation, backtracking on comments made the previous day. His initially positive comments were in line with advice from the Climate Change Authority, the energy ministry and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

8 December

Australia's chief scientist, Alan Finkel (pictured, right), says "political instability and uncertainty" has stalled investment in the electricity sector and warns that current federal climate policy settings will not allow Australia to meet its emissions-reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

Finkel's comments follow the publication of his 58-page preliminary report circulated before the Council of Australian Governments meeting between the prime minister and state premiers on 9 December.

The Finkel report was commissioned by Frydenberg at the previous meeting of state and federal ministers, immediately after South Australia's blackout in September. In it, the chief scientist implicitly endorses an emissions intensity trading scheme for the electricity industry to help manage the transition to cleaner energy generation.

The Turnbull government had wanted to use the report as a justification to roll back state-based renewable-energy targets, which it claims are making the electricity market less secure.

28 December

Exactly three months after the cyclone, a wild storm leads to lengthy blackouts in South Australia, as high winds bring down trees and power lines. Compensation payments of A$20 million (US$15 million) are made to 75,000 customers by distribution utility SA Power Networks.

8 February

During a heatwave, more blackouts ensue in South Australia, affecting 40,000 people.

28 February

Aemo representatives face questioning at a senate committee hearing in the capital Canberra over the agency's own culpability in avoiding the blackouts. David Swift, executive general manager of corporate development, admits there had been an error in forecasting on the day of the blackout.

He tells the committee the problem was due to existing thermal generators being unable to come online, with the lack of availability blamed on "technical issues".

Aemo had not directed a gas plant at Pelican Point to generate power because the market operator failed to foresee the need to issue a direction early enough, due to its projection of market demand being out by 3%.

The South Australian energy minister, Tom Koutsantonis, says Aemo had been "caught short".

Turnbull says the problem was that the South Australian government did not do enough contingency planning to secure the grid, laying the blame with too much renewables.

9 March

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk claims he can solve South Australia's energy woes within 100 days with energy storage, or he'll deliver the 100MW battery for free.

12 March

Turnbull phones Musk and has an hour-long chat, discussing not only South Australia, but broader network issues and ways of improving battery technology.

But before talking to Turnbull, Musk also spoke with Weatherill, about a technological fix in the state, which could be used to balance out the intermittency of wind.

In response to the news of the phone calls, Green Party leader Richard Di Natale describes as "nonsense" the idea that the barrier to the transition to renewable energy is only a technological one. "It's a political barrier, it's a failure of planning, it's a failure of investment in the right parts of the grid," he says.

14 March

The South Australian government announces it will intervene in the national energy market, proposing a A$550 million plan, to be financed by state-government surpluses, which aims to manage the state's volatile power supply and prices.

Launching the plan, Weatherill (pictured, left) says it was "clear the national energy market is failing the nation, as well as South Australia. And this is pretty extraordinary given we are a country that has an abundance of solar, wind and gas resources. For a country of that sort to be facing an energy crisis is a disgrace."

The six-point plan includes building the largest grid-connected battery in Australia to store energy, funded by a new renewable technology fund, and creating an energy-security target to require a proportion of power used within South Australia to be generated within the state.

28 March

Aemo publishes its final report on the South Australia grid outage, concluding that the storm on 28 September triggered "a cascading sequence resulting in the state separating from the national energy market".

Wind's intermittency was not a material factor in the blackout, but the impact of the sudden drop in power due to the in-built protection mechanisms was "greater than expected".

However, Aemo warns that a significant change in the generation mix in the national electricity market means it is no longer appropriate to rely solely on coal and gas base-load power — synchronous generation — to provide voltage control, frequency control, inertia and system strength.

5 April

Sustainable-energy entrepreneur Simon Holmes a Court is among the signatories of an open letter urging the prime minister to introduce pressing energy-market reforms to lower prices and emissions, and improve network security. The open letter is published in a full-page advertisement, taken out by the Australia Institute in the Australian Financial Review. It calls on the government to act before the peaks in electricity demand hit next summer.

The letter proposes three quick measures:

  • A "five-minute rule" to address demand peaks by changing market rules to allow very large consumers such as smelters to profit from demand management;
  • Proven software systems - used in at least 12 countries around the world - to aggregate large numbers of commercial and industrial consumers into "virtual peak plants" that will provide safe and scheduled reductions in load, on commercially competitive terms;
  • Contracting ancillary services to ensure reliability of electricity frequency in the grid. "Our system needs new markets for additional services to reflect changing demands and technology."

Weatherill backs the call to action. "It's clear there's now broad acceptance the national energy market is broken," he says. "We're supportive of the measure advanced in the letter, and we've been advocating for them at the national level."