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Beyond the blackout blame game: what do we do now?


With the statewide blackout sending Australia’s media and political establishment to their predictable ideological corners, the real question for South Australians is what we do next.

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The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) yesterday released the first factual rundown of what actually occurred during last week’s unprecedented statewide shutdown of the South Australian electricity grid.

Despite so much of the spin since then, it was an ambiguous document in many ways. While the storms pulling down transmission lines was the original cause, the subsequent events showed a number of trigger points – particularly the sudden loss of wind power generation leading to an overload and then shutdown of the interconnector to Victoria.

AEMO’s two contingency contractors – who are meant to provide the power to reboot the system after it goes “black” – both had problems, meaning the interconnector had to be brought back on stream to restart Torrens Island’s main power units (a process which appears to have happened with considerable speed).

The report, on the face of it, does point a finger at windfarms, but there isn’t enough information in the report to conclude that it was the nature of the wind energy, or SA’s high reliance on renewables, that was primarily to blame for the extent of the blackout. AEMO says that’s going to be the subject of further investigation.

So we have a mix of issues: “mainstream” infrastructure that has failed (whether reasonably or not); renewable energy generation that shutdown (whether reasonably or not); and conventional power back-up systems that also suffered failures.

Clearly, South Australians have the right to demand answers and to expect a more reliable and cheaper electricity system to avoid future disasters.

The economic cost is still being counted, but it could have been much worse. For example, the Arrium administrator Mark Mentha revealed today on ABC radio that the Whyalla steelworks and related mining operations came frighteningly close to a long-term shutdown – a circumstance he believes would have been the “death blow” for the operation.

Arrium is considering options for generating its own local power – possibly using co-generation – to safeguard its future.

So while we await AEMO’s final word on the shutdown, some informed people are highlighting areas for potential change to the electricity network, beyond the political noise. Here are a few of their thoughts.

Big power

You wouldn’t know it from the political debate, but some people involved with big power – those companies deeply involved in conventional power generation – believe the electricity market needs to change to aid the transition to a carbon-neutral future.

AGL, which provides conventional and renewable power to millions of homes in Australia including in SA, wants to see an “orderly” transition to a “modern, secure and low-emissions electricity system”.

AGL CEO Andy Vesey this week posted a blog on the company’s website saying that he hoped the blackout would provide a catalyst for long-overdue reforms to energy policy.

“Most importantly, policy makers need to better integrate the three key, but sometimes competing objectives: competitiveness; energy security and decarbonisation,” he wrote.

He says a key problem is Australia’s ageing stock of conventional power stations. They must be “retired”, he argues, to enhance energy security. It will do this by “bringing forward the necessary investment in new generation, both renewable and complimentary conventional assets”.

“An old infrastructure is a much less secure infrastructure,” he said.

The policies surrounding the national electricity market also have to be rethought, to provide an incentive for new investment in renewables and “complementary capacity (such as open-cycle gas turbines or advanced batteries”.

“Renewable policy frameworks should evolve to creating ‘virtual’ firm low-emissions ‘baseload’ generation,” he says.

The Australian Energy Council, which represents power companies, also believes the the grid needs to change to accommodate the “decarbonising” electricity system, particularly to ensure security of supply, and weather-proofing infrastructure, “given we are now operating a more weather-dependent electricity system”.

The nuclear advocate

One of the leading players in South Australia’s nuclear debate, consultant and environmental advocate Ben Heard, believes the shutdown highlights the need for more reliable “clean energy” power generation.

Writing on his blog, Heard says ” the way forward for clean energy in South Australia must include generation sources that are reliable and can boost the inertia in our system”.

“Ideally we would be able to dot them around our grid to balance generation and mitigate risk from transmission failure. Ideally they would be good load followers to work effectively and economically with the wind generation. Basically, if we want to keep moving to clean while protecting and restoring reliability, we need small modular nuclear reactors.

“So, take care before flogging this government. The move to wind has often been very popular here, and whether criticism is deserved or not for current conditions, this government has also shown tremendous courage in bringing the nuclear option to the table for South Australia, and right now they are asking us for our position.

“In this commentator’s opinion it is up to us to demand a way forward for clean energy with nuclear involved in our system. If we don’t, we stand a real risk of turning around and going back.”

The independent energy expert

Dylan McConnell, a researcher from the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne, is cautious about drawing conclusions yet, given the ambiguity of AEMO’s preliminary findings.

However, he believes there are some important considerations to take in mind as the community and government policy-makers respond to the blackout.

Firstly, he says the South Australian community should think carefully about the downsides to “gold plating” the system – primarily whether we are prepared to add costs to our already expensive electricity system.

“What do we plan for, and what risks are we willing to take? What are we willing to pay? To prevent this (the cut to transmission), we could have undergrounded all of the transmission lines between Port Augusta and Adelaide, but that would cost a fortune.”

He also believes there are operational and policy questions to be considered about how to manage the system in future extreme weather events.

For example, AEMO has the capacity to constrain the flow of power via the interconnector, so that more of the supply is coming from within South Australia.

“Why didn’t that happen in this case?”

Under-frequency load shedding was also an option that could be considered in future events, to avoid the overload on the interconnector, and maintain some supply within South Australia.

“There was a loss of generation output which put a huge strain on the infrastructure. Protection equipment cut in to drop the Heywood Interconnector. An alternative reaction could have been to load shed within South Australia.”

Another policy consideration for the future is the possibility of “micro grids” being developed to allow power supply to continue in some areas.

McConnell points out there are barriers to this occurring. For example, rooftop solar systems disconnect from the grid during blackouts, mostly to protect line workers from being electrocuted as they work to restore power. That would need to be reconsidered.

“It’s a theoretical possibility that micro grids could play a part in avoiding situations like this in the future,” he says.

It’s an idea that has some traction in New York, which lost its power when Hurricane Sandy battered the Atlantic coast of the US in 2012.

The state has since been looking seriously at the option of micro grids to provide a more balanced and resilient electricity network.

Read more on these issues:

Batteries the key to more reliable, cheaper SA energy: Garnaut

SA blackout politics overshadow the real power issues




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