Renewables, Blackouts and Power Grid Collapse in SA 2

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Friday, September 30th, 2016
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HOW DID IT HAPPEN?

Super cell storms with cyclonic winds ripped more than 20 transmission towers in SA’s north out of the ground, bringing down three major transmission lines. Lightning also caused damage to energy infrastructure with 80,000 strikes hitting the state over a short period. It’s believed that when the transmission lines came down, the frequency of the grid dropped to a point where an automatic shutdown was triggered, but investigations are ongoing.

DID RENEWABLE ENERGY PLAY ANY ROLE?

Energy experts say no. “It’s basically just unlucky in terms of both timing and location. It could happen in NSW, it just so happens it happened to be in the state with the most political discussion around renewable energy recently,” Dylan McConnell, a research fellow at the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne told AAP. He says that even if SA’s two coal power stations had been operating (they’re now closed) they wouldn’t have helped because they’re on the other side of where the infrastructure was damaged.

SO WHY ARE POLITICIANS TALKING ABOUT RENEWABLE ENERGY TARGETS?

Several politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg cited the “instability” renewables bring to an electricity system. Michael Brear from the Melbourne School of Engineering says there is some instability but it’s manageable.

“It’s important that … we don’t confuse what is a very unusual situation with what is normal operation of a system when things are operating perfectly as has been happening in Adelaide in the days prior,” Professor Brear says

WHAT IS INSTABILITY ANYWAY?

What they’re probably referring to is how an electricity grid is managed for frequency. Demand and supply have to be kept equal in the grid and that’s monitored by keeping it at a set frequency (in Australian it’s 50 hertz). When demand increases – for example when you switch on any appliance – and supply doesn’t increase to match it the frequency drops. Normally when that happens, the energy company will turn on more generators (in simple turns) and there is a whole market in place to cope with this.

Brear says coal and gas power plants have turbines that can be controlled to spin at 50 hertz but wind turbines spin at their own speed, meaning the grid frequency needs to be managed elsewhere.

HOW CAN A RENEWABLE ENERGY TARGET CHANGE THINGS?

Turnbull and Frydenberg have slammed state governments for setting “aggressive” and “unrealistic” renewable energy targets of 40-50 per cent, much higher than the federal government’s target of 23.5 per cent. But Brear says the renewable energy investment in SA has mostly been attracted there by the federal government’s target.

“The discussion about state versus federal energy policies is an entirely separate discussion to what happened yesterday,” he says. “But of course good policy is always desirable and a good national policy is always better than a good state policy.”

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  1. John Redfern

    This is good, reasoned and level headed discussion about the subject of renewables and the power grid.

    One thing which will be important going forward is that Australia has good, level-headed debate about the subject of renewables and the impacts which they really do have. A critical element of this is not just political leaders but also the media, whom I feel should sponsor balanced, fair minded and level headed debate about the critical facts about our energy system.

    Unfortunately, some media outlets are falling short in this area. One national media outlet in particular appears to adopt a negative tone toward renewable energy in the vast majority if not all of the articles which it publishes on the subject.. That is a pity because the topic is so important. The public need to be able to learn about renewables through their media outlets in a fair minded and non-bias way. That way, they will be able to cut through political spin and have an informed view of this topic.

    Energy is an important area of policy and debate. Let's hope media organisations step up to the plate and put away agendas to empower Australians to generate a truly informed view of this important subject.

  2. Ken

    The SA has grid that is very vulnerable to perturbations that do not bring down most other grid systems. The integration of wind and PV in SA is appropriate were the total amount amount of wind and PV be no more than 10% AND there is significant Spinning Reserve. But this is not the case and was not the case in September 2016. Were SA not to have 10% wind and PV then this blackout would not have happened. But it is wrong to then conclude that wind and PV is the "cause". That is like reducing all logic to Grade 3 History of good king bad king mentality. Leave the 40% renewables as they are but add significant non-generating Spinning Reserve. The grid needs the addition of Rotary Spinning Reserve like a big version of the Rotary Capacitors that were once used for power factor correction. Redeploy the alternators from Port Augusta?