Blackouts don’t normally get international attention, so for those who didn’t hear, Australia’s southern state of South Australia last week suffered a massive and total blackout due to one of the most extreme weather events to hit the state over the last 50 years.
At approximately 3:45pm Wednesday afternoon (September 28), all of South Australia and its 1.67 million residents lost power, and did not see power fully restored until 4:15am on Thursday — with further, less widespread outages experienced over the following days. Almost immediately reports revealed that the massive storm had damaged infrastructure near the city of Port Augusta, which triggered a series of events requiring the larger-network to shut down to protect itself from any future damage.
Regardless, politicians from around Australia jumped on the news of the power outage to place the blame squarely on South Australia’s renewable energy industry — the state leading the way in Australia as the largest consumer of renewable energy. Despite immediate reports to the contrary from utilities and operators, front-page headlines furthered the narrative that renewable energy was to blame.
While South Australia has an impressive level of renewable energy, specifically wind energy, supplying electricity to the grid, it nevertheless includes an interconnector from neighbouring Victoria supplying coal-generated electricity which can be tapped in the event of lower levels of renewable energy generation. Knowledge of this interconnector raised eyebrows for as politicians right up to, and including the country’s Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull blamed renewable energy for the blackout. Specifically, Malcolm Turnbull criticised the state Labor governments for prioritising lower emissions over energy security:
“Energy security should always be the key priority … whether it is hydro, wind, solar, coal, or gas,” he said. “A number of the state Labor Governments have over the years set priorities and renewable targets that are extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic, and have paid little or no attention to energy security.”
Malcolm Turnbull was flat-out wrong, but the fact that he said it from his podium to a national audience means very few people will be aware of that. Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten shot back, explaining that the Coalition was “playing politics with what is a natural disaster” and that “The fact that we’ve had a one in 50-year storm is not due to renewable energy, it’s due to the weather.
“This government will do anything to politicise an issue, a disaster.”
Enquiries and Reports
Unsurprisingly, over the last few days three separate enquiries have been announced into the blackout — one from the South Australian State Government, one from the Council of Australian Governments which will focus on national issues resulting from the mass power outage, and another review from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) looking into the technical issues.
On Wednesday, the AEMO published a preliminary report, but were quick to note that their “observations” were “initial” and “based on early data and information”, and would “provide a further update” later in the month — though they also noted that “a detailed report on the SA region Black System, including recommendations, may take up to six months to complete.”
What the AEMO did discover, however, was that not much is known.
South Australian Generation-Mix Pre-Event
What we do know (PDF), however, is that on Wednesday, 28 September, amidst a massive storm which contained high winds, thunderstorms, lightning strikes, hail, and heavy rainfall, multiple transmission faults occurred in the space of 12 seconds, including the loss of three major 275 kV transmission lines north of the capital of Adelaide. “Generation initially rode through the faults”, but at 16:18 hours Australian Eastern Standard Time following a number of multiple faults across a short period, 315 MW of wind generation somehow disconnected, affecting the region north of Adelaide. What followed was an “uncontrolled reduction in generation” which increased the flow on the main Victorian interconnector in an effort to make up the deficit, which resulted in the interconnector overloading.
“To avoid damage to the interconnector, the automatic-protection mechanism activated, tripping the interconnector and resulting in the remaining customer load and electricity generation in SA being lost. This automatic-protection operated in less than half a second at 16:18hrs and the event resulted in the SA regional electricity market being suspended.”
My Own Response
On Sunday night I stood and yelled at the TV screen in the middle of a Hungry Jacks (Burger King, for the rest of the world) listening to a politician decry the state of renewable energy in South Australia, and blame it for the blackout. As it stands, a lot of the mainstream media in Australia, both on TV and in print, have been ceaselessly covering this story, allowing the general public to assume that renewable energy was somehow to blame.
Writing for The Australian on Wednesday — a staunchly Liberal Party (which are not liberal) media outlet — Graham Lloyd has echoed the sentiments of many accusing South Australia’s renewable energy policy, describing the defence of renewable energy as “foolish” in light of the AEMO’s preliminary report.
However, Lloyd’s, and others interpretation of events seem somewhat unbalanced, to say the least. They blame the sudden drop in wind energy for the whole affair — which seems odd, considering that the turbines were smack back in the middle of the path of the storm, had been generating 880 MW of wind energy pre-event, and aren’t likely to have stopped turning in the middle of a storm. Lloyd and co. similarly claim that the sudden drop in wind output was the first event to occur — and that all the transmission towers went down after the event.
However, according to AEMO’s own report, three 275 kV transmission line faults were reported at 16:17:33, 16:17:59, and 16:18:08 resulting in three 275 kV transmission lines out of service (and one unaffected). Only at 16:18:09 did the 123 MW reduction in output from the North Brown Hill Wind Farm, Bluff Wind Farm, Hallett Wind Farm, and Hallett Hill Wind Farms occur, followed at 16:18:13 by three more 2745 kV transmission lines going out of service. At 16:18:15 there was a 86 MW reduction in output from the Hornsdale wind farm, followed immediately by a 106 MW reduction in ouput from the Snowtown 2 wind farm.
At this point, at 16:18:15, flow across the Heywood Interconnector with Victoria increase to over 850 MW, followed at 16:18:16 by complete supply lost to all South Australia region of the National Electricity Market.
There were certainly more towers damaged subsequent to the blackout — the storm didn’t magically stop once it had done its damage and then go home for the day — but by the time power was lost, a total of at least 6 275 kV towers were down and out.
The current challenge to renewable energy is picking and choosing its own facts and figures from the report in an effort to promote its own agenda, while at the same time accusing those of us defending renewable energy’s involvement in the blackout as pushing our own agenda.
Speaking at the All Energy conference in Melbourne, Victoria, this week, the chief executive of AGL, the largest electricity generator and retailer in South Australia, dismissed Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion that coal-fired generation might have helped to avoid the blackout.
“It doesn’t make any difference what is hanging off the end of those wires. When you lose significant transmission and have significant change in real time between load and supply, bad things happen.”
Wading into the furore, the Chief Executive of the Clean Energy Council, Kane Thornton, similarly reiterated how little it mattered just what electricity the state relied on:
“You cannot get power to residents and businesses when huge electricity pylons are bent in half and the powerlines are lying on the ground. This was a once-in-50-year storm which placed extraordinary stress on the power system, and the cascading events that followed the damage to the transmission system have never been experienced before.”
Have a tip for CleanTechnica? Want to advertise? Want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.
CleanTechnica Holiday Wish Book
Our Latest EVObsession Video
CleanTechnica uses affiliate links. See our policy here.