The sun doesn’t always shine! The wind doesn’t always blow! There’s never enough renewable energy when you need it most! Only fossil fuels can make the grid reliable! We hear this sort of blather from fossil fuel apologists all the time. But when the mercury soared in Australia recently, it was the fossil fuel powered generating plants that failed to deliver.
In Victoria, more than 1.8 GW of electrical capacity was lost when two fossil fueled generating stations went off line during record setting heat. Alcoa, the country’s largest energy consumer, had its power cut for two hours and up to 200,000 homes lost electricity due to “load shedding” ordered by the Australian Energy Market Operator according to a report by PV Magazine Australia.
“We lost 1,800 MW of power capacity generation in Victoria,“ state energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio said. “That is an extraordinary figure to lose. Essentially most of that was a result of failed infrastructure from coal and gas – in particular coal. The fact is that our thermal generators are ageing, they are becoming less and less reliable. Wind power came through today, it produced sufficient power generation. Our largest batteries were available last night when we needed them the most. Renewable energy is the way of the future and the here and now.”
Climate change is contributing to the problem. As temperatures in Adelaide, South Australia’s largest city, hit a record of 46.6º Celsius last week, power transformers overheated and shut down, leaving 30,000 homes without power. But none of this should come as a surprise. AEMO issued a report last year in which it warned hotter summer temperatures would place additional burdens on an already fragile grid. “People should be rightly disappointed that the power grid was not up to the stakes today,” D’Ambrosio. “We have a 20th century energy system for a 21st century climate.”
Almost one fifth of Australian homes have rooftop solar installations, which is proving to be a major factor in meeting the demand for more electricity during the heat of the day. Charts released by the Australia Institute show how those systems are helping meet the need for electricity during periods of highest demand.
Yesterday rooftop solar reduced heatwave peak demand in NSW by 1138MW, QLD by 858MW, SA by 240MW, Vic by 560MW. Total peak reduction for NEM states 2796MW! Solar delivers when power needed most: peak demand on heatwave days #auspol #springst #qldpol #nswpol #gasandcoalwatch pic.twitter.com/Hr1yas5ERY
— Australia Institute (@TheAusInstitute) January 23, 2019
Australia, like most countries, has a grid built for distributing electricity from a few central generating system. One of the challenges for renewable energy going forward is siting wind and solar farms in places where their output can be connected to the grid efficiently.
As Anthony Donaghue of Born2Invest writes, “Australia is in an energy predicament. On one hand, it is blessed with a lot of renewable energy sources, far more than non-renewables. On the other, it is held back by antagonistic politicians and an electric grid that cannot effectively manage the broad range of sources attempting to connect. Regardless, renewable energy companies are entering the market to help replace aging coal plants and to even turn Australia into a renewable energy exporter.”
The situation is made more difficult by the state and federal governments pulling in opposite directions on renewables. Victoria, South Australia, and Queensland are pushing hard for more renewables while federal policy makers are pulling back hard on the reins, trying to promote the construction of more coal fired generating stations. Who wins will be determined more by economics than ideology. As the cost of renewables continues to decline, they will make investing in other forms of power generation more and more unwise. Even ideologues cannot ignore the wisdom of the bottom line.