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How Do We Help The Grid Survive El Niño In Australia?

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Australians watching the news about Canada’s current spate of wildfires will remember our own horrifying bushfires a couple of years ago. The fear is compounded by news stories of the coming El Niño, the current dry winter (in the Southern Hemisphere), and predictions that the grid is not ready. How do we help the grid survive El Niño?

Dylan McConnell, Senior Research Associate and Renewable Energy & Energy Systems Analyst at UNSW Sydney, and Iain MacGill, Joint Director of Collaboration on Energy and Environmental Markets and Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications at UNSW Sydney, seek to warn us that absolute peak usage driven by peak maximum temperatures threatens supply and will drive extreme prices. Until the grid is ready, we need to plan for the worst case scenario.

A few years of El Niña have led to high vegetation growth. Couple this with a dry winter and then a hot dry summer and we have a recipe for large bushfires, loss of property, loss of human life and wild life, and stresses on the grid. Australia’s grid is already stressed as it transitions from coal and gas to renewables. Ten years of neglect from a dithering federal government, which openly touted a gas-led recovery of the economy, has not helped. Investment in new generation has been slow, fossil fuel generator maintenance has been delayed, and transmission lines have not been put in place. So, we need to give consideration to what we can do to help the grid survive.

“The Bureau of Meteorology this week declared a 70% chance of an El Niño developing this year. It’s bad timing for the electricity sector, and means Australians may face supply disruptions and more volatile energy prices,” McConnell and MacGill write. “El Niño events are associated with increased temperatures and heatwaves. These conditions drive demand for electricity, especially in summer.” We, in Australia, are being encouraged to plan for the worst.

“Earlier this year, the Australian Energy Market Operator warned electricity demand ‘may exceed supply’ at times over the next decade due to factors such as weather conditions or generator outages.”

From November on, as temperatures rise and air conditioners are turned on, Australians will need to have a considered approach to energy use. In preparation for this, we have equipped our Queensland home with efficient air conditioners, and have had the west facing windows tinted. I trim our trees and hedges in winter and then let them grow in spring to shield the house from the sun. Last night over dinner we discussed cooling the house before peak demand and then turning off the AC till later in the evening. We could even cool one room at a time. I am told that 24 degrees is the most efficient setting. We will continue our practice of turning off appliances at the wall to avoid standby power use.

And of course, charging the car during off peak periods. This will help the grid survive the coming summer.

At the start of the Ukraine war, Europeans expected an energy crisis. Although prices rose, there were minimal blackouts. Australians may have to use some of the strategies employed in Europe to nurse the grid through the worst of the summer — behaviors will need to change. Office buildings, especially in the CBD, may need to turn off some of their lights at night time.

Our suburb competes in the radio competition for best Christmas lights display. Long lines of cars snake around the narrow streets — full of children agog at well-lit trees, reindeer, and Santas. These may need to be turned off when the kids have gone to bed, rather than run all night. Some of our neighbours still have some Christmas lights on now, and yes, they run all night. And yes, they complain about their electricity bills.

Electricity companies resort to loadshedding in order to protect the grid: “This happened in Victoria in early 2019, when more than 200,000 customers lost power during a period of extreme heat.”

Although El Nińo means more sunshine to feed Australia’s many solar farms, it also means less rainfall for hydropower-dependent grids like Tasmania and New South Wales. Energy consumption in southern states peaks in winter for heating and in northern states it peaks in summer as the air conditioners are turned on. At this point in time, renewables are supplying 49% of Eastern Australia’s electricity — 50% solar, 30% wind, and 20% hydro. These figures were unthinkable ten years ago.

“The reality is that ageing coal plants are closing — and while they remain open, they’re contributing to reliability challenges in the energy system. Unchecked climate change will also add considerable strain, through natural disasters and more extreme weather. Unfortunately, investment in renewable and other low-emission technology has been slower than necessary. This has slowed Australia’s emissions reduction efforts and cast questions over the reliability of our energy supplies as an El Niño looms.”

There is a flurry of activity to build “stuff” and electrify the nation. Batteries are being sited, solar farms are being installed, wind farms are being planned, and transmission lines are being built. On the home front, more people are looking at solar hot water, more efficient electrical appliances, and energy efficient homes. Though, on the latter, housing developers are complaining about the increased cost of a new build to comply with energy efficient guidelines. Such a short-term view.

Those who can are installing their own home batteries. Sadly, this is increasing the gap between the energy poor (usually those who rent) and the energy rich (those who own their own homes). Although some progress is being made to equip social housing with solar panels, there is a long way to go. Power bills have just increased an average 40%, rents are going up — it is getting tough out there. Energy efficiency may not just help the grid to survive, but also the consumer to survive, the cost of living crisis.

Behavior changes will save energy and may avert a possible crisis. Just as homeowners living in vulnerable areas in Australia have a bushfire evacuation plan, all homeowners need to heed the early warning and have a plan to reduce power consumption during peak load times. We have to stop taking the grid for granted and adapt now to survive.

Featured image courtesy of DALL·E

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David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].


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