When the big winds hit South Australia midafternoon on Wednesday, they blew away the big lie that any transition to a renewable energy-heavy, low-carbon emissions electricity future would be easy to manage or cost-free.
The once towering electricity transmission pylons that buckled and crashed to earth, triggering a statewide blackout, can be seen as a metaphor for political overreach.
The power failure has cost billions in losses to households and business. It has pitted state and federal governments against each other over fragmented renewable energy targets and left green groups scrambling to shift the blame from renewables to climate change.
Most of all, the statewide blackout has left South Australia looking foolish and reminded everyone how security of electricity supply easily can be taken for granted. The lessons of earlier decades that power blackouts are bad politics look set to be relearned.
South Australia – which gets 40 per cent of its power from renewables – is a living laboratory of renewable energy excess. Since the beginning of the year, the state has seen its baseload power stations forced to close because they could not compete financially with subsidised renewable power.
On July 7, a combination of forces, including tight gas supplies, resulted in spiralling spot electricity prices as wind power output slumped to a fraction of capacity.
This week, wind power was surging when the storm hit but, when Victoria cut the interconnector to protect itself, South Australia was unable to go it alone.
Renewable energy advocates want to focus on the storm and even suggest the high winds were a sign of climate change, making the rush to renewables more urgent.
But it is what happened after the towers fell, when the entire South Australian network cascaded to a standstill, causing severe damage to the state’s reputation, that will surely be the proper focus of investigations.
The big question is: why did the entire South Australian electricity network fall over when Victoria shut off the electricity interconnector?
“The reason a cascading failure of the remainder of the South Australian network occurred is still to be identified and is subject to further investigation,” the Australian Energy Market Operator said on Thursday.
As well as chaos, the timing of this week’s blackouts provides rich political opportunity. Since taking on his role as federal Energy and Environment Minister, Josh Frydenberg has been grappling with conflicting pressures on the push for a low-emissions transition in energy.
He inherited a hodgepodge of state and federal responsibilities with effectively nine renewable energy targets that are distorting the market.
It is possible people have not understood the cost of the renewable energy target and the difficulty of the transition. And without constitutional authority the federal minister has been forced to negotiate within the difficult framework of co-operative federalism.
For Frydenberg, the challenge is made more difficult by pressures within the Coalition from people who don’t support the science or action on climate change.
From the other side, the pressure is to speed up the renewable rollout and change the national energy market objectives to go beyond providing reliability, affordability and safety of supply and take account of the move to a low-emissions future.
This would greatly expand the powers of unelected officials and weaken the focus on reliability of supply.
The meltdown in South Australia is a demonstration of what a loss of reliability looks like. It coincided with several reports that shed light on the cause of earlier problems and price spikes and highlight the dysfunction at the root of Australia’s clean energy transition.
The blackout may have bolstered Frydenberg’s attempts to pull the states together. Certainly, he now has the vocal support of our renewable-friendly Prime Minister, who said in response to the blackouts that he wanted his Energy Minister to open negotiations about achieving a single, national renewable energy target before a summit of state and territory leaders.
Malcolm Turnbull blasted state Labor governments for imposing “ideological” renewable energy targets, describing the blackout as a “wake-up call” to focus on energy security.
The Prime Minister said he accepted fierce winds and lightning strikes were the “immediate cause” of the statewide power failure but there was “no doubt” that the “extremely aggressive” shift to renewables had strained the electricity network.
Frydenberg said the events of this week were “completely unacceptable”. He wants tough questions asked of the Australian Energy Market Operator.
“Why was there this cascading effect across the network when you saw a lightning strike on a power station, when you saw power lines go down … why did that lead to the whole network coming down and why did it take such a significant amount of time to get back online?” he asked.
“Clearly there’s going to be greater focus as well on the impact of renewable energy on the reliability of the system.”
South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill insists the state’s energy mix had nothing to do with the blackout, accusing Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce of leading a “jihad against wind farms”.
And the Climate Institute said the opportunity to identify solutions to the real causes of South Australia’s statewide blackout would be lost “if anti-renewable energy agendas are allowed to overtake a careful investigation of the situation’’.
“Reviews of this statewide blackout must focus on the preparedness of our energy networks to cope with extreme weather, which is predicted to become more frequent in our future,” Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said.
“South Australia’s power stations were able to generate electricity, but the transmission network couldn’t carry it.
“Blaming this extraordinary outage on the state’s renewable energy generators, as some people jumped to do well before any facts were known, is both irresponsible and misleading.’’
Greenpeace Australia Pacific climate campaigner Shani Tager said the fact some senior politicians’ first response to an emergency was “to go on TV and wrongly assign blame to renewable energy without proof was irresponsible and clearly wrong”.
“This is yet another baseless attack on renewable energy when the blackout was caused by transmission networks being shut down or knocked out by the storm,” she said. “Even the filthiest coal-fired power station would have been rendered useless.’’
None of this adequately explains why the blackout became statewide. But there may be some clues in this week’s Grattan Institute report, which explained how Australia’s power system frequency is maintained at 50 hertz. This means that, even at short intervals, supply and demand are balanced.
Existing fossil-fuel and hydro generators are synchronous, which means the generators operate at the same frequency as the electricity system, providing inertia in the system.
Wind and solar are asynchronous, which means they require sophisticated power electronics and new technical regulations if they are to contribute to system stability and inertia.
According to the Grattan report, with the present supply mix, the Heywood interconnector with Victoria helps to provide system security to South Australia.
“If both lines of the interconnector were to suffer an outage, the possibility of a regional blackout in South Australia increases with more wind generation,” the report says.
“This kind of threat has existed on four occasions since the late 1990s. But with fewer fossil fuel generators available to provide system stability, the consequences now are far greater.
“In 2010, there was over a 90 per cent chance that the frequency standard of the grid would be maintained in the unlikely event that both lines of the Heywood interconnector were to suffer an outage. In 2015, this fell to a little over 10 per cent. If the frequency standard were not met, it would mean blackouts in South Australia. This is a worst-case scenario, but it indicates how much changes in the supply mix have affected supply security in South Australia.”
The Grattan Institute report was published only days before South Australia was plunged into darkness. Report author Tony Wood tells Inquirer it is “sheer speculation” at this point in terms of what caused the statewide blackout.
“These systems when they get fluctuations in supply will trip,” he says. “What I don’t understand is why the whole thing tripped and the state was blacked out. I would have thought they could have isolated parts of the network.”
Wood says there are two lessons from the events of the week.
The first is how dependent we now are on electricity.
The second, that something needs to be done to protect transmission lines into the future.
Wood says he has been strongly against state-based renewable energy targets but understands they are largely a result of political frustration.
“We started too late,” he says.
But there have been three major events this year that make better, co-ordinated planning essential. These are the loss of the Bass Link interconnector to Tasmania, the price spike in South Australia in July and the statewide blackout this week.
There is now speculation about the early retirement of the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria.
“These things are all connected,” Wood says. “We need to take a deep breath and bring everyone together.
“Who is responsible for making sure the whole system is heading in the right direction? Who is responsible for making sure the consequences of the transition to a low-carbon generation model are properly managed?”
Wood’s advice after reviewing the July price spike in South Australia is to never waste a near crisis.
He says the Council of Australian Governments’ energy council of federal and state energy ministers has acknowledged the need for national policy integration. Meeting that need will require a credible and predictable climate change policy, then a review of the wholesale market to ensure it can provide reliable, competitively-priced electricity.
Wood says the present design of the wholesale electricity market may not be able to provide the secure and reliable power that Australians take for granted.
The federal and state governments must therefore take three actions:
• Use next year’s commonwealth review of climate change policy to develop a credible plan that all states support and that works with the electricity market.
• Review the market to ensure that power flows reliably and affordably.
• Explain that a transition to a low-emissions future will happen and that it will cost money.
The South Australian blackout makes the case only stronger and more urgent.