Three years on from the South Australia blackout, the dangers of our rush to renewables are even clearer
Listen to the science. It’s a perfectly rational statement often used by those urging others to accept that the climate is changing and human activity is driving it.
But many who make this point tend to become irrational when someone dares question their preferred remedies or points out that making rapid changes to complex systems, like our energy grid, might be a tad harder than they claim.
So it was when the lights went out in South Australia in 2016.
Three days before that happened I reported that “the rise of intermittent wind generation poses risks in managing the stability and reliability of the power grid”.
In the wake of the state-wide blackout – something that is vanishingly rare – I wrote a series of pieces which raised questions about the role South Australia’s heavy reliance on wind had played in the shutdown.
It should be noted that none of these reports questioned the reality of climate change. Many stressed the energy system needed to de-carbonise and that the absence of a national carbon price had created a hotchpotch of competing state and federal policies.
But no qualifications were heard above the storm that followed as thousands of complaints rained down on my then employer, the ABC.
A formal complaint was lodged with the broadcast watchdog for the crime of having “clearly indicated that it was his strong suspicion that the SA statewide blackout occurred because of SA’s reliance on renewable energy.”
Now, three years on, the Australian Energy Regulator is taking four South Australian wind farm operators to court arguing they “failed to provide automatic protection systems to enable them to ride-through voltage disturbances to ensure continuity of supply” and that “contributed to the black system event”.
As the winds tore through South Australia on that September day, two sets of transmission lines toppled. A series of voltage dips ricocheted through the system, tripping the wind farm’s protection settings and they shut down. That ripped more than 450 megawatts out of the system, or 48 per cent of total power. The interconnector to Victoria tried to pick up the slack before its protective systems sensed it was being overloaded and the link slammed shut. Frequency plummeted in the isolated state, all remaining generation was snuffed out and, for the first time since 1964, an entire state blacked out.
It’s possible the wind operators might win an argument about technical settings in court but since the blackout a mountain of work has been done on the integration of renewable energy on the grid and that has raised a series of real-world problems.
The Australian Energy Market Commission’s reliability panel reported this year that system strength is declining across north Queensland, south-west New South Wales, north-western Victoria and South Australia.
South Australia’s power system is on life support, kept afloat by now routine interventions by the energy market operator. That means directing wind farms to shut down and telling gas suppliers to tool up just to keep the system secure and the lights on.
The panel notes all this intervention comes at a huge cost to wholesale marker prices – more than $270 million as of September last year.
The science tells us that integrating intermittent renewable energy to a grid that was not designed to deal with it brings a host of significant technical problems. It is distorting the market and stressing old baseload suppliers which must work harder pick up the slack, particularly in times of peak demand, when unsupported wind power routinely underperforms.
In time we will solve these problems but if we run too fast the system will fall over.
It is something we need to debate rationally. And we should listen to the science.
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