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Regulator’s verdict on blackout sure to buffet industry

Despite industry pleadings, there can now be no doubt that renewable energy failure was at the heart of South Australia’s statewide blackout that cost households and industry millions and transformed Australia’s energy debate.

The “system black event”, the worst blackout in the 20-year history of the National Electricity Market, exposed the fragility of the system to high levels of intermittent renewable energy without back-up.

Most analysis then centred on the fierce storm that caused havoc to transmission lines. The most-used image was of a twisted electricity pylon that detailed analysis showed probably collapsed after power had been lost

In its Federal Court action yesterday, the Australian Energy Regulator sheeted the blame for the power loss to wind power.

The generators had allegedly “failed to provide automatic protection systems to enable them to ride through voltage disturbances to ensure continuity of supply”.

When voltage levels moved erratically, wind farms shut down. After power was lost, the link to Victoria tripped and all power was lost.

The AER said wind power had directly contributed to the system black event.

The actual failings are very technical in nature and became relevant only because of the extreme nature of the events on the day.

They have been easily fixed.

Yet just as the South Australia blackout peeled back the covers on what intermittent energy sources can mean for grid stability, the court case will have wider implications for solar and wind going forward.

As a result, the wind companies involved can be expected to mount a vigorous defence.

The potential damage goes well beyond the potential losses of tens of millions of dollars in legal costs and penalties of up to $100,000 per contravention, which allegedly extended for months before the event.

A loss for wind companies will open the door to damages claims by companies and individuals that lost electricity supplies and money during the event.

Most pressing will be the determination shown by the AER to ensure that intermittent wind can be considered a reliable form of power.

Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor is pushing hard with a reliability obligation for generators to ensure that they can be depended upon, and this will mean bigger investment in storage and fast-response generators to cover them.

It could tip the scales back in favour of future investment in some traditional sources of baseload power.