The operators of a windfarm in South Australia’s mid-north have been hit with a $1m fine by the federal court for failing to properly comply with mandated performance standards in the lead-up to a statewide blackout in September 2016.
In a judgment on Tuesday, the court also ordered the operators of the Snowtown Wind Farm Stage 2 – Tilt Renewables Limited – to engage a compliance expert to review its operations and provide a report on any gaps.
Justice Richard White found the windfarm had contravened the national electricity rules by operating for about three years with inadequate settings to cope with or “ride through” disruptions to the power network.
Its settings had not been approved by the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo).
White said the windfarm’s contravention of the rules was serious and its use of non-approved settings compromised Aemo’s ability to provide secure power services.
“As the events of 28 September 2016 indicate, a compromise of the security of the power system can have extensive and serious consequences,” he said.
In the immediate lead-up to the statewide blackout, severe storms damaged more than 20 towers in SA’s mid-north, bringing down major transmission lines and causing a knock-on effect across the state’s energy grid.
About 850,000 customers lost power, with some in the state’s north and on the Eyre Peninsula left without electricity for several days.
The state-wide blackout led to a national debate about whether the “intermittency” of renewable energy sources was responsible.
The then-deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce, the former South Australian senator Nick Xenophon and the journalist Chris Uhlmann all blamed the state’s reliance on renewable sources.
An investigation by Aemo found the protection settings on some windfarms, causing them to reduce their output and later disconnect, had contributed to the knock-on effect that resulted in the blackout.
But the intermittent nature of wind technology itself was not a “material contributor” to what had occurred.
Aemo concluded: “Wind turbines successfully rode through grid disturbances. It was the action of a control setting responding to multiple disturbances that led to the black system.”
The report said changes made to turbine control settings shortly after the event had removed the risk of a similar event occurring given the same number of disturbances.
The $1m fine and the compliance review ordered by White were in line with an agreed position between the parties, including the Australian Energy Regulator which had instigated the court action.
Tilt Renewables Limited on Tuesday said it had engaged with the regulator to resolve the matter and was “pleased to announce that a settlement of the proceedings has today been endorsed by the court”.
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