Federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg has put the blame for recent blackouts in South Australia directly on the state’s high penetration of wind and solar, and attributed no blame to network faults, storms or failing gas plants.
In a speech on energy security to the right-leaning Sydney Institute on Monday night, Frydenberg listed four black-out events that had hit South Australia since and including the “unprecedented” state-wide outage on September 28.
He made no mention of the fierce storms, the falling power lines, the network faults that caused outages in December and February, or the role of gas plants that sat idle, or had to shed capacity because of the heat and other technical faults.
Nor did he mention the software glitch that meant 90,000 households, rather than 30,000, suffered power cuts in South Australia earlier this month when demand hit record highs.
Instead, Frydenberg pointed only to the roles of wind and solar, both of which he said were producing at a fraction of their capacity when the rolling blackouts were implemented.
“This means that the days of easily forecastable supply are over,” he said. “Nowhere was this more clear than during the last South Australian blackout, when 90,000 consumers lost power.”
An Australian Energy Market Operator report last week said the cause of the problem was bad forecasting, not just of supply, but of demand. It was caught short when demand spiked and could not wake a gas generator from its slumber.
Another 300MW of gas capacity was unavailable because it was broken – with half of it failing in the hours before the blackout. Wind energy was producing twice as much power as had been forecast a day earlier. Solar was the only local generation that produced exactly as predicted.
As AEMO told the Senate inquiry last week: “It is going back to the unforced and unplanned outages that eroded our reserves at that time in such a short period of time.
“Yes, we knew the wind would drop-off and we knew the solar would drop-off at a particular time, but our reserves were fine up until the point when we had forced outages.” i.e. the gas plants.
Frydenberg also spoke of South Australia’s price spikes, but made no mention of similar price spikes in Queensland and South Australia.
Indeed, average wholesale electricity prices in coal-dependent Queensland so far this month have average $301/MWh, nearly 50 per cent more than South Australia last July ($201/MWh), when network supplies from Victoria were restricted by an upgrade and which helped trigger the Coalition’s anti-renewable campaign.
In February this year, NSW has averaged $214/MWh while South Australia has averaged $210/MWh. In January, average wholesale prices in Queensland were at $197/MWh, while in South Australia they averaged just $84/MWh.
AEMO, in its report, has insisted that it is not the nature of wind energy or solar that have contributed to the various blackouts. Frydenberg, however, is having none of it.
“Our political opponents are looking for scapegoats rather than confronting the very real problems facing the South Australian electricity system,” he said, attacking Labor for its focus on renewables.
“They want to blame a storm, they want to blame the market operator. They want to muddy the issue by conflating events in South Australia with NSW,” Frydneberg added, referring to the load shedding events in NSW in the same heatwave that caused the load shedding in South Australia.
“It’s now clear to all Australians, and particularly South Australians, that the Weatherill Government’s self-described ‘big experiment’ has failed and that better planning should have been in place to prepare for the high uptake of intermittent sources of generation.”
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.