The brief rolling black-outs that affected 100,000 homes in South Australia on Sunday night sparked the predictable backlash against renewable energy, and wind energy in particular.
And the backlash came from the predictable corners – climate deniers, pro-nuclear advocates, and the fossil fuel lobby – all of whom have a common enemy, the growth of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar in our electricity grid.
Andrew Bolt, the right-wing, climate denying News Corp commentator, declared “wind don’t blow, South Australia don’t glow” and proceeded to blame the outage on wind energy “because wind power did not supply energy because it often does not start until 3am.”
Here is a graph to show that wind energy output (in blue) was providing around 200MW at the time, and it remained pretty constant through the outage. And here is a link to another entertaining rebuttal of Bolt’s claims.
Nuclear advocate Ben Heard tweeted “It’s “Renewables II: Rise of the System Costs”, and trumpeted the fact that he had predicted such an outcome in a paper he wrote, presumably one of those attacking 100 per cent renewable energy scenarios. “REALLY coming true. SA lost interconector last night, had to shed load. Blackout,” he tweeted.
Hooray! Heard was followed up by Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood, who lamented the fact that nuclear – as proposed by labor Senator Sean Edwards – had not yet been considered as part of the solution to “intermittent” renewables.
And the fossil fuel industry got in there too. One of the industry’s favourite consultants, Danny Price, of Frontier Economics (the man credited with the design of Direct Action and a new Coalition government appointee to the Climate Change Authority) was quick to attack wind energy.
“Every time you put on a new wind generator, you’re kind of forced into a wall of having a lot more backup power – so it’s not just the extra cost of wind; it’s making sure that you have a reliable supply as well,” he told ABC Radio, in a refrain often adopted by climate deniers, the fossil fuel lobby, and nuclear supporters.
(Just for the record, South Australia now sources 40 per cent of its overall demand from wind energy and rooftop solar, and hasn’t needed any extra back-up generation. It already existed, to support the coal plants, but much of the gas plants held in reserve are closing because they are not needed so much any more).
Indeed, there was only one technology that abandoned its post on Sunday evening, and that was the massive transmission line linking Victoria and South Australia.
And it had nothing to do with – as the pro-nuclear advocates insisted – the lack of local generation. Indeed, as these graphs show, there was more than enough local capacity. Wind was stable and the Northern power station was pumping out more than 400MW.
But when the link to Victoria went, some customers could no longer be serviced. Around 140MW of load was shed, and so 140MW or so of supply had to be shed too. That came from Northern. And it quickly ramped back as the connector was repaired and demand returned. (Demand increases in South Australia at midnight because of scheduled hot water systems).
As an AEMO spokesman told RenewEconomy, and in contrast to what is being put about by the pro-nuclear lobby, the fossil fuel lobby and their link-men in the climate denial industry, this had nothing to do with local generation. It was a fault with the link, and they are still trying to figure out what it was.
Another falsehood being peddled by vested interests is that South Australia has now become more dependent on the inter-connector for its power, and that puts the state at peril. That, too, is a nonsense.
Here are two graphs that Matt Zema – the man, who as CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator, runs the Australian grid – showed at a conference just last week.
The first graph (below) is from the year 2000, three years before the first wind farm had been built in South Australia. Zema chose the random days – and it shows massive amounts of electricity coming from Victoria, adding to the massive amounts of brown coal generation in its home state. It was a cosy and secure arrangement for the fossil fuel industry.
The second graph (below) shows what disruption from renewable energy looks like, and why the fossil fuel industry is really pissed off. It comes from selected summer days in 2015, with South Australia at more than 1.5GW of wind capacity and more than 500MW of rooftop solar.
It shows much reduced local brown coal generation, and much reduced imports from Victoria. For much of the time, there were no imports.
The fossil fuel industry is dismayed. Alinta, the owners of the brown coal generators, are closing their plants by March next year. Not only are they highly polluting, they cannot make money any more with renewables in competition.
That will mean reliance on the inter-connector with Victoria. Indeed, South Australia may go back to importing nearly as much electricity as it did before the advent of renewable energy, although at times rooftop solar will look after all residential, commercial and industrial demand in the state.
As this graph (below) shows, also displayed by Zema in his speech, that could happen as early as 2022.
But Zema, himself, says that it will not affect the reliability of the grid.
But higher renewable energy penetration does have its challenges. It requires a focus on supply as well as demand. And that also means a smarter grid, one that we are not yet getting from our regulators.
The future, Zema and many others note, will be in dispatchable and flexible generation, and that smart technology that will enable immediate response.
The answer for South Australia is not to build more baseload generation, coal or nuclear, but provide flexible capacity through storage – be it attached to a solar thermal plant or as battery storage in key parts of the grid.
That will allow for more renewable generation and the ancillary services and grid stability that AEMO is looking for. And it would be a lot faster than a turbine plant. And, as Zema notes, if households and businesses add battery storage, so much the better.
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.