Following severe weather taking down vital parts of the electricity network, the entire state of South Australia was plunged into darkness this week — with some areas yet to fully restore power.
Although the cause was seemingly clear, some were quick to blame the state's continued shift towards using renewable energy sources. We spoke to four leading experts about the blackout, and what effect — if any — reliance on clean energy had.
Ian Lowe, Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University in Queensland, and the former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation said "The SA blackouts had nothing to do with the State's move to clean energy. The distribution network was affected by a storm. The problem would have been exactly the same if SA used coal or nuclear power to provide its electricity".
Lowe says "uninformed commentators" are claiming South Australia has "unusually expensive" power because it uses so much wind. "In fact, wind power is cheap," Lowe points out. "SA's back-up power comes from gas and gas prices have inflated to world levels because of the Queensland export industry. Despite this, SA prices are in the middle of the range: cheaper that NSW, Tasmania and the NT, more expensive than Victoria. WA and Queensland."
Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Energy Research Institute at the University of Melbourne says these kinds of failures in the National Energy Market (which covers the five eastern states) are "extremely rare".
"The NEM experiences a range of extreme weather on a regular occurrence and a vast majority of the time copes well", Dargaville says. "The system contains multiple levels of redundancy and safety mechanisms, however it is impractical if not impossible to build any complex system that is completely 100 per cent reliable".
Providing additional redundancy to insure against such events would not only be extremely costly, but it would still not completely guarantee against further extreme events, Dargaville says.
"That being said, as we find out more about the incident it may become apparent that there are weaknesses in the grid that need addressing," Dargaville says. "However it is hard to imagine how the high penetration of renewable energy in the state could be implicated in this incident".
Just under 1,000 megawatts of wind power was dispatching onto the grid at the time of the blackout, with another 400 megawatts from gas plant and 300 megawatts supply from the Victorian inter-connector making up the total.
"Had either of the brown coal generators still been in operation the system would not have been any more resilient to this event," Dargaville says.
Professor Ken Baldwin, Director of the Energy Change Institute and the Deputy Director of the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University says there is "almost unanimity" of views amongst experts in the electricity sector that the South Australian blackout was the result of transmission failures caused by an extreme weather event, which had nothing to do with the State's high level of renewable energy.
"This is taking the focus off the real issue", Baldwin says, "which is how the States can better work together to meet our climate change obligations while ensuring the secure and affordable supply of energy."
Recently at the COAG Energy Ministers meeting there was a consensus to cooperative, Baldwin says, and currently there are a number of COAG discussions papers on how renewables and battery storage can be better integrated into the National Electricity Market (NEM).
"The NEM’s large geographic spread and rich renewables resources will help ensure diversity of supply," says Baldwin. "In combination with energy storage this can mitigate intermittency of renewables and help address security of supply for high levels of renewable penetration."
Given that many states are now setting high renewable energy targets, Baldwin says it is important that they act cooperatively across the entire NEM.
"Indeed, it could be argued that were South Australia better connected to the rest of the country, it might have fewer issues with reliability and contribute more renewables to the NEM."
Martin Sevior, Associate Professor at the School of Physics at Melbourne University has a different opinion. He believes the statement this even has 'nothing to do with renewable energy' is not quite true.
"South Australia's renewable electricity facilities are located throughout a large area of the state, and power from those assets must be collected and transmitted to where it is consumed," he point out. "In addition, the tax credits used to make renewable energy competitive in SA "crowded out" local fossil fuel generation assets making it necessary to instead import fossil fuel generated power from Victoria."
"Both conditions mean that the SA power network is more sensitive to disruption than without the large reliance on renewable energy," Sevior says. "One could speculate that if large power generation capacity was located to the East of Port Augusta, the effect of the storm could simply have been the isolation of the western region of the State, leaving Adelaide and most of the population unaffected".
Sevior is calling for an inquiry into the incident so we can learn how to make power networks more resilient in the future.