Experts Speak Out: To Stop South Australian Blackouts, We Need To Encourage Renewables

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A meterologist, a climate science professor and the Deputy Director of the Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute gave us their insights on the recent "unusual" tropical weather patterns appearing in South Australia, what exactly is causing the continual blackouts, and how renewables can help.

Matt Collopy, Supervising Meteorologist for South Australia, Bureau of Meteorology gives us a rundown on what happened

Tropical air mass over SA saw thunderstorms developing over Eyre Peninsula moving over Adelaide in the evening.

As the system moved across, this produced large thunderstorms, damaging wind gusts, heavy rain and high rainfall rates in isolated areas.

This resulted in some locations reporting their wettest January day on record, and month-to-date totals have already resulted in some locations having their wettest January in more than 20 years.

Already, most locations across agricultural South Australia have reported more than twice the long term January average rainfall.

    Rainfall:

  • Maynard's Well 70.4mm
  • Leigh Creek 61.2mm
  • Auburn 51mm
  • Little Para Reservoir 49mm
  • Edinburgh 44.8mm (notably at Edinburgh 24mm fell in 25 minutes in the evening)
  • Wilpena 106 mm
  • Buckleboo 76 mm
    Wind Gusts:

  • Adelaide Airport 111km/h @ 20:27
  • Warburto Point 111km/h @ 19:12
  • Wudinna 106/km/h
  • Minlaton 100km/h @16:30

70.4 mm at Maynards Well to 9am this morning and 61.2 mm at Leigh Creek are both highest daily rainfall totals at these sites since March 2012.

51.4 mm at Blinman is highest daily rainfall since Jan 2015. At Auburn also with 51.4 mm, was highest since Feb 2014.

Edinburgh with 44.8 mm had 70mm in late Dec 2016. 27mm of this in 1 hour is about a 1 in 15 year ARI (average recurrence interval) for that location.

Port Augusta recorded 10.6 mm in 9 minutes, which has an ARI of ~1 in 5 year.

Dr Ariel Liebman, Deputy Director of the Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute at Monash University says renewable energy is not to blame

The current severe weather event in SA and in Adelaide have led to large scale blackouts. Can this and other blackouts, including the state-wide blackout on the 28th of September 2016, be attributed to how renewable energy sources interact with severe weather systems?

The answer is no! The outages seen in 2016 and the one yesterday are not surprising given the severity of the weather experienced by SA recently and the relative sparseness of the state’s generation and transmission network.

The most recent set of outages last night that occurred solely within the lower voltage distribution network and affected 66,000 customers is quite severe but not unprecedented given the extreme weather experienced (including 112 km/h winds and 74,000 lightning strikes in 2 hours!).

This is not particular to SA - Queensland regularly experiences outages of this kind in its distribution networks and in 2003 this got so bad that a government review was held resulting in increased investment in the distribution network to attempt to remedy the risk of outages.

The reason Australia experiences more of these types of outages than the US and Europe is that our distribution networks are almost completely above ground and exposed to the elements.

Without undergrounding the entire distribution grid at a prohibitive cost, the risk of outage cannot be mitigated with traditional electrical engineering approaches. The only hope is for distributed energy sources to be combined with battery storage and operated and coordinated appropriately. The CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia's Energy Networks Transformation Roadmap discusses this very well.

The large-scale outage in September 2016 is a completely different phenomenon related to the high voltage transmission and generation systems' intrinsic fragility when faced with a large-scale disturbance such as the tornados that took out 20 or more transmission towers.

Combined with SA's relatively skinny transmission network (designed to trade-off cost and reliability to support the state's large size and relatively small population) such a blackout was highly likely and the system was brought back on-line remarkably fast, a credit to AEMO, Electranet and SA Power Networks. This sort of blackout can occur with zero renewable generation as evidenced by the USA's 2003 North Eastern blackout that affected 55 million people, or the 2006 blackout in Europe affecting 15 million people. Both at the time had negligible amounts of renewable energy!

To conclude, these outages are a natural consequence of the severe weather patterns currently experienced and of the design of electricity distribution and transmission networks, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1920s.

Currently, levels of renewables penetration, even in South Australia, do not yet have a bearing on system reliability. However, this issue is emerging as a very important one and is beginning to be addressed. For example, in the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s current review and significant analysis and research is required to determine the optimal design of the system as we move towards a high renewables future.

Ian Lowe, Emeritus professor of science, technology and society, Griffith University, former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation says what has been predicted, is happening now

As climate science was predicting nearly thirty years ago, the increasing average temperatures are causing changes to rainfall patterns. The more intense tropical rain depressions crossing the north-west coast of WA are tracking south-east across the country, bringing storms and heavy rain to areas that have previously been dry in summer: eastern WA, central Australia, SA, western NSW and western Victoria.

The interruptions to power supply in SA have been the direct result of intense storm activity. Queensland has always had intense summer storm activity, so their system has learned to cope with these events; nevertheless, it is common for significant areas of Queensland to lose power briefly during severe storms.

Increasing the fraction of electricity supplied by distributed sources (solar panels, local wind turbines) reduces dependence on long high-voltage lines and reduces the risk of losing power when severe weather strikes. So encouraging more use of renewables both improves local supply security and slows the global processes which are causing the problem.

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Comments

    "Increasing the fraction of electricity supplied by distributed sources (solar panels, local wind turbines) reduces dependence on long high-voltage lines and reduces the risk of losing power when severe weather strikes. So encouraging more use of renewables both improves local supply security and slows the global processes which are causing the problem."

    This is the most eloquent way i have seen that demostrates why renewables are key.
    Having a few scattered points of failure is always going to be far worse than many small scale operations that can work to add power to the grid and also be a source of redundancy. The other beautiful part of renewables is you dont need to ship the power source to the station.

    The biggest hurdle that we have to overcome is the sheer amount of maintence solar panels and wind farms need to keep them running successfully and efficiently. This often requires labour and not just labour high skill and highly dangerous labour. If these proccesses can be simplified through innovation it will eventually be cheaper and easier to set up some renewable stations than a coal station. I just dont think we are quite there yet.
    but soon it will be a win win win.

      Go solar thermal. This requires a few highly skilled people running the main tower infrastructure, and a bunch of robots cleaning the mirrors.

      Robots to clean solar panels are already available.

    So nothing to do with China power buying them years back and cutting maintenance costs dramatically?

      Don't be silly. Rae loves to quote academics in power production and call them experts. Don't let the fact that they have never run a real world service before get in the way of some high quality click bait.

      Last edited 24/02/17 3:37 pm

    Enough of the ignorance, please stop posting this ignorant nonsense.

    They say its bad enough to be ignorant of the science.

    But to be innumerate and incapable of calculation is the most fundamental problem.

    Too many renewables in S.A are what caused the blackouts, and they are just expensive and unreliable.

    For every unit of energy you generate from renewables you need to add extra capacity from coal and gas to prepare for interruptions. Its the worst way imaginable to design an electricity grid and the so called experts are receiving fat government subsidies and they are all part of the environmental industrial complex.

      Yay for coal! Cannot think of any drawbacks at all to continue using it...

      Replace massive coal fired power stations with smaller rapid start gas generators. BUT cover as much use as we can from renewables.

      My 7kw of panels cover all of my daily use except VERY cloudy days, add in the Tesla PW2 installed June '17 and I will only need the grid for a few hours per month (add another PW2 and I could be completely off grid) as long as the gas generators are there on the grid for a week of bad weather and we are sweet.

        Frustratingly it's not economically viable for most to invest in powerwall. Our family investigated it after the 3rd power failure for over 24hrs in 1 month and found that the lifespan/warranty did not match the cost and savings. Might be worth it in 5 years though.

          Tesla Powerwall 1.0 was too expensive for its output to make sense vs grid power. Version 2.0 however is the same price but for TWICE the output. That changes the ballgame.

      "Enough of the ignorance, please stop posting this ignorant nonsense.

      They say its bad enough to be ignorant of the science."

      Trust you or the Scientists with PHD's in the area

      You or the scientists.

      Ill stick with scientific fact thanks.

      To many transition lines falling over cause the blackouts. Yes some renewable sources were cut due to stability issues, but it's not like coal powered generators have never had that problem.

      When transmitting lines collapse it doesn't matter what's generating the power if you can't distribute it.

      In reality renewable could have eased the problem as they are generally smaller and more numerous generators, so transmitting problems could have been reduced as you have many sources compared to a few.

      You don't need to add extra coal or gas sources to compensate for renewable sources and I'd love to see your proof for that wildly inaccurate statement

      Fact of the matter is with a national grid, if there are generating issues the extra energy needed can be sourced from afar but again, you can't do that when all your transmission lines are lying in the ground.

      Other technologies are emerging as well like super capacitors to store energy locally to the substations incase of failures. Or as also mentioned here local gas generation in emergency situations.

      Vic pulled the plug on SA to save themselves due to the higher load, again with more smaller local generators this could have been avoided.

      Edit: spelling.

      Last edited 23/01/17 10:49 pm

        When transmitting lines collapse it doesn't matter what's generating the power if you can't distribute it.

        Exactly. The 3rd time our power went out was simply because a tree landed on power lines on Hackney Rd. It was a heck of a mess to clean up and was just over 24hrs til we got power back. As frustrating as it was, not much you can do to prevent something like that happening.

      @jonogm "Enough of the ignorance, please stop posting this ignorant nonsense"

      Okay, let's have a look at your points one by one.

      "Too many renewables in S.A are what caused the blackouts"

      You're dead wrong.

      The blackouts were caused by the distribution network failing - the towers fell down during severe weather. Since there are relatively few generators, supply to the grid relies heavily on those transmission lines to carry power to consumers.

      If the grid were less centralised, with more power coming from many and different sources, this would have been less of a problem. Such sources could include private rooftop solar, solar power plants, wind generators, tidal generators as well as traditional coal & gas sources. The more different sources there are, spread as far as possible across the state, the better.

      "they are just expensive and unreliable"

      Building large-scale solar plants and wind farms is now CHEAPER than building a coal power plant, megawatt for megawatt. So that's simply not true. And the cost of running a solar plant or wind farm is much lower in the long term, because the "fuel" is free. So they'll make electricity cheaper in the long term too.

      As for reliability, it's obvious that wind and solar can't generate power all the time, since they rely on the elements being favourable. So coal and gas stations still have a role to play for baseload power generation, but to ignore the obvious benefits of alternative sources like renewables is to be willfully ignorant and to hobble your own future prosperity.

      "For every unit of energy you generate from renewables you need to add extra capacity from coal and gas to prepare for interruptions"

      This is incorrect. Demand from the grid has been relatively static for several years, so adding additional energy in the form of new renewable sources does not require additional coal/gas generation as well - those can remain static to provide backup for inclement weather. Having redundancy in supply generation is a very good thing for energy security, and drives costs downwards for consumers.

      "the so called experts are receiving fat government subsidies"

      They're scientists, not lobbyists, so they deal with facts rather than ideology. And yes, they're actually experts in their field, unlike armchair campaigners like yourself.

      The fact that they're contradicting the government in calling for greater energy diversification and more renewables, despite the, getting "fat subsidies" from that same anti-renewables Coalition government, should make you realise what an ignorant and ridiculous assertion that is.

      As for me, I'll be off the grid entirely in 18 months or so. I have enough solar to run everything I need; I'm just waiting for the the battery tech to become more affordable, and I'll have a small petrol generator for the rare occasion that I run low on power. Renewables and distributed generation are the future - get on board or be left behind.

        this guy is a scientist and therefore by your reasoning incapable of being a lobbyist as well.. he only set back an entire field of research.

        Would you trust him? the government did when they employed him. Should SA have trusted the former Australian Chief Scientist when he said SA would never see rainfall again and needed to build multi-billion dollar desal plants that cost hundreds of millions a year in mothballing costs and haven't produced a liter of water for consumers? I guess the cost of that could have gone into maintaining the SA electrical grid infrastructure which seems to be collapsing on a regular basis due to mild storms and wind speeds that other capitals endure without that level of failure. How about the experts who ran the Tassy grid into the ground, the fix being air freighting diesel and generators to them to run across last winter..

        So many experts, so few atmospheric physicists getting air time. Oh well, I guess this state wide experiment will continue for a while and SA electrical demands will continue to be propped up by other states until someone with an objective view adds the numbers and comes back to tell everyone they were duped.

          "Someone with an objective view" certainly won't be you. So many misconceptions, straw men, provably wrong claims, I can't even..

            debating techinque isn't science sorry and neither is inductive reasoning. falsification is, testing precise hypotheses to see if they fail.. This state wide experiment shall proceed without a trial until the facts speak for themselves.

        The blackouts were caused by the distribution network failing - the towers fell down during severe weather. Since there are relatively few generators, supply to the grid relies heavily on those transmission lines to carry power to consumers.

        Not factually correct. The grid lost phase, that was the cause of the blackout. Isolation was only part of the cause. So no a few fallen supply lines was not the cause. I can back this up with the fact a rep from the SA power grid company stood behind the premiere during the event and stated the above.

        Distributed power has one very big impediment. Cost/mWh. While I agree that distributed power supply is a must, it must also be measured against cost effectiveness. Their is no point installing a power grid that no one can afford let alone afford to maintain.

        Your cost comparison for coal vs solar/wind is a fallacy. Regardless of carbon output Coal power supplies power 24/7 without risk of reduced capacity or outright not generating anything at night... If you want to cost compare solar & wind vs other power generation technology you must also include a localised suitable power storage as a cost impediment for unreliable energy generation.

        ignore the obvious benefits of alternative sources like renewables is to be willfully ignorant No argument their. I'm all for solar thermal or geothermal or even solar covered hydro (best of both worlds) generate electricity on the surface of the water (while keeping methane and carbon production down) and store the potential in the same place. Very efficient.

        those can remain static to provide backup for inclement weather That's not a smart plan. SA has shown us first hand how bad a plan that is. When they failed over to gas take a look at the cost/mwh they were paying. I believe it went from $60/mwh to peak of $9000 mwh. Thats economically crippling.

        so they deal with facts rather than ideology No they deal with academic facts in futurology not experts in the field. This article doesn't quote a single expert working in the field. We should have quotes from leading engineers working in the business actually delivering power for a large area of Australia.

        rom that same anti-renewables Coalition government Thats utter rhetoric and not helpful. The subsidies come from Government organisations setup by multiple Governments. Still he has a point. Their opinion is biased.

        I'll be off the grid entirely in 18 months or so While I compliment the idea, my bet is you don't disconnect. No one disconnects. I know I will never. Not unless I feel the need to buy a petrol generator for when solar or battery breaks down. (which I wont because its very expensive).

        I'm just waiting for the the battery tech to become more affordable I'm afraid the only tech that is showing promise is in the flow battery field which is a decade away. Tesla's lithium batteries are still 2 times too expensive and only half the necessary capacity. I run electric heating and refrigerated cooling.

        Last edited 24/02/17 4:16 pm

      "Too many renewables in S.A are what caused the blackouts, and they are just expensive and unreliable."

      No. Here's what caused it:

      Page 4: "The particular event was initiated by the loss of three transmission lines involving a sequence of faults in quick succession tripping generators offline."

      Page 5: "During the period of the event, two tornadoes almost simultaneously damaged a single circuit 275 kilovolt (kV) transmission line and a double circuit 275 kV transmission line, some 170 km apart."

      Page 19: "Figure 2 shows the SA total wind farm output. The variation shown is typical of the intermittent nature of wind generation. This did not create a power system security issue, as variations were well within the reserve capacity already in place to cover credible contingency events."

      Page 24: "Extreme weather conditions resulted in five system faults on the SA transmission system in the 87 seconds between 16:16:46 and 16:18:13, with three transmission lines ultimately brought down."

      You can view the AEMO report here: https://www.aemo.com.au/Media-Centre/AEMO-publishes-preliminary-recommendations-following-the-South-Australian-state-wide-power-outage

      It was not any particular power source which caused the problem, but the failure of transmission lines.

    Queensland regularly experiences outages of this kind in its distribution networks ...We bought our present house in SE Qld in 1994 and have had exactly 2 (two) power outages in that time, one of which was caused by a drunk driver taking out a power pole. I must be living in a different part of the state than the one that has these regular outages.

    Renewables are bullshit. What you need is safe, compact, zero emission and always available nuclear energy.

    Wind, solar, wave and (perhaps, perhaps not - depends where the hot rocks are in relation to your consumers) Geothermal are transient, high cap for short life, rubbish.

    The sooner this stupid country of mine gets on board with fission the better. But it never will, because it is a nation of serf dullards. Fuck you Australia, for never bothering to strive for what you can be. Idiot country.

      If you're going to call the rest of us idiots, perhaps you should try and cite a study or two to back your claims? Otherwise we might just think you're the idiot.

      Nuclear has its place IMHO, but it's not at all cheap, and not without risk. Newer designs may reduce risk but are more expensive - and unproven, which only increases costs further. Gas and wind are currently much cheaper, comparing full levelised costs per MWh, followed by hydro and solar (best is geothermal if you can get it).

      While I will say that Fission has recently made some leaps and bounds it's still another 15 years away. Germany being the closest to a prototype in 5 or so years. So it's still theoretical and last time I checked we can't power the country on hopes and dreams....

    @ Rae. Your article is missing actual experts. Academics are great for talking futurology and research however we are not talking topics of academia we are talking implementation. So before you claim "Experts", actually quote experts in the field of electricity distribution and electricity production whom do it for a living in Australia.

    edit: added straya

    Last edited 24/02/17 3:19 pm

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