Why did the wind power collapse in SA?

October 6th, 2016

Why did wind power cease moments before South Australia’s total blackout?

This is a key question in getting to the bottom of what really happened when the lights went out across an entire State – and stayed out for one of the most far-reaching blackouts in Australian history.

Renewable energy advocates in industry and politics have been quick to say that the initial report by the Australian Energy market operator clears wind power of any role in the blackout.

At the first news of the blackout, anti-fossil fuel activists were going so far out of their way to shut down any questions, that they were ranting that coal-fired power was to blame

This nonsense was quickly blown away. But Greens politicians and environmental lobby groups have remained on the attack, claiming some sort of conspiracy against the renewables industry and vigorously asserting that the energy regulator’s initial report clears SA’s wind power industry of any involvement in the total blackout.

They are on shaky ground.

SA Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was leading the pack, accusing her SA colleague Senator  Xenophon, plus the Prime Minister and his deputy of “cheap politicking” when they dared to pose questions about SA’s energy security and the causes of the blackout.

The truth is that Senator Hanson and the others throwing ‘conspiracy’ charges are choosing to ignore the most relevant finding in the initial report by the Australian Energy Market Operator:

The AEMO found that wind power came to an abrupt halt moments before the total blackout.

Wind farms in six locations ceased operating. This had the immediate effect of overloading the SA-Victoria electricity interconnector – SA’s power lifeline in the period since subsidised renewable energy displaced coal-fired power in the State. The sudden withdrawal of wind power tripped the failsafe on the Interconnector and isolated the State.  Only gas could be used to re-start the power grid, as wind power can’t do this job.

The blackout underlined the vulnerability of the SA power mix and the importance of the Interconnector. This had already been shown in the July price-spike crisis which occurred when heavy weather neutered SA wind power and the Interconnector was closed for maintenance. Power prices soared, causing panic among industrial users and prompting the Premier to call on a dormant gas-fired generator to undertake an emergency re-start to alleviate the crisis.

That was July. In only two months, South Australian businesses and consumers have experienced extraordinary and very unwelcome circumstances. It has undermined confidence in the integrity of the system – what Mr Turnbull called a “wake-up call”.

The institute of Public Affairs was more direct, saying the fast-track implementation of wind power was “starting to do the country damage”.

“When you rely on the weather to generate electricity, and the weather turns bad, then you shouldn’t be surprised when your electricity system in turn cannot cope,” said IPA Research Director, Brett Hogan.

“While renewables may very well have a place in our future energy needs, their uncontrolled rollout, powered by federal and state government subsidies is starting to do Australia damage.”

Mr Hogan summed up the events leading up to the blackout thus:

“The AEMO Preliminary Report makes it clear that while the weather was responsible for multiple transmission system faults, the blackout did not occur until after the sudden loss of 315 megawatts of wind output at six separate sites over a six second period.

“The renewables industry can no longer credibly argue that the reasons for the fault relied solely on the weather. Images of downed pylons do not tell the whole story.

“In simple terms, the wind increased and some transmission lines went down but electricity generation continued. It was only the as-yet-unexplained reduction in wind farm output which overloaded demand on the interconnector with Victoria, causing the whole network to seize up.

And the role of the gas-fired generation in the crisis…?

“Gas generation continued through the storm and the transmission line faults as did supply from the interconnector. Importantly, it was also the Torrens Island gas-fired Power Station that was used to re-start the electricity network later that evening.”

Perhaps that is why the Arrium steel furnace at Whyalla is now looking to go off grid. It needs reliability – and for that it is turning to gas.

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