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The system works – pity about the politics

Remember the ‘South Australian’ power failures? The ones that Prime Minister Turnbull and Energy Minister Frydenburg still claim was due to the over-reliance on renewable energy? The first happened in September 2016. At the time, the ABC published an account and timeline on how and why it happened. The failure was due to various parts of the system shorting out to protect itself during a severe storm combined with an inter-connector that distributes power across the grid that was out of service for maintenance.

In an article that slammed the SA Government by claiming

The fragility of South Australia’s electricity supply with the rise of renewables is an open secret

the ABC’s then Political Editor, Chris Uhlmann, admitted

It is important to note that the Australian Energy Market Operator [AEMO] says the damage to the system was so catastrophic that it would have shut down no matter what the energy mix was in South Australia yesterday.

“Initial investigations have identified the root cause of the event is likely to be the multiple loss of 275 kilovolt (kV) power lines during severe storm activity in the state,” it said in a statement.

In the inevitable investigation that followed, it was ‘discovered’ that the pseudo (because Western Australia & the Northern Territory are not connected) National Grid systems did actually do as was intended. The system noted that part of the system had gone ‘out of synch’ and dropped below the 50-hertz frequency required to keep electricity flowing across the network. The system then dropped off the malfunctioning area to protect the majority of the system. SA’s internal power generation system couldn’t take up the slack on a moment’s notice due to damage from the severe storm so the system fell over.

On 8 February 2017, SA again had power problems when there was insufficient power available to meet the demand. On this occasion, according to the SA Government, the problem was due to AEMO not requesting a power generator in SA to commence operation. We looked at this early in March 2017 on The Political Sword while we were discussing Turnbull’s apparent about face from environmental crusader while Opposition Leader to climate change denier as Prime Minister.

After the widespread blackout event in March 2017, SA Premier Jay Wetherill announced a raft of policy and infrastructure investment designed to bolster the self-reliance of the SA electricity system. They included the addition of some gas generation capacity, more renewables and somewhat controversially, an agreement with Tesla to supply and install what was at the time the largest storage battery in the world. The battery was to be connected to a windfarm to ‘time shift’ the electricity production to times of high demand. Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, promised it would be operational in ‘100 days or it’s free’.

During July 2017 we discussed the mechanics of grid-scale battery storage and looked at how it was being implemented in California, as well as pondering why conservatives such as Turnbull and Bernardi either had or were considering battery storage on their domestic renewable energy systems, but rubbished the SA Government for implementing renewable energy storage at a grid level.

Just before Christmas, a number of media outlets carried stories provided by the NSW ‘Energy Security Taskforce’ of catastrophic disruption for days if Sydney was affected by a similar power failure that occurred in South Australia in early 2017. The SA experience is not unique and the Union of Concerned Scientists have listed 13 of the largest power outages and their causes on their blog going back to 1977. It is interesting to note that they all affected more people than the number that live in the Sydney basin and

In the summary of 13 power outages . . . notice how the weather and the operations of the grid caused the blackouts. Coordination and better information, rather than more old-fashioned power plants, are the recurring need for more reliable systems.

While the power issues in SA were serious (and there would be severe dislocation in Sydney if the worst case came to pass), the 8.2 million people across 17 states and District of Columbia in the US as well as parts of Canada who suffered power outages for up to two weeks after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012 probably have discovered the world does move on. The logistics of recovery would have certainly been greater in the US and Canada than the identified problems around Sydney due to the scale of the disruption and different environments – such as Sydney lacking anything like the 30km of underground walkways and shopping arcades that would have to have been evacuated in Toronto’s PATH when the power went off.

However, vested interests and some politicians will tell you time and again the reason that there is the potential for instability in the ‘national’ grid is the lack of new coal fired power stations. In reality, the ALP state governments in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland are attempting to do the research, development and installation work for substituting renewable energy into the existing system while the Federal Coalition government is deliberately tearing down the same options for political reasons.

If you do believe that the vested interests are correct and Australia needs more coal fired power generation capacity, there is a land of pain and hurt coming your way. Remember Tesla offered to build a grid connected storage battery in 100 days or it was free? Well – it happened with time to spare. The battery went on line in November 2017 and it literally made news around the world. Apart from Fairfax media in Australia, it was reported in the USA here and here, as well as coverage in the UK here while the US Financial Times produced a video giving a short history of the initiative.

Every time Turnbull and Frydenberg have rubbished grid scale storage battery, events have proven it has turned out to be hot air at best and deliberately misleading at worst. The battery is in, working and SA justifiably received a bit of publicity around the world as an innovator and thinking outside the box. Assuming there are no systemic power failures this summer, it’s all good and Turnbull will come up with some spin to ‘explain away’ his multiple positions on energy security if he is ever asked the question.

Well, maybe not.

Alan Pears, a Senior Industrial Fellow at RMIT University wrote an article recently in The Conversation that discusses energy-related politics as we enter 2018

Looking forward, the coming year will be shaped by some key issues, some of which are already playing out at a frenetic pace. Consider a small sample of many recent events:

  • As mentioned, AEMO has released a discussion paper framing a very different electricity future, and including a low-carbon scenario.
  • The new battery in South Australia has delivered remarkable outcomes, helping to stabilise the grid in ways that few imagined.
  • The Victorian Essential Services Commission has proposed a new “time of day” feed-in price for rooftop solar that reaches 29 cents per kilowatt-hour in afternoons and evenings. If approved, this will be a game-changer, as adding battery storage to rooftop solar will become far more attractive.
  • The Energy Networks Association, not the gas industry, has released a zero emission gas strategy at last.
  • The annual report on the National Energy Productivity Plan (remember that?) shows we’re falling behind even the government’s weak target: not surprising given the miniscule resources allocated.

Meanwhile the federal government has released energy modelling to underpin ongoing negotiation on the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) that is simply irrelevant and embarrassing. The Energy Security Board’s involvement in this has undermined perceptions of its independence, especially when it is contrasted with the vision AEMO is discussing in its paper.

While the states have agreed to continue discussion on the NEG in April, there are some major hurdles. Primarily, states must be allowed to set and achieve their own energy targets: the federal energy minister has put the blame for problems on the states, and they now have to be seen by their voters to act.

There are a few notable points here, the Australian electricity regulator (AEMO) is actively and opening discussing a low-carbon energy provision scenario. In their report, AEMO has identified a number of Renewable Energy Zones from Far North Queensland with its open space and copious sunshine (the number plates say ‘Sunshine State’ for a reason) to Tasmania with its hydro systems that can be fed through a cable in Bass Strait to the mainland.

Probably the most interesting point for discussion is how the Tesla grid scale storage battery in SA is delivering ‘remarkable outcomes’. On 14 December 2017 one of the largest coal fired power generators in Australia, Loy Yang A, located conveniently near a source of environmentally disastrous brown coal near Taralgon in Victoria, tripped early in the morning causing a sudden loss of 560MW to the National Grid. This sudden loss of generation capacity caused the supply to drop below the required frequency of 50 hertz and could have caused a cascade of failures as demonstrated in South Australia early in 2017. But it didn’t.

Even before the Loy Yang A unit had finished tripping, the 100MW/129MWh [Tesla battery system] had responded, injecting 7.3MW into the network to help arrest a slump in frequency that had fallen below 49.80Hertz.

Data from AEMO (and gathered above by Dylan McConnell from the Climate and Energy College) shows that the Tesla big battery responded four seconds ahead of the generator contracted at that time to provide FCAS (frequency control and ancillary services), the Gladstone coal generator in Queensland.

But in reality, the response from the Tesla big battery was even quicker than that – in milliseconds – but too fast for the AEMO data to record.

Importantly, by the time that the contracted Gladstone coal unit had gotten out of bed and put its socks on so it can inject more into the grid – it is paid to respond in six seconds – the fall in frequency had already been arrested and was being reversed.

Gladstone injected more than Tesla did back into the grid, and took the frequency back up to its normal levels of 50Hz, but by then Tesla had already put its gun back in its holster and had wandered into the bar for a glass of milk.

So why did the Tesla big battery respond when not contracted?

One reason is because it can, and so it did.

The other reason is less clear, but more intriguing. It is contracted to provide such grid services by the South Australia government.

Reneweconomy reports here that power stations trip without warning regularly. Apparently, there were four ‘unexpected trips’ around the national grid network in the week after Loy Yang on 14 December. While the SA battery system can’t always ‘fix’ the problem by itself, it certainly assists in energy stability and security.

Unsurprisingly, neither Turnbull or Frydenburg have been working the media in the past few weeks recanting their pillory of the wisdom of the SA Government using renewable energy or installing the battery system. It seems that 2018 will bring some more embarrassment to the coal lobby. Turnbull’s NEG is beholden to the states to implement and as such various state agencies will hopefully subject it to scrutiny to determine if the proposal is logical and worth implementing. The Tesla battery seems to be working better than expected, the case study of the positive benefits to the system will be studied and used in other installations around the world, potentially including other locations around Australia that have considerable wind or solar installations.

While this is occurring, the risk of coal mines and other infrastructure becoming stranded assets increases all the time. Perhaps those with interests in the future use of coal should be looking for uses such as Whitby Jet jewellery which is made using lignite, a precursor of black coal (and closely related to brown coal). With the amount of coal we apparently have available, Australia could control the Jet jewellery market for the next millennia.

Until then, we have failed politicians promoting failed energy policies without regard for the future of the environment because they don’t have the courage to question the status quo.

What do you think?

This article by 2353NM was originally published on The Political Sword.

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  1. @RosemaryJ36

    Pass control of energy supply entirely back to the States/Territories. The Federal government is a hindrance not a help!

  2. Jack Russell

    Only NSW and Tas as L/NP states … I’m imagining the IPA adding another wish to their list – abolish state governments.

    Too fanciful?

  3. Wun Farlung

    Better still pass the whole system generation, distribution and retail back to the people

  4. Phil

    I’d be incredibly happy if writers would explain what they mean when they report that a politicians response or approach to some issue is done “for political reasons”

    I’m reading the term almost everywhere and its driving me nuts. Presumably it is intended as a pejorative yet even politicians throw it at their opposition at every opportunity – so what does it mean in practice – what are the consequences?

    Politicians ‘do’ politics 100% of the time so how does a claim that an opposing politician is “playing politics” have any meaning – why disparage your own modus operandi? Is it the word “playing” that is meant to offend?

    If a politician is doing something “for political reasons” then please spell out those reasons as you see them. For instance, is Turnbull pushing coal and trying to kill the transition off fossil fuels because he disputes the role of fossil fuel derived carbon dioxide in driving the climate catastrophe?

    Or is it because he is pushing his society destroying policy that is contrary to his own beliefs and principles, for the sole reason that he believes it will help him to retain power and that he accepts the damage from his known false policy position as the price WE must pay for his ego?

    Is this how the ‘game of politics’ plays out – with climate catastrophe driving mass uncontrolled human and species migrations, inevitable wars, droughts, crop failures, starvation, disease epidemics – and ultimately nuclear destruction? Is this what Turnbull and Frydenburg are gambling on when they ‘play politics’ with our energy systems?

  5. Kronomex

    This utter lunacy is almost guaranteed to make us a target. Trembles is nucking futs, ““This strategy is about job creation,” Turnbull said in a joint statement with Pyne, the minister for defence Marise Payne, and the minister for trade Steven Ciobo.” Bullshit! He just wants to cash in the weapons market. We now desperately need an election to get rid of this bunch of warmongers and raving nut cases.

  6. Matters Not

    Phil re:

    Presumably it is intended as a pejorative yet even politicians throw it at their opposition at every opportunity – so what does it mean in practice

    I think the most important issue is – what does it mean in practice – because each and every individual may or might give different meanings to exactly the same statement. That’s the gamble politicians make. Statement X may evoke a positive response from a particular sector of society while exactly the same statement may evoke a negative response from another sector.

    In short it’s not about the intended meaning (perhaps clear enough), but the meaning which is eventually given.

    Meaning is given by each individual. And is not to equated by that intended the sender.

  7. Terry2

    Interesting how at a time when the world is awash with armaments and perpetual war seems to be the norm in the middle east and beyond , what do the muppets in the Australian government have to say : we should join the arms dealers as obviously there is a growing appetite for war and killing and why shouldn’t Australia get some of the action.

    But, you say we hounded an auto manufacturing industry out of the country, wouldn’t we be better off making electric cars, wouldn’t that make us a smart country ? Be Careful, Peter Dutton has taken your name !

  8. Terry2


    for political reasons” to me means that you cut income taxes and corporate taxes at a time when you have an expanding deficit and growing government debt : noting that both debt and deficit were anathema to the coalition at the last federal election.

  9. etnorb

    The comments about the power supply failure in SA were correct. However, if this inept, lying, obscenely over-paid bloody Labor mob here in SA had some brains they would not have de-comissioned the Port Augusta coal-fired power station UNTIL there was enough or an adequate power supply to cater for ALL SA, even in times of high use, such as a heatwave! The “system” we now have in place is, it seems, not really enough to ensure “proper” power supply in the event of a heat wave etc! There is not enough capacity in all the various solar panels, battery “farms”, diesel generators to completely supply all of SA! The “idea” of having solar, batteries, diesel generators is fine in principle, but here in SA we have yet to reach the total amount of non-coal generating power, or back-up power, needed to completely “take over” from coal.

  10. Kyran

    There were power outs in Victoria due to the heat over the past 24 hours. Right on cue, the Premier said;
    “Mr Andrews said localised faults across the distribution network were to blame for the outage.
    ”The frustration caused in those households … was not about power supply, but localised factors, localised issues in the distribution network,” he said.”
    And the Loto guy said;
    “Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said it was the State Government’s responsibility to ensure power companies were running a reliable system that kept up with Victoria’s population growth.
    “It’s the Government’s job to ensure that the lights stay on,” he said.”

    What was interesting was this bit;
    “Mr Dillon said the use of solar power did little to ease the pressure, as peak electricity usage came later in the day.
    “What solar power has done is certainly well and truly clicked the load off at midday, and it has helped with these peaks at 3:00pm or 4:00pm,” he said.
    “But what it’s effectively tended to do is shift them to later in the day, so now we’re starting to see the network peak doesn’t happen until 6:00pm or 7:00pm.””

    There is already disruption to the ‘normal’ modelling due to the increasing use of solar/renewable energy sources. In this instance, it shifted the ‘peak’ period by a few hours. The ‘game changer’, as you have said in your article, is the battery storage aspect. The SA use of the battery with gas back up is now feasible at a macro level.

    “What was once viewed as an add-on to solar photovoltaic is now driving a revolution in the energy sector and turning the concept of a national electricity grid upside down.
    The chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel’s report on the future of the national electricity market gives a glimpse of how profound this change will be. The report cites data suggesting that by 2050, 30% to 45% of annual electricity consumption could be supplied by consumer-owned generators; namely, rooftop solar photovoltaic and battery storage.
    This represents a huge opportunity for consumers, and a huge challenge for electricity providers.”

    “This creates a new opportunity for households and businesses to effectively play the electricity market, says a senior expert at McKinsey & Company and report co-author, Amy Wagner.
    “In a classic net energy metering environment, where you get paid the same dollars per kilowatt hour if you’re using it in your house or if you’re exporting it to the grid, you’re paid all the same price; you don’t need storage – the grid is your storage,” Wagner says.
    But as these feed-in tariffs change – and they vary from state to state in Australia – a new opportunity presents for rooftop solar owners.
    “Then you start creating a market for storage that didn’t exist before, because it has an arbitrage opportunity; you arbitrage between the retail rate for what they get to reduce their own consumption and the retail rate that they get to export.””

    “The McKinsey & Company report suggests full grid defection is not now economical, and Wagner believes the grid will continue to have value.
    “But there will need to be changes made by the utilities to make the grid leaner, modernisation technology that they need to put in to optimise against the distributed generation profiles; a different way of operating the grid.””

    These economic (as well as the obvious environmental) factors should be modelled by governments nationally as the economic and environmental impact is going to occur sooner rather than later.
    However, our stalwarts of stupidity won’t even acknowledge its existence. Not surprising really. Turnbull gifted $10mill to research Russian cloud seeding. It seems his understanding of political pork barreling surpasses his knowledge of environmental reality (his own Pt Piper residence excepted, of course). There is some modelling on what to do for reparation of stranded assets, which looks a bit dodgy to me.

    “The Queensland Government late last year transferred nearly $5 million from an environmental assurance fund to the controversial new owners of the Blair Athol coal mine, five months after they bought the mine for a token $1.
    The Department of Environment and Science has confirmed to 7.30 it transferred “surplus” funds to the small resource company, TerraCom.
    The transfer has angered both environmental groups and the LNP opposition, prompting accusations the company is gaming the system.
    Blair Athol was formerly owned by a consortium led by resource giant Rio Tinto, which shut down the operation in 2012 but did not carry out the required land rehabilitation.
    The State Government allowed Rio Tinto to offload the mine to TerraCom last May, on the condition Rio paid an environmental financial assurance of nearly $80 million.”

    “TerraCom recorded a profit after tax of $5.037 million for the last financial year, with the independent auditor finding “significant uncertainty as to whether the consolidate entity will continue as a going concern”.
    The Blair Athol coal mine recommenced operations last August.
    A leaked State Government report in 2016 found a $3.2 billion shortfall in financial assurances for Queensland coal mines.
    A 2014 auditor-general’s report found the financial assurance held by the state has “historically been insufficient”, but that in recent years the Environment Department had made “a concerted effort to increase the amount held and to reduce the gap”.”

    Yeah, isn’t coal grand? Ah well, our tech savvy PM has it sorted. He’s going to give $60mill to fix the GBR with ‘proven science’. Like the science of making rain, or the science of communications like the NBN. He’s so coal. My bad. Cool.

    “It didn’t take long. On Monday the Federal Government made a big deal out of investing $60 million over 18 months to “set in motion” a major research and development program for the restoration of the Great Barrier Reef.
    Within 24 hours the plan was attacked by environmentalists, marine scientists and the Greens as too little, too late, as window dressing, and for failing to even mention the main cause of the reef’s problems – climate change.”

    “Predictably, the Greens were even more critical. Queensland Greens Senator Andrew Bartlett said the announcement was a “wasteful publicity stunt” designed to deflect attention from the main problems facing the Reef.
    “The real beneficiaries of this blatant publicity stunt are the fossil fuel giants and their Liberal Party mates, who will continue to go about their business as usual — certainly not the Reef or the public, who are footing million-dollar bills for wasteful projects that are doomed to fail,” the Cairns Post reported him as saying.”

    There are so many issues that most people want to be addressed. And those we expect to actually do something are like those petulant little brats that stick their grubby little fingers in their grubby little ears and scream “Not listening, Not listening, La, La, La, La, Not listening”.
    “If you do believe that the vested interests are correct and Australia needs more coal fired power generation capacity, there is a land of pain and hurt coming your way.”
    Only we’ll be the one’s who get hurt, the companies will be ‘compensated’.
    Thank you 2353NM and commenters. It is such a pity about the politics. Take care

  11. Andreas Bimba

    Dr James Hansen and his colleagues have determined that the world must reduce CO2 emissions from their current level by at least 3% p.a. so as to have a chance of avoiding the catastrophic consequences from global warming. At the same time a massive global effort to absorb atmospheric carbon through reforestation and improved agricultural practices is essential. Currently global CO2 emissions are still increasing mainly due to rapid economic development in countries like China, India and other developing countries.

    Given the much lower per capita energy usage in the developing world it is not reasonable to expect these countries to reduce emissions as rapidly as the developed economies. Countries like Australia should realistically be reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions by 6% p.a. yet our emissions are increasing and major levels of land clearing are occurring.

    The removal of a price on carbon by Tony Abbott, that was originally introduced by Julia Gillard’s government, has been extremely reckless and will add considerably to the final economic burden on the Australian people. More capital will now be wasted on fossil fuel using infrastructure and on fossil fuel extraction/transport that will need to be discarded well before the normal life span is reached. The needed improvements to the energy efficiency and transition to renewable energy sources for our dwellings, transport, our towns and cities, agriculture and of industry will be delayed and as a result emissions will need to be reduced at a more rapid rate the longer we delay, which again adds to the cost.

    It is like we are all in a bus that is speeding toward a concrete wall and the driver has taken his foot off the brake because his paymasters have told him there is no wall. Unfortunately that wall is real and if we don’t remove that driver soon we will pay dearly.

    As Dr James Hansen said, “as long as fossil fuels remain cheap we will not phase them out”. His recommendation is a national carbon price that increases over time and that is fully refunded equally to citizens as well as major investment in technologies that address the global warming crisis.

    The fossil fuel companies, the mining companies, their financiers and their business associations, think tanks, lobbyists
    and media propagandists have bòught our current political system.

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