South Australia’s blackouts caused by unreliable solar and wind were predicted two years ago in the journal Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, and every MP in the Parliament was told.
IT is hard to disagree with the blunt assessment of Business SA that South Australia has been caught on electricity planning like a frog in boiling water.
The story goes, with mixed results in scientific experiments, that a frog suddenly put into hot water will jump out but if heated slowly it will not figure out the danger.
The state was warned of the electricity-shortage crisis – and consequent blackouts – yet ignored the warnings, according to Business SA executive Anthony Penney.
“The most frustrating aspect of this most recent event is that it was anticipated by many businesses and other energy industry experts well in advance but, like the frog in boiling water, nothing happened in time,” he says.
This week the SA frog boiled. About 100,000 customers were blacked out because of the reliance on unreliable wind and solar power in our network – more than a third of SA’s generation capacity.
A police officer directs vehicles after traffic lights stopped operating because of power cuts caused by a severe storm which hit the state in September. Picture: AAP Image/David Mariuz
This was combined with national authorities failing to predict the shortfall during a blisteringly hot and still day and not firing up the gas backup generator at Pelican Point fast enough. Incidentally, the NSW frog also boiled on Friday when that state experienced the same type of load shedding as SA but, because of the same colour of political party in office in Sydney and Canberra, avoided almost any attention because of it.
SA has now been hit with two load shedding problems in three months – three in 18 months – many smaller incidents during December storms and the big one that is still a national talking point – the statewide blackout that cost businesses $367 million.
But while leaders publicly point the finger at the SA frog, the water or the pot – depending on which side they are on – privately, along with experts and planners, they are using our vast resources to solve what is a simple problem made achievable more than 150 years ago – electricity generation.
One vast resource is the possibility of a State Government contract plate-delivered to Powerchina to build a 250-megawatt generator at a cost of $350 million. If this option is taken up it would be up and running by 2018 and not cost the taxpayer anything.
Gas, although increasing in price and unreliable in its bulk supply, is the option increasingly being called on by those proposing a solution to the problem before next summer’s heatwaves, or at least 2018, an election year. Reopening the mothballed Torrens Island or Pelican Point gas plant would be another immediate gas solution.
Gas is less dirty than coal and, while it may only be a transition, it is a more palatable one, especially given SA doesn’t have much usable coal – the cause of the closure of our 544MW Northern Power Station last year.
This year, the 1600MW Hazelwood coal power station in Victoria will also close, denying us its cheap electricity via an interconnector. Coal is dead and buried, gas is dying but may last long enough to save us.
Moree Solar Farm, about 10km south of Moree in NSW and developed by Fotowatio Renewable Ventures, is feeding 56MW of renewable solar energy into the national electricity market, enough to power 15,000 average homes.
The federal draft Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market – released in December – advocates gas as a transition to our inevitable zero-carbon generation future. “Gas generation provides the synchronous operation that is key to maintaining technical operability with increased renewable generation until new technologies are available and cost-effective,’’ it found.
Wind and solar are not dead, just maligned to a point where they may as well be.
Ben Heard, a doctoral researcher at the University of Adelaide also runs environmental non-Government organisation Bright New World – which supports the use of nuclear – explains the problem.
He says the SA blackouts caused by unreliable solar and wind were predicted two years ago in the journal Transactions of the Royal Society of South Australia, and every MP in the Parliament was told.
“Back when wind generation was providing only 28 per cent of SA’s electricity supply, we flagged the risk presented by low supply in extreme heat conditions,’’ he says.
Mr Heard said it was well known that extreme heat conditions in SA were accompanied by very little wind.
“Our expectation at the time was that this would make it impossible to retire other generators from the market because of the security risk.
“Instead, the generators were allowed to retire, we took the risk, and we have started paying the price.”