Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

On Blackouts and Renewable Energy


Politicians have blamed South Australia’s recent blackout on its reliance on renewable energy. Is this a valid concern for the state’s energy security?

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.

Some uninformed commentators have claimed SA has unusually expensive power because it uses so much wind. In fact, wind power is cheap. 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 than NSW, Tasmania and the NT, more expensive than Victoria, WA and Queensland.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, and former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

These kinds of failures in the National Energy Market (NEM), 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.

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% reliable. Providing additional redundancy to insure against such events would be extremely costly, and would still not completely guarantee against further extreme events.

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. However, it is hard to imagine how the high penetration of renewable energy in the state could be implicated in this incident.

Just under 1000 MW of wind power was dispatching onto the grid at the time of the blackout, with another 400 MW from gas plant and 300 MW 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.

Roger Dargaville is Deputy Director of the Energy Research Institute at the University of Melbourne.

The statement “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.

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. 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.

I hope that there is an inquiry into the incident so that we can learn how to make power networks more resilient in the future.

Martin Sevior is an Associate Professor at Melbourne University’s School of Physics.

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, 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 cooperate, and currently there are a number of COAG discussion papers on how renewables and battery storage can be better integrated into the National Electricity Market.

The NEM’s large geographic spread and rich renewables resources will help ensure diversity of supply. 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, 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.

Professor Ken Baldwin is the Director of the Energy Change Institute and the Deputy Director of the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University.

We are on a pathway to very high proportions of renewable electricity with broad public support. Numerous studies demonstrate that 100% renewable electricity is achievable in Australia. The challenge now is how quickly we get there.

There is no question that this is a big change to our existing electricity system. The old model of large centralised power stations with large masses spinning to keep things stable does not work in a low carbon Australian future.

Wind and solar prices have dropped to the point where they compete on price with new-build fossil fuels, and continue to decrease in price. The challenge is now balancing supply and demand differently to the way we have in the past. Energy storage and demand shifting will be key, whether batteries at a local level or pumped hydro electrical storage at a network level.

Dr Matthew Stocks is at the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems and a Fellow at the College of Engineering & Computer Science at the Australian National University.