Renewables under attack – again

wind-farm-hero_250The Coalition government and the Murdoch press were already mounting a full-scale attack on renewable energy when the AEMO report on the SA blackout presented information in such a way as to cast further doubt on renewable energy. AEMO stands for Australian Energy Market Operator. That is AEMO is an operator in the game, not an independent watchdog. In fact an operator that may not itself have acted prudently.

On top of this Chris Uhlmann of the ABC has been virulently critical of the rush to renewables, using what turns out to be techno-babble to sound convincing. His views have skewed the ABC network coverage across all platforms.

So what happened?

The AEMO report is here. It turns out Chris Uhlmann has the neatest summary of the events. I’ve adapted the story from him.

Just before the blackout, SA’s electricity customers were consuming 1895 megawatts of energy.

Wind turbines were churning out 883MW, SA gas generation was humming along at 330MW and the two interconnectors with Victoria were importing 613MW of brown coal-fired power.

Then from around 4.16pm in the space of about 88 seconds five transmission line faults occurred, resulting in six voltage disturbances on the network, triggering the protection settings to shut down nine of the 13 wind farms in operation. This meant that 445MW of demand suddenly shifted to the Heywood interconnector with Victoria, which has a design limit of 650MW.

It surged to 900MW then shut down.

Electricity is normally maintained at plus or minus 10% of normal voltage. The first voltage drop took it down to 85% of normal, the next to 65%, and the next four to 40%. Generators are set to ‘ride through’ a set number of voltage drops, after which they shut down to protect the mechanisms from damage.

Michael Slezak at The Guardian consulted energy expert Dylan McConnell, from the Melbourne Energy Institute, who

    told Guardian Australia it was likely windfarms needed more conservative “voltage ride-through” settings than coal or gas generators.

    But he said the fact that a number of windfarms did ride through the event suggested their disconnection from the grid in South Australia was not a fundamental issue with wind power, but rather an issue with the choice of settings.

He said that given what happened, there is a fair chance it would have ended the same way, wind farms or no wind farms.

Chris Uhlmann makes a great deal of the fact the wind power is ‘asynchronous’ rather than coal and gas which ‘synchronous’. Renewables are therefore somehow intrinsically inferior.

Ben Eltham at New Matilda checked this aspect with energy experts, whose responses ranged from negative to derisory:

    Respected energy analyst Bruce Mountain is the Director of energy consultancy CME. He told us flatly that “there is no doubt that absent the weather this would not have occurred”.

    “The falling of the power lines, and consequential loss of generation, caused the tripping of the interconnector,” he said in a phone interview.

    Mountain said he could not understand Uhlmann’s claims about asynchronous generation by wind farms.

    “There is a rectifier in every wind turbine which takes direct current out of the wind-powered generator, it is rectified into an AC signal and it goes into the grid. The power electronics ensure a constant frequency of oscillation of the current from the wind generator, irrespective of wind speeds.”

Dr Hugh Saddler is the Senior Energy Consultant for energy engineering firm Pitt & Sherry. He:

    describes Uhlmann’s descriptions of synchronous and asynchronous supply as “deeply wrong” and “a classic manifestation of Alexander Pope’s aphorism, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing …’”

Dylan McConnell had pointed out that four wind farms rode through the voltage drop.

AEMO found that the ones that tripped were set to shut down if three or more voltage drops were experienced within a given time. They said that the settings were an issue to be resolved between the wind farm operators and the manufacturers, in this case Siemens and Indian firm Suzlon.

Ben Potter and Simon Evans in the AFR say that:

    Siemens has sharply lifted the number of voltage loss events that will trigger shutdown of its wind turbines from six to 20 since the turbines were implicated in South Australia’s statewide blackout.

But one of the wind farm owners that Siemens supplies says the jury is still out on whether the more robust triggers risk more damage to wind turbines.

Today, from Ben Potter at the AFR, David Pryke from Siemens Australia says:

    South Australia’s gas turbines would have switched off during the one in 50-year storm three weeks ago had they been as close to the major transmission faults as the wind turbines that did switch off and not hundreds of kilometres away in Adelaide.


    Mr Pryke said wind turbines “are even more resilient to a loss of voltage than gas or coal fired turbines”.

    “Whether it is coal-fired power or gas-fired power, either would be similar, and coal-fired power or gas-fired power are even more sensitive to low voltage or frequency faults than wind turbines.”

At this point it seems appropriate to look at the layout of the grid, from AEMO:


I’ve cropped the middle out of the image and downsized to fit. It’s available more legibly at pdf 17 of the AEMO report. Three comments.

First, the transmission faults that caused voltage drop were widely distributed geographically, but occurred within 88 seconds – surely a very rare circumstance.

Second, the red dots show wind farms that shut down during the event.

Thirdly, grey squares show power stations that weren’t operating during the storm. One wonders why. Were AEMO more concerned about saving money than grid security?

From the stats given at the top, wind was supplying 69% of the electricity sourced from within SA, and 46% overall. The Victorian interconnector was supplying 32% of power, but was at 94% capacity. This left almost no margin for backup if something should fail in SA. I wonder whether AEMO bears some responsibility in this circumstance.

Apparently only 20MW of wind supply was unavailable because turbines were turned off because of the strength of the wind.

Mark Ludlow shows this graph of how power was lost over seven seconds:


Wind’s intermittency played no role in the blackout.

Uhlmann’s techno-babble about asynchronous power is essentially crap.

It seems that ‘ride-through’ factory settings were not adjusted. AEMO claim that they were not notified of the settings when the wind farms were first registered. However Pryke says:

    wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm operators set their shutdown triggers – or self-protection mechanisms – according to grid codes devised by AEMO on the basis of past experience. (Emphasis added)

AEMO are responsible for power system security, and did exactly nothing before the storm. Apparently they noted that wind gusts were predicted up to 120kph, which the system was designed to cope with. They seemed completely oblivious the possibility of what in SEQ we call “super-cells” within a storm front, which do most of the damage. I’m not sure southern engineers have their heads around this aspect.

Giles Parkinson has been most active in calling AEMO to account, as in his Eight big questions arising from AEMO report into SA blackout.

It also includes the question as to why Josh Frydenberg is still banging on about intermittency in relation to the blackout.

Uhlmann seems equally incorrigible. Amanda Meade reports that he is completely impervious to the criticisms raised by Eltham and Parkinson, seeing himself as a heretic, persecuted for telling the truth.

I think Meade should have emphasised that it is not primarily Eltham and Parkinson, rather the technical experts they cite, who are criticising Uhlmann. He cites no experts, simply asserts. Uhlmann is important because Eltham after an actual audit of ABC coverage found:

    Of the 54 articles, 23 blamed renewable energy for the blackout, or led with claims by the government that blamed renewables for the outage. In contrast, there were 12 that were either positive about renewable energy, or that reported that renewable energy was not the cause. 19 were neutral.

See also Giles Parkinson:

Bottom line is that South Australia energy minister Tom Koutsantonis is right, it was a “software issue”. However, there is also a huge question as to whether AEMO understood the risks and whether there shouldn’t be an independent look at AEMO’s role in the event.

Coalition and Murdoch campaign

When energy minister Josh Frydenberg called a COAG meeting on the implications of the SA power blackout recently I thought he might have learnt something from the briefings on energy futures by the Australian Energy Market Operator, the AEMO the AEMC and CSIRO. Seems not.

At Senate Estimates hearings the Clean Energy Finance Corporation said that:

    uncertainty in the renewable energy sector has led to more than half of their projects becoming focused on energy efficiency rather than renewable energy.

Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler says:

    the country has lost almost 3,000 renewable energy jobs since the Coalition came to power, while renewable jobs globally have grown by almost 65 per cent over the same period.

    “Just two weeks ago Malcolm Turnbull attacked state governments’ renewable energy targets saying they are ‘extremely aggressive, and extremely unrealistic’,” he said.

    “But today, the CEFC confirmed that when it comes to new investment in renewable energy the main activity is driven by state programs. Investors’ lack of confidence is a mirror of this government’s unwillingness to consider any renewable energy investment post 2020.”

The LNP’s response has been to ramp up its attacks to ensure that there is no re-booting of the renewable energy sector.

Voters favour Labor’s renewable energy target

Essential research asked the following question:

    The Labor Party is committed to a target of 50% renewable energy by 2030. An independent report has said this policy would require about $48 billion of new private sector (not Government) investment in large-scale renewable energy production such as solar and wind farms. Do you approve or disapprove of this policy?

Over half (59%) of Australians approve of the target, only 19% disapprove, and 23% don’t know.

Even 48% of LNP voters approved. There were no gender differences, but approval tapered with age.

While we are there, just under one third (31%) of Australians are confident that the Turnbull Government will be able to get things done that the nation needs. Just 4% are ‘very confident’, while 58% are not confident, and 11% don’t know. Labor’s lead in TPP terms has opened up to 53-47.

17 thoughts on “Renewables under attack – again”

  1. Good one Brian. It captures a lot of the crap that has been floating around about the SA blackout. I guess my take is:
    1. This was a very unusual event with major power lines being blown over. Under those conditions a good system may have to shut down to protect the system. (But the report suggests that this may have been avoided if the wind farm settings had been less conservative.)
    2. The real issue was the time that it took to get going again. I have no feel for how long this should have been. However, I would have thought that it would have been important to run checks before attempting a restart. (I also heard somewhere that the gas generating restart was held up with problems with black start systems. (A black start is a start when the power is off.)
    3. If we are talking about wind and solar PV the system needs energy storage and/or backup if blackouts are to be minimized.
    4. Houses that had battery storage were not inconvenienced much by the blackout.
    5. It would be a shame if we waste more money on grid upgrades or new fossil fuel power sources instead of spending it on energy storage and increased renewable power capacity.

  2. It is not a toy, John, it is what is the actually air movements at the surface around the globe. You can relate that directly the weather maps on your news feed.

    The interesting thing is how to read it. I believe, but need to verify it but where you see air moving fast then just disappear, this represents a low pressure system and the air is actually ascending at that point to form clouds and storm systems. The large areas with slow moving confused air lines are the high pressure systems with descending air.

    For anyone planning a wind farm this is a golden resource.

    For anyone planning a sailing passage this is a useful tool (that was the source of the link…yachties).

  3. I meant to say that I would have loved to have seen the nullschool resource images from SA during their tornadoes. I’ll be watching the US to see how they appear in the air movements.

  4. BilB, I’m not convinced there were any genuine tornadoes in the SA storm.

    The image here shows a broad circulation pattern, but it wasn’t an ‘extra-tropical cyclone’ as Ben Eltham called it. The BOM image in the Guardian shows it as a large but regular storm front with some very severe cells.

    I mentioned that hereabouts they talk in terms of ‘supercells’ which if you Google are defined as tornadoes with uplift, but here’s an explanation from a local meteorologist about one that hit us in November 2014. It made a real mess from St Lucia through to the CBD:

    A supercell is a complex storm system with a tall column of cumulonimbus cloud that rotates.

    It is fuelled by a series of warm updrafts and cool downdrafts and can produce violent wind gusts, large hail, intense rainfall, severe lightning and tornadoes.

    Water droplets in the cloud are pushed upwards and freeze into ice crystals.

    These can join with other ice crystals to form hail. Updrafts suspend hail in the air, causing it to become larger.

    “(Hailstones) have been in the updrafts and downdrafts for a while and they grow and grow until the updraft can no longer sustain them, or they find a downdraft,” Dr Wardle said.

    He referred to one that happened in The Gap and through the northern suburbs in 2008. It was described as a supercell within the storm that was rotating at about 200kph, and a tongue broke through the bottom of the cloud and carved a narrow strip about 15km long through the suburbs. It actually started on the leeward slope of Mt Coot-tha, scooping down the hillside.

    The point I’m making is that there are other phenomena than tightly circulating columns with uplift. The wind as experienced in The Gap would have been horizontal.

  5. John, I think it was me who reported that when they restored power the gas wouldn’t work and it was Victorian power first, then wind, then gas.

    Other stuff went wrong. The emergency system at Flinders Medical Centre failed as did the diesel backup at Port Lincoln.

    I think everyone concerned has had a wake-up call about the ‘ride-through’ settings, which it seems are fairly easily fixed.

    I’m still not sure whose decision it was to run the Victorian interconnector at 94% capacity, rather than use fossil power available in SA. I think it was AEMO, and the motivation was to use the cheapest power available at the time.

    Whoever it was they deserve a rocket, but I think what we have in the AEMO report is subtle blame-shifting, or ass-covering.

  6. I think there is a lot of crap being flung around about this. In Australia profound blackouts are extremely rare. A week ago I was in Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people, in Hinsdale just 30 kilometers from Trump Tower Hotel where the houses all had backup power generators. The neighbours house generator ran every Tuesday morning at 7.30 for half an hour.

    We have had extremely stable government run electricity systems for decades. Now it is being privatised, fragmented, and low and behold we have failures. So what do politicians and the failure perpetrators do to cover up their disasterous decisions? Blame a whipping boy, in this case renewables.

    It is pathetic.

  7. I remember blackouts every Xmas time because of unions rather than privatisation.
    Regular as clockwork.

  8. I remember blackouts every Xmas time because of unions …

    Never happened in WA. Unionists were too fond of cold beer.

  9. Jumpy, funny thing is that I’ve lived in Queensland continuosly since 1968 when I came back from SA, and I can’t remember the lights going off every Christmas. I will concede that there has been less industrial confrontation since the big one in 1985.

    But snce then, when my memory is better, we’ve had 30 years now of good service in Qld where the power grids are still publicly owned.

    BilB is perfectly right, however. In the NEM which we are all part of, apart from WA and NT, more or less, there’s been fragmentation through privatisation and competition policies which foster short-termism and the profit motive and make a rational consideration of what’s needed quite difficult.

  10. Jumpy, I’ve just checked with my wife, who has lived here apart from a couple of years in the early 1970s. She reckons, blackouts sometimes with storms, but otherwise she can’t remember any.

  11. Brian: I caught the black start comment because I am aware that backup euipmwnt has to work to allow power stations to restart when there is no power. If the blackstart system didn’t work it indicates a failure to check key equipment is in working order.

  12. John, it indicates that a lot of what should have been routine checking of backup systems had been neglected. I’m sure everyone will be more on their game now, at least for a time.

  13. Union-led blackouts???

    I can remember threats to beer supplies just before Christmas, and threats to airlines just before Easter, but not annual electricity blackouts.

    Last big electricity strike in Victoria was around 1977, well before SEQEB.

Comments are closed.