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Sep 29, 2016

South Australia’s blackout explained

What was really to blame for South Australia’s historic blackout? InDaily editor David Washington and journalist Bension Siebert sort through the claims and identify some questions that remain unanswered.

There is a consensus among key players that last night’s South Australia-wide power failure was caused when a massive storm knocked out 23 transmission towers servicing Adelaide’s north.

Key energy bodies and energy market experts say the entire state lost power because the equivalent of a system-wide short-circuit switch was triggered by the damaged power lines.

They say the automatic cut-off protected South Australians from injury and protected the electricity grid across eastern Australia from damage.

But the organisation that operates the power grid — the Australian Energy Market Operator — says that while the root cause of the blackout was the loss of power lines north of Adelaide, questions remained about why the rest of the state was powered down.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has suggested South Australia’s reliance on renewable energy sources had contributed to a lack of energy security in the state. But every industry body involved in the market says the state’s energy mix was irrelevant to the blackout.

What about the time taken to reboot the system?

SA Opposition Leader Steven Marshall has suggested that the reboot of the power network has been slow, but an energy market expert has told InDaily restarting the state’s electricity system from “black” has been an extraordinary success.

So while there is general consensus in industry circles about the root cause of the blackout, questions remain about the breadth of the problem and the rebooting process.

What caused the blackout?

Electranet Network Services executive manager Simon Emms said the state-wide blackout was triggered by an automatic shut-down when power lines fell to the ground.

“In the afternoon, there was a severe weather event that happened in the mid-north and that resulted in approximately 700 megawatts of generation tripping off,” he told ABC 891. “Once the system volts get out of the technical parameters then the system shuts down. It’s sort of like a car stalling because it loses power and it will just stall. It all happened in probably five to seven seconds.

“Within the first five seconds there were three events, so we suspect that that is the lines coming to the ground and then, the next couple of seconds, it was the system trying to operate within the technical parameters — it couldn’t, so it turned it off.”

SA Power Networks spokesperson Paul Roberts agreed, telling FIVEaa radio that vital poles and wires were damaged in the storm, cutting off energy supply.

“The transmission infrastructure in this case was battered and it meant that we weren’t getting any supply, but it also meant that this protection system, which is built into the national electricity network and into South Australia’s electricity network … responded to protect your safety and mine.”

According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), the root cause of the blackout event was the loss of power lines during the storm that supply power north of Adelaide.

However, the reason for the failure of electricity supply across the rest of the state was still being investigated.

“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,” a statement on the AEMO’s website says.

“These transmission lines form part of the backbone of South Australia’s power system and support supply and generation north of Adelaide. The reason why a cascading failure of the remainder of the South Australia network occurred is still to be identified and is subject to further investigation.”

That’s a question that will be the heart of the political fallout: Opposition Leader Steven Marshall insists that storm damage in one part of the state shouldn’t knock out the entire system.

Independent Snator Nick Xenophon wants an inquiry to examine this question, among others.

Energy system expert Dylan McConnell, from the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne, agrees with the key bodies’ assessment of the root cause, adding the failure had nothing to do with South Australia’s mix of electricity generation.

“The transmission failure is completely independent of the generation that underpins it,” he told InDaily.

He said questions could be explored about the quality of the infrastructure that was damaged, but that raised the issue of gold plating: how much is the community prepared to spend to safeguard the system against rare events?

Were renewables to blame?

Responding to the blackout, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that South Australia had relied on “intermittent renewables” that had placed different strains and pressures on the electricity grid than traditional, base load power from fossil fuels or hydro.

He said that several state Labor governments — not just in South Australia — had set “extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic” targets for renewable energy use.

“Targeting lower emissions is very important but it must be consistent with energy security.”

Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said that while last night’s blackout was not linked with South Australia’s reliance on renewable energy, there were questions to be asked about the wisdom the state’s rapid uptake of green power.

“There are two issues: what happened last night — a once in a 50 year weather event — and there are questions about how resilient the system is and how we can prevent and protect against that.

“Then there’s the question about the huge uptake of renewables: [including] what that does to the overall system both in terms of price as well as reliability.”

But did renewable electricity sources contribute to the blackout?

According to Emms, South Australia’s energy generation mix was irrelevant.

“The cause of it is unrelated to the type of generation we lost and we do have,” he told ABC 891 this morning.

Clean Energy Council policy manager Tom Butler told InDaily there was no evidence that South Australia’s reliance on renewable electricity was a factor in the blackout.

He said that all power generation types — even if coal-fired electricity were still being produced in South Australia — would have shut down automatically during a weather event such the one experienced last night.

Australian Conservation Council campaigns director Paul Sinclair concurred.

“If South Australia was powered entirely by coal, rather than by 40% clean renewable energy, as it is, this blackout would still have happened,” he said.

“In fact, at the time of the outage, wind power was pumping out 1000 megawatts — it was working.”

Energy market expert Dylan McConnell agreed — renewables weren’t connected to the failure.

His colleague Roger Dargaville, the deputy director of the Energy Research Institute, wrote on The Conversation website that: “… 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.”

Did SA’s mix of generation lead to a delay in re-booting the system?

A report on South Australia’s electricity system, published by AEMO last month, warned that there was a limited capacity to reboot the state’s electricity system in the event of a total blackout.

“There is a limited pool of strategically-located SRAS (system restart ancillary services) in South Australia to meet the current standard,” the report says.

“This indicates reliance on a single fuel source for all generation involved in the system restoration process in South Australia.

“Many of these gas-powered generating units do not have dedicated fuel storage facilities, exposing South Australia to further risk if there was a gas supply interruption during system restoration.”

However McConnell, who has expertise in the cost structure of energy technologies and the electricity market, said the complete re-boot overnight had been an “incredible feat”.

He said to re-start almost the entire state’s electricity supply “from black” within hours was unprecedented in the national electricity market.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating  – and this is quite a success story, to be honest,” he told InDaily.

“As far as I’m aware, they (AEMO) have never put these black start procedures into action before (at this scale).”

Normally, parts of a system would be shut down across suburbs or a region.

“But to restart an entire region I don’t think has been done in SA before and I don’t think it’s been done in the national electricity market before. It’s quite an incredible feat, really.”

–with AAP.

*This article was originally published at InDaily

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15 comments

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15 thoughts on “South Australia’s blackout explained

  1. Robert Smith

    I didn’t realise so many politicians were so knowledgeable about SA’s electricity systems. Good on them for lending their expertise to getting to the Botton of the crisis.

    1. Ian Roberts

      Tumbril has been wasting his talents on the NBN. We need his engineering expertise to design, build and run the national power grid. His skills know no bounds.

    2. Richard

      I was just thinking that.. perhaps people who probably can’t tell one end of an AA or even an AAA, from the other should really not try and impress us with their extensive knowledge of power infrastructures and how they function.

  2. dennis

    Yes well I think Mr Turnbull is right, you know, because if only Coal fired power stations, were being used, the electricity would have been a lot stronger, and the Towers would not have blown down, and it’s probably not a one in 50 year event at all, this is what the weather does, has everyone forgotten what weather does, no doubt these storm’s have happened before, a lot, but cause we got renewable energy you notice it now, that all, I think Mr Turnbull is a man of high regard and very intelligent. And it’s not because someone in his party will spill the beans about something in his past, and put great shame on his person, it’s because all those bloody wind generating towers blew down. Didn’t they, the towers blew down they said, it’s all very confusing.

  3. Itsarort

    It is pretty clear that wind and solar generated electrons are not as robust as their coal powered cousins.

    1. Stuart Coyle

      These green electrons are clogging up our internet tubes too, which is why the NBN is not working as planned. Give us back our old reliable black electrons!

  4. Stuart Coyle

    These idiots think that putting all of your eggs in the one coal basket that the rest of the world is working very hard to get rid of is “energy security”.

    I heard Turnbull’s speech about this, and he sounds like the arch conservative that he is, urging us to not change anything too fast, or at all.

    These people should STFU whilst engineers and technicians are working their guts out to get the system back up and running. Once they have done that then let the engineers provide a real report of what occurred, not these wankers who wouldn’t know a Volt from an Amp or an Ohm.

    1. dennis

      Your spot on there Stuart, thanks.

    2. MJM

      Yes indeed. From one who urged agility and innovation it’s a really backwards position to speak for.

  5. Bob's Uncle

    Just waiting for The Australian to claim it was the wind from all those windmills that blew the towers down..

  6. lostcause

    The PM shot his mouth of again just as he did when the August census imploded – know it all responses that were not based on facts. Has he forgotten the huge power outages that went for many days in NSW during the April storms several years ago and the Pasha Bulka storm several years before that. Renewables had nothing to do with either. And the repowering took weeks in many instances.

  7. Duncan Gilbey

    What the PM could have said was: “With the extreme weather in SA we hope everyone is safe and well. And we must express our thanks to the repair crews/SES volunteers/police for their outstanding contribution. in what must be very trying conditions” But he chose not to. What a twat.

    1. CML

      It was actually Bill Shorten who said almost the same thing as you have written.
      He also added that he thought politicising a disaster, while it was still happening, was poor form on the PM’s part.

  8. The big piggy bank – The Talk of the Town

    […] Crikey has explained what happened quite clearly and we need to keep that in mind because we can confuse ourselves. SA Govt keeps its site updated too.We also have a long and well thought out history in the science of meteorology which is of vital importance to us now and needs to be consulted along with other expert information. The abc site looked at electricity in Australia. It does seem to be a bit of a mixed bag and maybe what has happened in South Australia is something we need to look at as a country. We need to be able to manage our electricity and infrastructure in a way which enables us to be in control when the climate goes mad. Deregulation ought not mean we lose control of a guaranteed supply at a reasonable cost which can manage the conditions in our country. Until we identify why pylons can just collapse like that and they did , apparently, under ETSA in the 70s, then we need to keep questioning and thinking. I don’t have a problem with a safety shutdown across a system if it is designed to save lives and create safe working conditions for those trying to repair damage. We need to look at all the issues separately and back away from a garbled mix of them all. […]

  9. Chris Griffiths

    The collapsed steel grid towers will be raising eyebrows right across the country with sound tradies and engineers, they should not have collapsed so easily even in severe storm conditions, it is probable right that further failures of the system occured after initial storm damage.
    Frydenberg’s announcement of an overall review of Australian electricity system is much needed, but this will test Australias Flexibility to adapt to a superior Energy System. Issues which spring to mind are when and where to use stand alone systems, possible examples of this is remote areas. Where to use underground power cables, where to use nonflamable systems, in both senses cant cause fire and cant catch fire. Also high winds should be seen as an opportunity to generate lots of power so next generation wind generators may work very well in high winds.
    Also this is a good opportunity to give the public more power and choice about what types of energy systems or energy providers they wish to use, this could inspire more creativity, solutions and provide greater market incentives. Its possible we could lead the world in Energy systems. It may also mean more renewable power not less, lots of sun, wind in South Australia and elsewhere.
    Chris griffiths

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