SA plunged into darkness by policy super storm

From The Australian:

A state-wide blackout caused by cyclonic weather has thrown South Australia into chaos, with traffic gridlocked, planes grounded, thousands of city workers stranded and homes without power.

The state last night declared a “code black” — full emergency ­response — after 80,000 lightning strikes hit the state and gale-force winds took down three transmission lines and at least 22 towers to ­isolate South Australia from the national grid.

Premier Jay Weatherill said the lighting strikes “tripped the national grid, causing a state-wide outage and the interconnector from Victoria to shut down”.

“All of this has combined to bring our system down,” he said.

…“This was a weather event not a renewable energy event … lightning strikes and wind surges caused this,” he said.

Not so, says Xenoponzi:

“This is unprecedented in this nation. We need answers. There needs to be an independent inquiry independent of government, because this is a disgrace.”

Senator Xenophon said one of the “great paradoxes” of the situation was that the wind turbine generators, which supply 40 per cent of the state’s power, did not work when the wind was blowing too hard.

Two interconnectors which link South Australia to Victoria’s power supply are also down.

He said the state’s current energy arrangements were a “textbook case” of how not to transition to renewable energy.

“I support the renewable energy target, but it’s how you achieve it and how you achieve sensible greenhouse gas reduction policies,” he said.

“This has not been sensible, it has been reckless. We have relied too much on wind rather than baseload renewables, rather than baseload power, including gas, which is a fossil fuel but it is 50 per cent cleaner than coal and a good transitional fuel.”

“South Australia used to be the manufacturing powerhouse of Australia, relying on cheap energy, plentiful energy and reliable energy.”

The RET was always a very poor cousin to the carbon price for this reason. Rather than let one single price determine the energy mix, the RET risks lumpy outcomes across different jurisdictions just like this.

Having said that, Xenoponzi’s grandstanding is keen to repeat the mistake of ad hoc policy in his outraged declaration that SA needs gas generation. The answer might be better or more interconnectors, it might be industrial scale battery storage or pumped hydro.

One thing is certain, if his concern is that SA has a reliable and cheap source of base load power then gas ain’t going to be it (without serious reform, anyways). For that, you can thank QLD’s LNG white elephants and the total policy failure around those as well.

Here’s what Grattan Institute said about the recent monumental energy price spikes in SA:

A unique set of circumstances combined to produce the high price spikes in the spot market. Four factors affected the supply side of the market – no significant changes in demand drove the price spikes, as Figure 2 shows.

The first springs from the intermittent nature of wind energy. While it accounts for about a third of South Australia’s generation capacity, when the wind doesn’t blow it doesn’t generate electricity. Although wind power can be managed well when the wind is blowing, there can be times, as in July, when all of the wind farms in the state are effectively off-line. This is far less likely to happen with multiple fossil fuel generators.

The second is that South Australia is only connected to generation in one other state. It has two connections with Victoria, known as interconnectors, through which electricity can flow to help meet demand. But during July the main connection between the states – the Heywood Interconnector – was undergoing maintenance work to increase its capacity to transmit power. Between the 5th and 15th of July, in particular, its ability to supply electricity to South Australia was severely constrained.

Figure 3 shows the impact of these first two factors. The price spikes tended to occur when there was low output from South Australia’s wind farms, low imports from Victoria through Heywood, or both. Price spikes fell away in the second half of the month as wind and imports picked up and the previously mothballed Pelican Point Power Station was restarted.

When the price hit its peak between 7:00pm and 7:30pm on 7 July, demand was also near its daily peak. But South Australian wind turbines were only producing 13 megawatts from their total installed capacity of around 1500 megawatts. It was dark, so there was no production from rooftop solar, and little supply from Heywood due to the upgrade works.

The third factor driving up spot prices came from a lack of alternatives within the state. During periods in July when Heywood was effectively down and there were low levels of wind, South Australia relied on diesel and gas-fired generatWe had abundant and cheap coal then we didn’t. ion. The closure of the 546 megawatt Northern coal plant at Port Augusta a couple of months earlier had reduced the state’s sources of supply. This enabled gas and diesel generators to charge more for their power than they would have been able to otherwise. While the bidding behaviour of gas generators has been blamed by some for July’s high prices, sometimes market power does arise and is used.

The fourth factor is that wholesale gas prices in South Australia in July spiked to more than double their levels over the first half of 2016, as Figure 4 shows. The higher cost of gas increased gas generators’ operating costs. 5 Australian Energy Market Operator (2016c) 6 A number of reports have (at least partly) attributed the events of July to strategic behaviour by some gas generators.

Increases in gas prices were driven by increases in demand for gas across Australia. South Australian generators were competing for gas against three sources: liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants in Queensland; gas generators across the NEM that were needed because of outages at a number of coal plants; and residential consumers who wanted more gas for heating due to the cold. The result was that, for some periods of time in July, electricity in South Australia was supplied almost exclusively by gas generation at a time when gas prices were very high. Further, in at least one of these periods, almost 80 per cent of supply was provided by generators owned by just three companies.

They don’t look quite so unique today.

Fact is, today’s SA energy night is the perfect metaphor for the barstardised darkness that has settled over Australian economic policy in general. For the past decade, nowhere has it been more intense than in east coast energy where we had a carbon price then we didn’t; we had a RET then we didn’t then we did; we had abundant and profitable cheap coal then we didn’t; we had abundant and profitable cheap gas then we didn’t; we had a surge in renewable investment then we didn’t.

Every political party, state and federal is reaping a whirlwind of their own making.

David Llewellyn-Smith
Latest posts by David Llewellyn-Smith (see all)


  1. the state’s current energy arrangements were a “textbook case” of how not to transition to renewable energy

    which is a paradoxical statement in itself – seeing as they are the only state that has transitioned.

    Anyway, a couple of thoughts:
    i. South Australians get insight into what it is like to live in North Korea for a couple of days
    ii. Diesel generator sales to spike
    iii. at least it wasn’t Stuxnet
    iv. at least there is no nuclear fallout and associated contamination issue to deal with

    the storm that produced wind gusts and thunderstorms so powerful they smashed more than 22 electricity transmission stations around Port Augusta, cutting power to the whole of the state.

    May need to install subterranean infrastructure if these events continue?

    On SA pricing –
    Where does the SA wave power bid in to the merit order?
    Would it be before gas peakers>?
    10-20MW vanadium battery sub stations could be part of a solution?
    Should we expect to be able to guzzle electricity when the sun is down in any case? – ie is the issue that people have not adjusted their behaviours as pricing has changed – ie the same consumers don’t take Uber when the pricing is high, so why do they consume their electricity then>?

    Someone should take the opp to call Xenophon on his grandstanding and actually challenge him to an audit on his own electricity consumption behaviour. If he believes we should be able to burn candles thru the night when it’s just as easy to spin the washing machine during the day; then he’s part of the problem and not the solution.

    Thoughts with the emergency workers at this time. Working on electricity networks during an electrical storm is stressful work one can imagine.

    • desmodromicMEMBER

      Power was restored to most areas by 9 pm, so out for 5 hours and less disruptive than the May outage that lasted 20-48 hours. It is the poor sods the other side of the damaged towers that still have a long wait. Parts of the northern suburbs that were on local networks had power restored much sooner,and that is probably the lesson from this event. There is too much reliance on the interconnector. Distributed networks with a mix of solar, wind, battery storage and gas generation would make it less likely that a whole state is shut down.

    • Wrt South Australian Electricity Grid two facts stands out in my mind:
      – We’ve replaced a well engineered stable electricity Generation/Distribution system with well intentioned stupidity.
      – We’re replicating this stupidity elsewhere in Australia.

      Don’t misunderstand me I’m a huge renewable’s fanboi, no mistake about it, renewables are the future, coal is dead. The trick is in properly redesigning / re-engineering the grid to provide stability, unfortunately this cost is likely to be the death kneel of residential grid power.
      It really doesn’t matter how you slice the problem, RET, Carbon pricing, Carbon Tax…’re left with a network that needs to spend an enormous amount of money, time, effort (and carbon) recreating the stability that was once an inherent property of the Grid. The truth is these Renewable energy suppliers don’t want to pay for these network upgrades and the old fashioned Coal fired power stations are simply shutting down, so good luck making them pay, the peaking gas plants are mostly uneconomic at current gas prices….
      We all know who that leaves to pay for this folly.

      • Coal is not dead. Indeed, something of a revival is taking place. Cheap, reliable, abundant grid friendly power – there is no good reason to stop using coal. The reality is current generation renewables are intermediaries at best and will be technologically redundant within a decade or so. An enormous misallocation of investment imo.

      • Hi XoD1k,
        You forgot to add that coal is good for humanity.
        Hopefully your paymasters won’t treat you to meanly for such a glaring omission.

      • @Xo No real argument from me Coal was great technology…and is probably the lowest cost technology (by carbon cost or any other measure). Renewables are rubbish technology if ALL the network / integration costs are considered but we’re now so far down this road that it simply doesn’t matter. Even if we try to go back to an all coal base load system we still have this sunk cost in renewables that will impact the grid cost model making it more expensive than the localized off-grid alternatives.
        So yea in the end analysis no matter how you slice this Coals days are numbered.

      • I think the point is that there is a natural transition away from the coal model of power generation, so going to war on coal for ideological reasons is actually counterproductive. There is so much inertia in the infrastructure that any impulsive change is likely to cause more problems than it solves.

        A big key to the restructure of our power grid is (as noted above) cheap battery storage – like flow batteries. From an engineering pov, the least disruptive way to change the system would be to introduce container size battery units at the transformer/substation points and then use the network above that to shuffle bulk energy around. That would result in a much more robust system that is friendly to local power generation via solar panels. This sort of restructure will take decades and is unlikely to respond to ideological reform. The cost of solar panels is dropping in a way comparable to computer chips, so the idea that the demonic forces of coal lovers will have us connected to their power stations for the next hundred years is probably a fantasy. Regardless of how much they pay poor old Xo.

      • @DM From an engineering pov, the least disruptive way to change the system would be to introduce container size battery units at the transformer/substation points and then use the network above that to shuffle bulk energy around.
        I don’t disagree with the idea BUT there are a lot of very difficult Power Grid network management issues that are difficult to solve with just distributed battery systems.
        Reactive Power is one issue: sure you can build inverters to deliver Reactive Power but they have twice the switching losses of a traditional inverter (due to full H-bridge output configuration)
        There’s also the issue of Voltage / Frequency synchronization, that has many asking “Synchronized” to WHAT?
        Grid Frequency jitter has been a huge issue in Northern Germany and Denmark where wind integration is at it’s highest. Lots of Heavy Industries are installing their own Batteries and even Gas Turbines just to stabilize the Voltage fluctuations / Grid Frequency jitter.

      • we all know who that leaves to pay for this folly


        Network tariffs in most jurisdictions still have a cross subsidy towards solar holders if I’m not correct? NOt withstanding as you say, that most LV networks were designed for one way movement (downstream) of electricity.

      • The efficiency of the BattSupply depends on how cheap solar gets. Solar is not the same as FF where efficiency saves a valuable resource. Losses from solar panels just means you are moving the heat to somewhere else. There are lots of possibilities – for instance if cheap superconductors fall in our lap, then a reversible motor/generator with mag bearings could be viable. So many unknowns its best to let the solutions grow organically.

        As for synching the grid, phase locking to GPS should be easy even now. I think that is already being used for torque analysis of transmission lines.

    • Flow batteries might be part of the solution but these days I wouldn’t use Vanadium, from what I’ve seen Bromine-hydrogen is the way to go.
      That said this is still very immature technology, so nobody really understands the total lifetime cost or failure modes of this technology. Looks good on paper is about all one can really say.

    • Young OK… good stuff.

      “If he believes we should be able to burn candles thru the night when it’s just as easy to spin the washing machine during the day; then he’s part of the problem and not the solution.”

      He is just one of the 23 mil or so….. and the take away for me is the event shows the fragility of the city lifestyle. Not a crumb of resilience visible… just too much bleating.

      • Yep. Described as a “1 in 50 year storm”. So this is likely to happen again when? 5 hour outage – OMG!

        Not helped by an increasingly unimpressive Xenoponzi trying to get a lift off the aggro of a few wussy subjects.

  2. Transmission lines toppled and an interconnector is down due to an upgrade.

    Renewables have nothing to do with this other than conservative politicians trying their hardest to make it so.

    Xenophon is always good to insert himself in crisis and be seen as the great protector of the common South Australian.

    Injecting, not being part of the actual solution.

    • +1

      Much like you could knock out all of north qld by taking out two transmission towers, the vulnerability lay in the network not the energy sources.

    • Yes looks like vested fossil fuel interests feeding arguments to their paid for politicians to blame renewables to me. 22 transmission towers downed sounds like an extreme weather event – but no mention of such things to become more common if we can’t wean ourselves from fossil fuels on tv this morning

    • Shutting down wind turbines due to severe winds had no impact…? Like the UK, the SA power system is a dog’s breakfast. This storm revealed inherent fragilities and systemic supply issues.

      • Don’t coal plants require a water source for their vapour? Would they always be online during a major flood event?

    • Notice the towers came down near Port Augusta, I will guarantee the towers failed either through initial under-design or corrosion on their fasteners, from the holding down bolts up. probably a combination of both.
      Lawyers come and get this one!

  3. I expect all the preppers were feeling quite pleased with themselves. I would have been living off bread and chocolate for the night if it hadn’t been for Coles and their backup generator.

    Was pretty surreal walking through a grid locked city with no traffic lights operating anywhere, eating by torch light.

    Will consider keeping some light preps from this point forward 🙂

      • Ha ha. When the power dropped I went straight to the website AEMO to see if it was a big blackout…… 1,600 MW to 5 MW….. I went a little bit prepper and bough far more ice than I needed….

        Power was back on in 3 hours at our place, pretty impressive effort by Electranet given that an entire black stare wouldn’t have occurred for decades…

    • Gas for cooking
      Gas.kero light
      Small petrol gen (with connection to house) or diesel

      For us country folk, water on a pump, petrol/diesel genny
      Some bottled water (and clean water available from head pressure)
      Canned food
      Gas light/cooking

      Job done

      If you’re used to eating raw food/fruit/veg, ain’t no thing

      Poor old high protein animal fat eaters.
      The HCLF crew laughing in their socks

  4. This is a wake up call to all those who happily assume that a conversion from fossil fuels will be relatively easy and make us feel good about ourselves.
    It will take a command and control economy like wartime and a reduction in industrial civilization to a sustainable level. All current stored energy solutions are a crock and the invisible hand of the market will only make things worse.
    Price means nothing to a politician in trouble and the first person to Richard Cottee with their checkbook in hand will win oncoming elections. TINA for baseload in South Australia.

    • Unfortunately the way we use renewables is sustaining the fossil fuels binge as their EROEI markers head towards 1.

      • It has nothing to do with renewables.

        Its happened before without renewables – much of Victoria went black when the Snowy interconnector was tripped by a fire. The system protected itself the same way. This occurred despite scads of coal generation at the the time.

        Same thing happened in SA in the late 90s when the Heywood was knocked out by lightning – but only 70% went out – only due to the lower fault size.

        There are many examples of similar OS.

        It was the size of the fault. Nothing to do with the type of the generation source. That an that the interconnectors were constrained due to lightning, (constrained for the very purpose of l ok miting a fault size should they be hit).

        Precisely the same thing would have happened if it was coal feeding through the towers that went down.

        Jesus, misinformation pisses me off Nyletta.

  5. I hope all those SA dope plants weren’t affected by the power outage. Is xenophone on to this issue also?

    • ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

      Yes disrupt the light cycle to much and some of those lovely females can go hermaphrodite on you,…only takes one male flower to make all your buds go “seedy”
      And no one buys seedy heads anymore, in the Hydro age.

      It was so annoying when your mull used to get blown out of its cone from an exploding seed. Everyone else would think it so hilarious.

      More power failure events like this could be devistating for the SA Economy.

  6. reusachtigeMEMBER

    Renewable energy sucks balls! The best power is nucular followed by building lots more coal power stations and using up all that brown coal just laying about ignored!

    • adelaide_economistMEMBER

      Yes I wondered about this narrative myself. SA is a pretty big state (and there is up to 1,300km gap between wind farms)- it seemed unlikely (even without actual data) that all wind farms would have been disconnected from generation at any one time due to weather rather than a grid event.

  7. If people can’t understand the distinction between energy production systems vs energy transmission systems, then the real worry might be our level of intelligence.

    In any case, without switching over to renewables, we’all be getting worse storms in the decades to come.

    • Unbelievable how supposedly intelligent commentators can book this one up to generation failure. I think the reason that they got the system back up so quickly is largely due to shutting it down to protect the equipment.

  8. Getting off the grid would be the best solution or at least not fully relying on it . Not easily done but getting more and more attainable by the day.

    • ErmingtonPlumbingMEMBER

      As more and more people get driven “off the grid” prices must go up, creating a death spiral that leads to more and more people leaving.

      It will eventually lead to a levy, like council rates, charged to all households.
      It will be the only way to maintain an equatable 20th/21st century energy infrastructure, for all.

      • Jumping jack flash

        You are correct.

        It became totally obvious how their supply and demand curve works during the “great Australian solar push” several years ago.

        Reduced electricity demand due to everyone switching to solar? Oh we’ll raise prices to maintain profit growth. Shareholders are #1 after all.
        Reduced electricity demand due to high prices and everyone getting “energy efficient”? Oh, we’ll raise prices to maintain profit growth. Shareholders are #1 after all.

      • +1 to both observations. Can a small household of two for example be completely of grid these days?! Not considering price and all, like having solar,battery storage and say diesel generator for emergencies?!

  9. I’ve been through a few cyclone induced blackouts. Pretty sure the renewables mix in the 80s and 90s in fnq wasn’t the cause of the loss of power.

  10. It sounds like they got off lightly compared to New Zealand

    In my opinion the problem is that Aussie govt does not do backup very well. They don’t understand the concept of redundancy (I’m not talking about firing people). They don’t respect engineering.

    My solution would be to call in all the top marketing, top managing and top accounting fools from the electricity supply mobs. Tell them they are getting a 40% pay cut with the money used to hire smart Aussie engineers who did well in an engineering course before it was compromised by top marketing, top managing and top accounting fools in the Universities.
    Tell the fools that from now on they will take orders from the Engineers. Of course the electrical supply system should be run by engineers. It’s not rocket science. Then again, rocket science has probably been taken over by marketing and MBA’s and sold to the Chinese.

    • Good luck. You know what politicians and the media call “well engineered” ?

      Gold plated.

      Works every time.

    • Standing ovation, Claw, bloody well said.
      I am heavily influenced at the momentby a book , The Puritan Gift, by Kenneth and William Hopper, it traces the history of US management. In the Hayday of US production Engineers ruled, it was the emergence of MBA’s that started the rot we see all about us today. The Engineers had a much better sense of social obligation as well.

  11. Lessons learned:
    -Leave engineering to engineers, science to scientists and only talk to lawyers briefly if no other choice (or even better, avoid).
    -Nick is another empty shell.
    -HMV´s latest incarnation, Xo, is a poor substitute. I for one would like to see the over the top, non factual, hilarious comments back, instead of the rushed, payed-for-volume comments.
    -Australia would last 2 days under any sort of blockade. Five hours people! Seriously, you couldn´t manage for 5 bloody hours!?

    • In surprise news just to hand, nature reminds us it can still whip our ass. Even the ass of really important people like Nick X.

  12. Jumping jack flash

    Hm, I wonder if SA residents need to pay the massive electricity bills I do in Country NSW?
    If so, paying these enormous bills in the face of an entire state losing power is a rort and a travesty of the highest order.

    Nothing can be done though. Electricity is an exploitable essential resource controlled by an oligopoly of generators and retailers. Those who generate it and sell it basically have a license to print money.

    The government will rarely disallow them to put prices up as much as they like. they are private companies, after all, and the government has zero clue, or care.

  13. Privatize and deregulate energy, get the meddling politicians out of it.

    Seriously, what experience do Xenophon, Weatherill have in energy production ? The number of arrogant pundits who think they know better and give their 2 cents worth, without actually having ever applied their knowledge is astounding.

      • SA Networks are generally above the curve. Why pick an intellectual debate with a group of sector experts who have a collective IQ higher than the whole SA Govenment?

  14. On a more positive note, fortunately SA has no manufacturing left of any kind. Imagine the losses to business if this State had any!!

    Phew! 😛

  15. Got a funny in my inbox today.

    Congratulations South Australia – the first Australian state to achieve zero emissions!