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Why Renewable Energy isn’t to Blame for the Blackouts

Those of us living in Australia, and in particular, South Australia, know all too well how frequent blackouts can be in the hot summer months, but also how they are becoming increasingly common throughout the year.

But are they a result of an increased use of renewable energy, or more attributable to factors like the increased intensity that climate change is creating on extreme weather events like storms and heatwaves?

Load-shedding is a commonly used tactic for coping with the high energy demand of extreme weather days, resulting in inconvenient blackouts for people in multiple areas across the country. And at the extreme level, on the 28th of September 2016 a freak storm cut power to the entire state of South Australia after major transmission infrastructure was severely damaged. It was a surreal night for South Australians all across the state, with traffic lights out and trams and trains coming to a standstill. In Adelaide, power was restored to all metro substations after a total blackout of over 8 hours, while some regional and rural residents were left without power for days.

With renewable energy a hot topic in Australia, these blackouts can often lead to finger-pointing between people on each side of the renewable energy divide.

Renewable Wind Energy

Does renewable energy cause the blackouts?

The unprecedented damage to transmission infrastructure in September 2016 put tremendous pressure on the network, which was unable to cope with such a large loss of generation at once. And during the recent heatwave blackouts, evidence suggests that there was adequate supply of gas turbine generation available as wind contribution fell, but that it could not respond as quickly as was needed. These issues were not a result of the use of renewable energy.

As our Chairman Prof. Ross Garnaut puts it:

“The electricity grid and the regulatory systems that guide its investment and operations are poorly suited for the challenges of contemporary Australian energy requirements, let alone for the transition to a low carbon economy. The regulatory arrangements are part of the cause for utilities having the worst productivity growth of all sectors through the past decade of miserable performance in the Australian economy as a whole. That has little to do with renewable energy. Network costs per connection in Australia have moved over the past decade from the better half of global performance, to close to the highest costs in the developed world.”

A report by the Australian Energy Market Operator has concluded that the overall mix of energy sources such as wind and solar may have added to the complexity and possibly, the vulnerability of the SA grid during extreme conditions. However, this isn’t a sign that renewable energy should be abandoned in favour of more traditional generation methods. It is more a sign that we must begin to find effective ways to store wind and solar power at grid scale, so that we can turn an abundant source of clean cheap energy into a continuous source of energy for our homes and businesses. And the cost of continuing to rely on the more traditional methods of power generation has the potential to negatively affect our future in an economical sense, as well as an environmental one.

As Prof. Garnaut continues:

“Putting ideology aside also means putting aside old conceptions of what works best. There have been transformational improvements in the technology applied to the integration of the electricity grid with batteries for storing and balancing supply of intermittent energy. Right now, the US has over 44 grid‐connected batteries with greater than 10MW power capacity, with a total of over a Gigawatt. Large‐scale deployment of battery storage is now an established way of balancing intermittent energy supply. Nowhere in the developed world are solar and wind resources together so abundant as in the west‐facing coasts and peninsulas of southern Australia. The South Australian resources are particularly rich. Play our cards right, and Australia’s exceptionally rich endowment per person in renewable energy resources makes us a low cost location for energy supply in a low carbon world economy. Play our cards right, and Australia is a superpower of the low carbon world economy.”

With the prospect of a much larger role of intermittent renewables in the electricity sector in the future, the efficient integration of wind, solar, and energy storage should be a focus of the ongoing review and investigation into how to make these blackouts and power failures a problem of the past.

To find out how you can keep your home running when the power goes out, check out ZEN’s solar battery solutions.

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