Networks, not renewables or weather, most likely cause of power blackouts

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Adelaide blackout (image via

Australia will have to shift to more solar, renewables and storage to maintain current power supply reliability, writes Sophie Vorrath.

ELECTRICITY OUTAGES that left tens of thousands of Victorian households without power on Sunday and Monday (29 and 30 January) turned up a few interesting home truths about Australia’s national energy market.

One of those, of course, was that not many people have any sort of grasp on how the NEM (National Electricity Market) works — least of all, it seems, certain members of the Federal and State LNP.

But another, much more important truth to come out of it has been that the vast majority of what Australian consumers know as “blackouts” are caused by local faults on poles and wires — and not by coal plants melting in the heat/wind not blowing/sun not shining.

RenewEconomy was reminded of this fact again this week by Craig Memery, from the not-for-profit Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC), via the below Tweet.

Using the Australian Energy Market Commission's (AEMC) 'Reliability Frameworks Interim Report', Memery’s chart shows that a whopping 92.7% of blackouts are caused by distribution (poles and wires) faults, while just 0.24 per% (around ten seconds a year, per household) arise from insufficient generation.

This is interesting to note for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because we now know that the cost of building and maintaining our networks of poles and wires is the single biggest contributor to eye-watering consumer power bills, which are driving people to solar and battery storage at a record rate.

But, of course, no amount of money sunk into poles and wires – and there have already been tens of billions – can guarantee the delivery of power in the face of bushfires, floods, cyclonic winds or equipment failures.

And it brings us to the next home truth uncovered by the weekend’s blackouts: Australian consumers are highly intolerant of losing power, despite having one of the most reliable markets in the world (even if we have paid dearly for it).

Comparatively speaking, Australia keeps its wholesale market to a reliability standard of 99.998%. Most other countries, meanwhile, including the United States, have reliability standards that allow for several hours of lost power each year, rather than just the few minutes permitted in Australia.

And as Memery warns, if our obsession with “reliability” – which is being whipped along nicely by both politicians and mainstream media – is not kept in check, then consumers face paying even more, for little tangible added benefit.

(Come to think of it, that is exactly what people propose to do with electric vehicles!)

'92.7% of blackouts are caused by distribution ... faults, while just 0.24% (around ten seconds a year, per household) arise from insufficient generation'

Memery told RenewEconomy that, as it stands:

'... you could increase (power generation outages) tenfold, and people would not notice. A big concern of mine, and (the PIAC), with all of these reforms directed towards improving reliability, is that if we don’t keep checking back with what the consumer is prepared to pay for, we’ll end up with a gold-plated wholesale market, on top of gold-plated distribution networks.'

And that has all sorts of other implications as Gavin Dufty, the manager of policy and research at St Vincent de Paul Society in Victoria, points out in the Tweet below.

Memery told RenewEconomy:

“Even in spite of the worst of the doomsday predictions, we’re still nowhere near breaching (our) reliability standard.”

This, too, is an interesting fact to note, especially when you consider the fuss that is being made in certain political and media quarters over the reliability of electricity supply as Australia’s ageing coal-fired power plants are closed down and replaced with decentralised, distributed renewable energy generation.

The point is: if we want to maintain the current high standard of reliability, then Australia will have to shift from its centralised model to a decentralised model — and that means encouraging more rooftop solar, more renewables and more storage.

As AEMO’s Audrey Zibelman and AGL Energy’s Andy Vesey will both tell anyone who asks, this will mean having local generation – such as solar – and battery storage scattered around the grid.

That is starting to happen to a certain extent. The new battery to be opened in a few months, next to the Wattle Point Wind Farm in South Australia, will create a sort of “mini-grid” when the network is down elsewhere.

That means it can use the local wind farm and the region’s rooftop solar, to guarantee supplies when access to gas and other generators elsewhere in the State is cut off.  

If AGL can drop coal, why can’t the government’s conservative wing? (Source: Q&A)

This article by Sophie Vorrath was originally published in RenewEconomy and has been republished with permission. You can follow Sophie on Twitter @sophvorrath.

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