Vic blackouts intensify energy debate

This summer was always going to be a test for the NEM. And while previous hot spells have not resulted in major blackouts in capital cities, almost 50,000 homes in Victoria were without power at the peak of problems yesterday on the state’s electricity grids.

Critics of renewable energy and some Liberal Party politicians were quick to take up the opportunity to criticise the Victorian state government and network operators for failing to prevent the blackouts. More specifically, some directly took shots at policies that “allowed” aging coal generators to close.

With more than 15,000 homes without power throughout Monday, when temperatures remained above 35C in much of the state, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews held a press conference to point the finger of blame at network operators rather than generators.

“This was not a power supply issue, this was about distribution and localized faults,” said Andrews at a press conference today. “They are the facts. I know that doesn’t do much to ease the obvious frustrations that many Victorians faced overnight.”

Andrews said that the government was looking at ways network operators could be compelled to offer compensation to those affected by power outages.

Rooftop solar, which has been shown to depress electricity demand during the day and therefore assist grids cope with high demand for air conditioning, did not help reduce the peak, according to Energy Networks Australia.

Andrew Dillon, Energy Networks Australia CEO, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that while he could confirm that the issues were “not at the generation side”, rooftop PV had shifted demand rather than reduced it.

“What solar power has done is certainly well and truly clicked the load off at midday, and it has helped with these peaks at 3:00pm or 4:00pm,” said Dillon. “But what it’s effectively tended to do is shift them to later in the day, so now we’re starting to see the network peak doesn’t happen until 6:00pm or 7:00pm.”

In the lead up to the heatwave, ‘gentailers’ Alinta and EnergyAustralia indicated they were confident that the coal generators they operate were well prepared to meet expected demand.

While detailed information about the Victorian outages is still emerging, localized equipment faults, when faced with operating in high temperatures and with surging demand from air conditions, look very likely to be the cause of the blackouts. Despite this, their occurrence exposes the vulnerability the growing renewable sector in Australia faces when blackouts occur.