South Australia likely to face ‘solar shutdown,’ but real tragedy is good news has been badly sold


To avoid blackouts when household solar exports outstrip electricity demands, SolarQuotes founder Finn Peacock says it’s “likely” South Australia will need to remotely and temporarily shutdown residents’ solar systems. Counter to public opinion, Finn Peacock is adamant this curtailment is a win.

“I think it’s really, really good news that there’s so much renewables in Australia’s grid. Every now and again we’re going to have to switch some of it off,” Peacock told pv magazine Australia. “When you’ve got so many renewables, it’s going to happen and that’s fine.”

On September 28 of this year, the South Australian Power Networks received authorisation from the government to remotely and temporarily shut down solar power systems in emergencies. The move came after report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) identified “the very real threat” of blackouts as the state moves towards its target of 100% renewables by 2030.

Good news, badly sold

Citing solar analyst Jenny Chase, Peacock believes the capacity for renewables to be curtailed should be seen as a feature rather than a bug, the real problem is how long it took the government to identify the solution and how “hamfistedly” it had rushed it through without adequate warning and explanation.

“It seems to me that no thought was given to how to sell it to the homeowner,” Peacock said. The first many South Australians heard of the solar shutdown plan, he believes, was through dramatic newspaper headlines declaring the government was switching off residents’ solar. The reaction to the circulation of those stories has been, unsurprisingly, alarm. Peacock says it’s even led to a noticeable depression in the state’s solar market.

According to the SolarQuotes founder, the government has done almost nothing to counter this narrative – a wasted opportunity in his view. “With a bit of planning, you could sell this to the South Australia public as a really good thing. It means we’re absolute world leaders in the integration of renewable energy into the grid.”

The government have also failed to quantify to the public what the plan actually means to them monetarily, which Peacock says will actually be negligible. “It’s going to be very small numbers in terms of dollars, but no one has communicated that,” he said.

“If there’s anyone in Australia losing more than $20 a year form it, I’ll eat my hat.”

Canary in the coal mine

Describing South Australia as a “canary in the coal mine,” since the state has the highest penetration of renewables, Peacock believes it’s “inevitable” the rest of Australia will also need to curtail renewables to avoid similar blackout issues sooner or later. What’s astounding for the expert is just how long it has taken the government to realise this.

“We were talking about too much solar being a problem for the grid when I worked for the CSIRO in 2008… For the government to only start thinking about minimum demand in early 2020 is absolutely nuts. They’ve left it way too late,” Peacock said.

What’s more, the government only gave industry six weeks notice of the changes. “As an engineer, looking at that, I was like ‘wow, this is just insane. What an ask!’ but to their credit, [manufacturers] did it.”

Industry’s nimble response and desirable solution

Applauding companies like SwitchDin, SolarEdge and Solar Analytics for their nimble response to the government’s rather “brut force solution,” Peacock says he was “pleasantly surprised” by the solar hardware companies. “[They] actually very quickly put together a better technical solution.”

Rather than shutting down the system entirely, manufacturers have designed and implemented a solution for new systems where a signal is sent through the internet telling inverter to stop exporting. The solar system can then continue to provide power for the household, but no longer exports excess energy to the grid, avoiding putting the grid in danger of blacking out.

Despite the impressive response of industry, the government has done the scheme a major disservice by rushing it through, according to Peacock. “You’re just maximising the chance of something going wrong, when you rush things… [there’s a] high risk of things going wrong in the engineering implementation because the industry is given such short notice, and the second thing is they haven’t had time to prepare the public and sell the advantages.”

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