Yesterday afternoon, a freak storm in South Australia took out 22 power transmission towers and the whole state was blacked out through to the next morning. Some country areas still have no power. The State’s Premier (similar position to a U.S. Governor and Majority leader of the house combined), said the system “tripped a circuit breaker” to protect the whole system.
To put this in perspective for Americans, South Australia covers 380,000 square miles, an area equivalent to Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona combined. The population is around 1.7 million.
South Australia gets its power from a range of sources, and is backed by a connection to the smaller, but more populous neighboring state, Victoria. South Australia boasts that 40% of its power comes from “renewables” – wind and solar. They have shut down a number of coal-fired power stations. The Premier says that mix – some call it over-reliance – of renewables played no part in this problem.
Some people worry that a high percentage of renewables makes for an unstable power grid, especially when it is dark and wind conditions are unsuitable. It also opens consumers to price spikes, as has already happened on more than one occasion.
Australia is in its first month of Spring, so it isn’t unusual to have rain and cold weather in September, but this storm was unusually bad.
Yesterday, the Bureau of Meteorology gave a severe weather update, describing “dangerous conditions” for southern Australia over the next three days. There were also Storm Force Wind Warnings and Gale Warnings. Wind gusts up to 70-75mph were expected in some areas, along with heavy rainfall and flooding. On some coastlines, 33 foot seas were predicted.
The Bureau of Meteorology reported the state forecast for today, concentrating on the south and southeast. “An intense low 974 hPa near northwestern Kangaroo Island is tracking east to be near the southern Fleurieu Peninsula by mid morning, then near Bordertown by mid afternoon. A high pressure system will move in from the west on Friday and then move east of the State early Saturday, ahead of a trough moving over the west later Saturday and a cold front moving across the State on Sunday.”
It will rain in some areas, and thunderstorms are expected across the agricultural areas. Also hail and strong to gale force west to southwesterly winds in most districts apart from the South East, reaching storm force around the west and south coast of Eyre Peninsula early this morning. Fresh and gusty northerly winds in the southeast,will turn easterly and later, southerly.
A South Australian Federal independent senator called for an enquiry into the state’s power situation. He wants to see “robust independent analysis” to learn from the incident and determine whether the state’s energy mix made it more vulnerable to outages. The Premier was keen to point the finger of blame on the weather. Unfortunately, this is the first time an entire state had a complete blackout. It is not the first time South Australia has had major power problems or severe price spikes.
The state’s grid went down because a lightning strike at one power plant, around 80,000 lightning strikes across the state and the loss of 22 large transmission towers led to a power surge across the inter connectors. As soon as that happened, safety circuits shut down the whole grid.
The grid was down for many hours, as was the emergency 000 service. With no power, there were no streetlights, no traffic lights, no trams, and no pumps at gas stations. There was gridlock and many people were stranded at work, with no way to get home easily. Some people were stuck in elevators. Hospitals and emergency services with their own generators were affected in minor ways, but many of them can last up to 72 hours under their own power.
With no power across the whole state overnight, no lights and no way for many people to cook food, and no TV, it wasn’t a good night. Phones and the internet on mobiles was still working in some places, allowing people to connect.
The next morning, more than 12 hours after the blackout started, many country areas are still without power.
It could be that while this is not good for the people of South Australia, it may be a warning for them and others that the power grid needs to be more resilient. Unfortunately, humans often don’t learn from history.
In April 2013, in another power scandal, 14,000 wind generators around the world sat idle. At that time, the UK had more than 3,500 wind turbines. Their wind-generated power was less than one gas-fired power plant, whose cost is a small fraction of wind power. In November 2015, South Australia was subject to rolling blackouts.
Last month, it was reported that South Australians had a very unpleasant surprise when their power bills arrived. When wind power failed to produce enough power, the lights were kept on thanks to gas-powered stations in Victoria. Due to supply and demand, and variable rates, the cost of that power spiked to $13,100 per MegaWatt, leading to the nasty surprise.
The bad weather is not over, and many people are still without power. It seems strange that the whole state could suffer such a lengthy outage, even in areas unaffected by the storm.