Fossil fuels to blame for SA power crisis

October 8, 2016

Yes, climate change was right there in the picture when a massive storm cut off power supplies throughout South Australia on September 28, forcing electricity workers to carry out a first-ever “black start” to get the state’s grid operating again. Estimated as a one-in-50-years occurrence, the storm left high-voltage transmission pylons bent like paper-clips. As reported by energy commentator Giles Parkinson, at least 23 pylons were lost in five different locations, bringing down three of four main transmission lines that connect Adelaide with South Australia’s mid-north.

The grid then responded as it had been designed to do — tripping out to prevent still worse damage.

Amid the cascade of shut-offs, available generating capacity remained ample. Wind turbines, that shortly before had been pumping around 1000 Megawatts into the grid, continued turning.

As a long series of knowledgeable observers have now stressed, the blackout had nothing to do with the relatively high proportion — around 40% — of renewable energy in South Australia’s electricity supplies. The problem was one of transmission and the grid would have gone down whatever energy source — coal, gas, wind or solar — was driving the electrons.

That did not prevent fossil-brained conservative politicians and media pundits from blaming renewables. The ironies are rich, since the facts point in precisely the opposite direction.

Climate change and extreme weather

Southern Australia is one of the areas of the globe most vulnerable to climate warming. Scientists predict that on average the region will become hotter and drier, as mounting atmospheric carbon levels drive Southern Ocean storm tracks closer to Antarctica.

But heatwaves and drought are only one aspect of the extreme-weather future. Today’s warmer air and oceans contain more energy than before. More water evaporates and the warmer atmosphere can hold larger quantities of water vapour.

The results include escalating numbers of the largest, most violent storms. The weather in southern Australia may on average be getting drier, but when big storms hit, they are more likely to show exceptional fury.

Among the sources of the South Australian storm, we can look to the Indian Ocean, warming in recent decades at an extraordinary rate. In particular winters and springs — those of 2016 are an example — shifts in patterns of surface warmth in the Indian Ocean send unusually strong and frequent bands of moist tropical air over southern and eastern Australia.

When one of these atmospheric rivers interacts with a Southern Ocean frontal system — as happened over South Australia on September 28 — the results for infrastructure can be catastrophic.

In previous centuries there have been similar events. But the risk now is that global warming will make such storms markedly more frequent, with the worst of them dwarfing anything in the historical record.

To limit future episodes of such mayhem, humanity needs to drastically restrict its greenhouse gas emissions. To do this, we need renewable energy, ending fossil fuel use in its entirety.

Heroes and villains

The largely-unsung heroes of the night of September 28-29 were the engineers and line workers who performed brilliantly, under appalling weather conditions, to bring power back to almost all of South Australia within 12 hours.  

“‘Black starts’ — where the grid has to start all over — have never been attempted before,” Giles Parkinson noted on the Independent Australia site, “and are tricky because as each generator comes back into production, it has to be matched to demand to avoid another trip.”

And the villains? It would be hard to go past the coal industry lobby group Australia’s Energy Future, responsible for this tweet: “South Australia has 558 million tonnes of coal. Yesterday we couldn’t keep the lights on. Make sense to you?”

Conservative politicians and media commentators, meanwhile, have done their best to outstrip the coal lobbyists.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Brian Robins authored a piece — described by the head of the Clean Energy Council as “absolute garbage” — entitled “South Australia Pays the Price for Heavy Reliance on Renewable Energy”. Also weighing in were Andrew Bolt, Alan Moran and the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce blew hard on the anti-renewables dog-whistle. Turnbull, as related by Parkinson, “accused state Labor governments for imposing ‘ideological’ renewable energy targets, describing the South Australian blackout as a ‘wake-up call’ to focus on energy security”. The prime minister claimed there was “no doubt” that the “extremely aggressive” shift to renewables had strained the electricity network.

Energy security, however, is now widely recognised as being better served by a renewables-based grid, with numerous, dispersed inputs, than by a highly centralised fossil fuel-based system. Generating-plant breakdowns in the latter are capable of causing large-scale blackouts with little warning, as seen in Western Australia on September 22.

If the coal-fired power stations shut down at Port Augusta in recent years had still been operating on September 28, nothing about the state-wide blackout would have been different.

Dramatic photos carried in the state’s media in subsequent days of toppled power pylons illustrate why. Port Augusta was totally isolated from the rest of the grid.

Climate change, we need to reflect, is awesomely powerful. And it pays no heed to the media scribes and parliamentary talking heads of the fossil fuel industry. It follows the laws of physics, just as it was always going to do.   

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