South Australia’s blackout has become a political talisman

Ketan Joshi
Aug 7, 2019 · 8 min read

The Australian Energy Regulator announced they’re suing four wind farm operators because the software settings on their turbines resulted in those turbines tripping offline during a massive storm in September, 2016. This sudden shut-down, caused by big voltage dips, resulted in an overloading of the interconnector, which was trying to compensate for the sudden loss of power. The interconnector shut down, separating SA from the other states, and resulting in SA’s entire grid shutting down.

That paragraph is confusing. It’s a weird flurry of unfamiliar terminology. This confusion buries a very specific and simply understood trick of causality and consequence.

Since the blackout happened in 2016, the event has taken on a mystical significance among opponents of decarbonisation, deniers of climate change and proponents of fossil fuels. Presenting this event as irrefutable proof of the immediate and apocalyptic harm of decarbonisation is a long-running and significant project, in Australia.

The goal here is to take a curable and temporary problem — a bunch of immediately-rectified variables in the software settings of a sub-set of turbines in South Australia — and turn it into an intractable, incurable, horrifying and unfixable apocalypse, inherent to wind energy and only fixable if we take roaring, spluttering chainsaws to the base of wind turbine generators, and erect belching smoke stacks between their metallic, ragged stumps.

Here’s an example, from Angus Taylor, experienced anti-wind farm campaigner and Australia’s current Energy and Emissions Reduction minister, on Sky News:

“That generation needs to be properly integrated. It needs to perform, particularly in circumstances that are tough like we saw at the end of 2016 in South Australia. It also means that solar and wind need to be backed up appropriately so when the wind doesn’t blow and the Sun doesn’t shine customers know that when they flick the switch the lights come on”

Graham Lloyd, environment editor at The Australian, parroted Taylor’s lines:

“It has led to greater scrutiny of the amount of renewable energy that can be put into the electricity system without back-up”

Did you see what happened, there? One second, we were talking about numbers punched into a computer inside a wind turbine.

The next second, we’re talking about how wind speed varies: a problem inherent to the resource it’s capturing. “Renewable energy failure was at the heart of SA’s blackout” increases in mystical, spiritual power the more times you chant it.

Not every wind turbine in South Australia had these software problems. Four wind farms rode through with minimal variations in output as a natural response to voltage fluctuations. Waterloo saw some variation due to a tool for managing voltage fluctuations called ‘active power management’. The remainder “have a protection system that takes action if the number of ride through events in a specific period exceeds a pre-set limit”.

Let’s be really explicit about this: the wind farms above didn’t shut down because the winds were too low, or because the winds were too high. They didn’t shut down because they’re machines born with a cruel, terrible curse.

So when Angus Taylor starts talking about the wind ‘not blowing’ and the sun ‘not shining’, he’s referring to something completely different, converting this rectifiable problem into a systemic, unfixable flaw.

Efforts to frame the South Australian blackout as punishment for the sin of decarbonisation started on the very night of the event, when Chris Uhlmann, then the ABC’s political editor, said this:

“40% of South Australia’s power is wind generated, and that has the problem of being intermittent — and what we understand at the moment is that those turbines aren’t turning because the wind is blowing too fast”

This wasn’t just misleading — it was a straight-up falsehood. It took the nature of wind power — that it varies according to wind — and applied that as the cause of the event (“turbines aren’t turning because the wind”).

These moments are significant — a mad, imaginative scramble to form reasons, in the literal immediate aftermath of the event, to figure out why wind power was to blame. He tried again the next day, switching from ‘not enough power’ to ‘too much’:

Over time, Uhlmann’s statements took weird forms. He claimed that wind farms only generate ‘30% of the time’ — another blatant falsehood, based on a major misunderstanding of capacity factor. He then claimed that the frequency of wind turbines “fluctuates with the breeze” — which is also wrong.

Not only do most of these incorrect declarations remain on ABC websites, an ABC investigation into Uhlmann’s segment on morning news the next morning cleared of any journalistic wrongdoing. “[He] neither stated nor implied that the blackout in South Australia occurred because of South Australia’s reliance on renewable energy”, they somehow formulated, of that specific segment, but with no reference to Uhlmann’s claim, on the previous night, that ‘turbines weren’t turning’ due to insufficient wind.

The goal here is precisely the same as Taylor’s — to change a problem that was both specific and curable to a problem that is non-specific and incurable. You can imagine, then, why Uhlmann is literally smirking with joy at the news of the AER’s prosecution of wind turbine operators:

The plea, above, is for ‘rational debate’, but the headline is a re-affirmation of the trick that has been constantly pulled — conflating software settings with an incurable renewable energy curse. Anyone breaching the unspoken pact that surrounds the South Australian blackout, in which participants are free to utilise imaginative causal stories to further political goals, is dismissed as ‘shouty’.

In Uhlmann’s delighted mind, he is vindicated by the energy regulator’s decision to commence proceedings against the wind farms, despite the fact that it relates not to the characteristics of wind power, but to variables on specific turbines.

Uhlmann’s dual position — initially, that he was never blaming renewables (‘just asking questions!’, was the plea, accepted by the media authority), but that he was also right to blame renewables, is a perfect example of how the facts change constantly to fit a pre-existing conclusion.

Of course, system strength, inertia and frequency control are important issues. Uhlmann touches on this, but confusingly seems to be insisting that SA would’ve stayed online if traditional thermal generators dominated its grid. There’s no way to know this without detailed modelling, but none has been done.

The political capital of the South Australian blackout is inexhaustible. It was revealed that the Chamber of Minerals and Energy, Western Australia, was linked to an army of fake Twitter accounts blaming renewables in SA for the blackout. The talisman became so powerful that Sky News’ Chris Kenny felt comfortable linking a plug falling out of a wall at an Adele concert with South Australia’s wholly manufactured “energy crisis”.

This is only the start of a massive re-prosecution of the firestorm that followed the 2016 blackout. Intentionally re-framing this issue as a problem with the ‘intermittency’ of wind is serious business.

So, is South Australia currently being ravaged by blackouts? A report from the Australian Energy Markets Commission says:

“These trends in supply interruptions have been relatively stable for the past ten years. There have only been two instances of reliability interruptions, in 2008–09 where reliability interruptions accounted for 1.4 per cent of total supply interruptions and 2016–17 (0.05 per cent of total supply interruptions)”

No, this doesn’t mean there won’t be big challenges in the future with integrating renewable energy. But the raw reality of this phenomenon as a manufactured crisis — a big, single dramatic event that serves as a protected political species, is clear. Most blackouts still happen due to problems in local powerlines.

Uhlmann also complains of the number of times the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has to issue directions to generators in South Australia to preserve system strength (ordering coal and gas to stay online, or solar and wind to limit output): “South Australia’s power system is on life support, kept afloat by now routine interventions by the energy market operator”

AEMO’s Q2 2019 energy dynamics report provides an update on these interventions:

Part of the reason for these decreases is seasonal, but the year-on-year differences suggest AEMO’s getting better at managing these directions.

Here’s the real kicker: in March 2017, there came a real, specific test of whether the problem that caused those seven wind farms to shut down had been properly resolved. A piece of kit in a transformer in Torrens, in South Australia, literally exploded and 610 megawatts of gas-fired power suddenly disconnected.

“All wind farms in SA successfully rode through a series of three transmission faults in short succession on 3 March, indicating the changes made to their protection system since 28 September 2016 have been successful. AEMO has not identified any sustained reduction in output from the wind farms as a consequence of the faults on the transmission system”

Again, no, this doesn’t mean that every challenge of integrating renewables has been solved. But the specific cause of this event as it relates to wind power has been demonstrably resolved. What more is there to say?

The only thing holding back effective integration of new technology is misinformation, clumsy falsehoods and people using bad-faith misdirection to hitch their wagon to weird, specific nuances around software settings on machines. This isn’t a good-faith effort to add science and engineering to efforts to integrate zero carbon technologies into the grid — it’s a clumsy, ugly battering ram, filled with rapid-fire mythology and ridiculous inaccuracy.

Ketan Joshi

Written by

Anecdata analysis, research, writing, caffeine. Science, tech and data communications professional in Sydney.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade