Chris Uhlmann’s windy “truthiness” adds to policy fog

Last Tuesday evening, after an unseasonably warm day in South Australia, Chris Uhlmann, one of the country’s most influential political commentators, tweeted:

With a heatwave in Adelaide and wind generation producing less than 1/10th of SA’s installed capacity a lack of reserve notice has been issued to the market. Power being dragged from Victoria and one of SA’s diesel generators has fired up. #auspoll pic.twitter.com/vXTThMSBzM
— Chris Uhlmann (@CUhlmann) April 10, 2018

There’s a saying “This is why we can’t have nice things”. It’s to be said in the admonishing tones of, say, a flustered parent cleaning up after a toddler who has recklessly knocked over a table, spilling milk on the rug and breaking a new toy.

Chris Uhlmann’s tweet is just the latest in a long series of biased reporting on South Australia’s energy transition — and is just one of the reasons why we can’t have nice things — “things”, in this case an energy policy better than the fourth-rate National Energy Guarantee (Neg).

Uhlmann has form.

In 2016 after the infamous South Australian blackout, instead of focussing on the tornados that ripped up 23 transmission towers and set off cascading failures, he, along with the renewables-bashers in government and tabloid journalism, sheeted blame disproportionately to the state’s wind farms, a number of which shut down, not because they couldn’t produce, but as a result of protection systems configured to “trip” after repeated network faults.

Uhlmann went further, claiming that wind power’s “frequency fluctuates with the breeze” — total hogwash that sits to this day on the ABC’s website but has somehow escaped the eagle-eyed process that was so critical of Emma Alberici’s tax reporting.

Some of us are humbled when hasty judgements are later found to be questionable, while others double-down with more errors to defend the first.

The appropriate saying here is “when you’re in a hole, don’t dig”. Uhlmann’s tweet last week is a classic example of further digging.

When you’re in a hole, don’t dig. (Source: Mining Technology.com / GVK Resources)

Firstly, Tuesday 10 April was not a high demand day. It was unseasonably warm in Adelaide — the beginning of what the Bureau of Meteorology called a ‘low intensity heatwave’ — but those tough South Australians were gentle on their air conditioning and drew only 2297MW from the network at the 4:55pm peak, one-third below their all-time record demand of 3397MW on 31 January 2011. SA’s demand last Tuesday was utterly unremarkable.

Uhlmann’s tweet breathlessly noted that the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo) issued a “lack of reserve notice”. This is true, however the notice was also unremarkable.

Aemo has three levels of so-called LOR notices, starting with LOR1, which indicates that power reserves are below a predetermined level and the market operator would like to see more generation enter the market. SA has a large fleet of gas generators, but on 10 April more than 48% of that capacity was offline, much of it for scheduled maintenance, not particularly unusual at this time of year.

The evening before, Aemo advised the market that a LOR1 event was likely the next day. This does not mean there will be a shortfall, just that there is a risk of one if the two biggest gas generators operating at the time were to suddenly trip. So it likes to have a buffer to compensate.

Mid-Tuesday morning the gap had halved to only 87MW and the operator announced that it was likely to raise the warning to a LOR2 (risk of shortfall if one gas generator trips), only to cancel it three hours later when the market responded by bringing more capacity online.

Just after 5pm local time, Aemo confirmed that the predicted LOR1 event had arrived — the market operator wanted to see some 224MW of additional capacity to ensure a comfortable reserve margin. As predicted, around half an hour later the LOR1 was cancelled.

Tellingly, the morning after Uhlmann’s tweet, and after The Australian had written a breathless and ill informed article warning of blackouts, Aemo tweeted a link to an article explaining that, at the level of LOR1 and LOR2, “there is no impact to power system security or reliability” — emphasis theirs.

The morning’s strong winds dropped away, as predicted, and by early evening SA’s wind fleet was producing at around 10% of its maximum capacity.

This, perhaps the central element of Uhlmann’s tweet, is not particularly newsworthy. (Did Uhlmann put out a news bulletin at 4.25am that day when wind farms were powering 94% of the state’s demand? Or perhaps that renewables accounted for 44% of the SA’s demand for the day?)

Wind is variable. Sunshine is variable. We all know that, but both, surprising to many, are highly predictable within the operational timescales of the grid operator. In fact, Aemo’s wind and solar forecasts are often more accurate than their power demand forecasts.

Renewables bashing commentators and politicians speak of this variability as if it were a new discovery.

Australian grid operators have been successfully integrating wind energy into grids since the Salmon Beach Wind Farm was commissioned in 1987 in Esperance, WA and the Singleton Solar Farm was built 20 years ago in time for the Sydney Olympics.

Integrating variable renewables does present challenges to network operators but we work through these issues for three main reasons.

Firstly, renewables have the clear advantage of generating power without carbon or other environmentally damaging emissions.

Secondly, consumers enjoy, and now demand, the opportunity to take control of their power bills with roof-top solar solar.

Finally, and more recently, wind and solar are now, beyond reasonable doubt, the lowest cost technologies for adding capacity to our grid in almost every circumstance. These drivers are only intensifying — renewables are not only here to stay, the energy transition is accelerating.

The market and the grid operator well understand the variability and fast growth of renewables and have incorporated both into their planning.

Uhlmann’s unfortunate tweet claimed that SA was “dragging” power from Victoria. This loaded term implies that trade between states is bad. As with any commodity, trade increases reliability and security of supply and provides the best economic outcome.

According to electricity market analyst Geoff Eldridge, between 11:30am and 8:30pm, SA’s gas generation fleet operated at only 35% of rated capacity. The state had ample capacity to power itself, but market conditions determined that importing in that instance made economic sense.

Inconveniently for Uhlmann’s narrative, South Australian energy exports for this financial year have exceeded imports, and while SA did import during some of the week, there wasn’t a moment last week when NSW wasn’t “dragging” power from its neighbours — no tweet from Uhlmann about that!

Coal-dependent NSW relied upon imported power for the entire week. Source: opennem.org.au

SA demonstrates how power can be delivered no “baseload” generators, using a mix of wind, solar, gas and imports.

In a final piece of “truthiness”, Uhlmann’s tweet claims that SA’s fired up its diesel generators.

In fact, SA’s much maligned state owned diesel generators — “cleaner” than coal– didn’t get a run. A tiny amount of generation from much smaller diesels in the state did generate some power — an insignificant 0.2% of the day’s power.

Uhlmann’s energy sources have fed him a diet of anti-renewables propaganda which he has regurgitated into a series of half-truths, across social media, the ABC and now the Nine Network, and has shifted our energy debate in the wrong direction.

A major energy policy is being negotiated in the middle of a culture war built upon misinformation. It’s no wonder that the Neg, widely regarded as the fourth best policy, is such a mess.


Originally published at reneweconomy.com.au on April 18, 2018.