Scientists (mostly) say renewable energy is not guilty over South Australia's storm blackout

A man shelters from the winds near Brighton Jetty in Adelaide. Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Most experts say the South Australian blackout was the result of transmission failures caused by an extreme weather event and had nothing to do with the state’s high level of renewable energy.

Turnbull government MPs, including energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg, and the PM himself, have been talking about the state’s “unrealistic” renewable energy target and calling for change.

However, scientists say renewable energy wasn’t responsible.

“The SA blackouts had nothing to do with the State’s move to clean energy,” says Ian Lowe, emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University and a former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“The distribution network was affected by a storm. The problem would have been exactly the same if SA used coal or nuclear power to provide its electricity.”

Roger Dargaville, the Deputy Director at Energy Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, says these kinds of failures in the National Energy Market (NEM) which covers the five eastern states are extremely rare.

“The NEM experiences a range of extreme weather on a regular occurrence and a vast majority of the time copes well,” he says.

He says it’s hard to imagine how the high penetration of renewable energy in the state could be implicated.

“Just under 1,000 megawatts of wind power was dispatching onto the grid at the time of the blackout with another 400 megawatts from gas plant and 300 megawatts supply from the Victorian inter-connector making up the total,” he says.

“Had either of the brown coal generators still been in operation the system would not have been any more resilient to this event.”

Professor Ken Baldwin, deputy director of the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University, says there is almost unanimity of views among experts in the electricity sector that the South Australian blackout was the result of transmission failures caused by an extreme weather event, which had nothing to do with the state’s high level of renewable energy.

“This is taking the focus off the real issue, which is how the states can better work together to meet our climate change obligations while ensuring the secure and affordable supply of energy,” he says.

However, Martin Sevior, an Associate Professor at the School of Physics at Melbourne University, says the statement “nothing to do with renewable energy” is not quite true.

“South Australia’s renewable electricity facilities are located throughout a large area of the state and power from those assets must be collected and transmitted to where it is consumed,” he says.

“In addition the tax credits used to make renewable energy competitive in SA crowded out local fossil fuel generation assets making it necessary to instead import fossil fuel generated power from Victoria.”

“Both conditions mean that the SA power network is more sensitive to disruption than without the large reliance on renewable energy. One could speculate that if large power generation capacity was located to the East of Port Augusta, the effect of the storm could simply have been the isolation of the western region of the State, leaving Adelaide and most of the population unaffected.”

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