In the dark

Sunday’s events in Melbourne as Victorians strove to cope with extreme evening heat and humidity while watching Roger Federer demonstrate his wonderful tennis skills have seen the public energy debate descending in to yet another shouting match with the year barely begun — but whether the right questions will get asked in 2018 is another matter.

It, of course, didn’t take long for clueless politicians to seek to connect 50,000 Victorian households deprived of energy with the State Labor government’s commitment to driving investment in variable renewable power – even though a moment’s thought should have told them that this one was down to distribution network hassles. One of these was no less than the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, tweeting before engaging his brain cells: “We said Labor’s power policy would cause blackouts over summer and it has.” Similar flatulence was produced by the State leader of the opposition.

The noise, I see, has sparked the ANU’s Hugh Saddler in to pointing out on The Conversation that “the reality is that blackouts, trips and intermittency are three very different issues, which should not be conflated.” He adds: “Unfortunately, for reasons of basic physics, electricity distribution systems do not work well when it is very hot, so the combination of extreme heat and high demand is very challenging. It appears that significant parts of the Victorian electricity distribution system were unable to meet the challenge, leading to uncontrolled blackouts.”

Networks United Energy, CitiPower and Powercor sought to make a similar point to the media but the comment was utterly buried in a long report in The Age as Melburnians blearily tried to cope with Monday morning (and an overnight “low” of 28 degrees after a peak of 38 degrees at 5pm Sunday): “A spokeswoman said substation fuse faults were the main cause of most outages as the mercury climbed past 40 degrees. The prolonged high temperatures and humidity through the weekend significantly increased electricity demand at many locations across the network.”

Upfront in the shouting match, it didn’t take long, meanwhile, for the Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, to get out a big stick to wave at the distribution businesses – who, at it happens, charge the lowest network costs of any State and who, in real terms, now bill their customers less than two decades ago even while adding hundreds of thousands of homes to their systems and doubling their operating expenditures (which include maintenance) in nominal terms.

As well, this level of performance hasn’t stopped the Greens’ leader, Richard di Natale, rushing out on Monday to declare that the era of power privatization should be over. (Andrews feels sufficiently pressured by this in seats where Greens are rivals, it seems, that he was soon declaring “most Victorians” would prefer that the State electricity system had not been privatized — two decades ago – “but a State take-over is not possible.”)

The Premier is also rabbiting on about “compelling” the networks to consider compensation for affected households and to improve their systems – while asserting they shouldn’t be “ripping off” consumers by “piling” maintenance costs on to bills.  He apparently is paying no heed to the roles of the Australian Energy Regulator or the process of determining network charges. The AER, after all, is not up for election next November……… and Andrews got the headline he sought: “Daniel Andrews lashes power companies over blackouts.”

Is it worth also noting that 320,000 Victorian homes now have rooftop solar PV (14 per cent of the State total)? One wonders how far this contributes to a “let it rip” approach to air-conditioning when the heat is on even when the sun has gone down?

Energy Networks Australia’s CEO, Andrew Dillon, is pointing out that “because of the period of prolonged, intense heat residential customers are using air-conditioners for longer periods of time, putting significant pressure on electricity networks at a local level.” He adds: “What solar power has done is certainly well and truly clicked the load off at midday and it has helped with these peaks at 3pm or 4pm. But what it’s effectively tended to do is shift them to later in the day, so now we’re starting to see the network peak doesn’t happen until 6pm or 7pm.”

Overall peak demand in the State on Sunday was 9,443 MW around 4pm at which stage rooftop solar was estimated to be contributing about 330 MW – but by 7pm this contribution had effectively disappeared while sweating Victorians still wanting much the same supply.

According to the Australian Energy Market Operator, “Victoria experienced its highest operational demand for a Sunday ever, recording 9,144 MW of demand at 7:30pm.” At this point the Victorian in-State load was being borne by brown coal, gas turbines and hydro power (with fossil fuels representing about two-thirds of the required generation) while some 900 MW was being accessed over interconnection with South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales (which in turn was sourcing almost 600 MW from Queensland).

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