Much sniggering but is it fair?

So South Australia, the whole state, without power as a result of a storm.

The federal energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, has questioned whether South Australia was too reliant on renewable energy as the state’s premier, Jay Weatherill, said no system could have coped with the major storm and cyclonic winds that lashed the state, which led to lightning strikes hitting generators, causing a surge and overloading the network’s capacity.

Obviously neither solar nor birdchoppers worked in the middle of a storm.

But was that actually the cause? At least on report states that it was lightning strikes at multiple points along the grid, tripping the whole thing into shutdown. Which isn’t, so far as I understand these things (rather little, obviously) anything to do with how the electrons are loaded into the system.

So, who wants to tell us the truth here?

38 comments on “Much sniggering but is it fair?

  1. Revealing my ignorance here, I can understand why solar would not work during a storm, but shouldn’t the bird mincers have been making out like bandits?

  2. It was mainly a transmission problem that clearly would not have existed if the state had put the same resources into the grid as it has into “renewables”. The *bird mincers* have to be locked in high winds. Otherwise they tend to get out of control & burn up. BTW, the sun is not a renewable resource – not that it matters.

  3. @Edward – unfortunately not as we appear unable to make variable resistance motors that can handle storms…

    Apparently we don’t want that energy – just the nice calm day gentle breeze!!

  4. Wind turbines have a max power output capability. Above the wind speed for generating it the power is capped.

    They also have max wind speed sometimes called survival speed, which may be broached in the centre of a storm.

  5. There’s little doubt, with renewables you’re going to have much more grid to be vulnerable to lightning strikes. It’s distributed generation as well as distributed consumption. And with wind, in particular, a lot of that grid is going to be on high profile geology where it’s more likely to attract strikes. Because that’s where you put the windmills.

  6. There is somewhat of a misconception here. Existing grid systems are not capable of moving large quantity’s of power over long distances. They are are designed to balance out load taking excess power from one place to another not move the whole generated power for which a very expensive and obtrusive upgrade would be needed. Although the grid system was hit by lightning that is something that happens every day so it should be able to cope.

  7. Fossil fuels are big businesses business in the heartlands of the bits of Australia that put the current ‘Liberal’ federal government in power.

    South Australia has a state government from the other party (Labor) and it’s open warfare between state and federal governments when they wear different ties.

    So just assume they’re all full of shit and go from there.

    Everyone else here is just amazed to find that they have electricity at all in SA. You’d never have noticed.

  8. @Doc Bud
    But they don’t tend to put them on hills, do they?. There’s whole forests of them in Central Spain on what, for Spain, is almost billiard table country. Unless you’re calling the entire central plateau a hill. They put them where there are uninterrupted, prevailing winds. Which usually implies altitude.

  9. I did read some ways back that South Australian reliance on renewables was an accident waiting to happen. The whole issue here is the unbalancing of the grid due to the indeterminacy of the supply.
    I suspect we will eventually discover this is exactly the cause of the problem. The storm just made conditions right for the outage. Electrical engineers have been pointing out the dangers to supply stability ever since renewables became a significant fraction of the electricity supply.

  10. Thanks for pointing that out, Chris Manuell. There’s a misconception amongst the greenies, you can generate electricity in some far flung corner & then transfer it through “the grid” to where the demand is. The grid, as is, doesn’t have that capacity. Why would it? Those far flung corners haven’t had much electricity demand, from the grid. Because they’re far flung corners.

  11. BiS: the problem with the lightning strikes was not them hitting the wind turbines, but hitting the distribution system in such a way to cause the interconnector to trip. Which wouldn’t be a problem if SA had had sufficient generation to meet its needs. But wind turbines do not work in storm force winds – they probably also need structural inspections once the storm abated before coming back online – and I doubt rooftop solar provided too much in the cloud and rain, so the fact thery’d turned off so much fossil fuel generation bit them in the asrse.

  12. They also have max wind speed sometimes called survival speed, which may be broached in the centre of a storm.

    They suffer from the same problem the Dutch knew about centuries ago: the blade tip speeds can approach supersonic, which causes nasty things to happen. I understand that the research into early aeroplane propellers borrowed a lot from windmill sail design.

  13. BIS,

    Just one SA wind farm:

    Starfish Hill Wind Farm is a wind power station spread over two hills near Cape Jervis, South Australia. It has 23 wind turbines, eight on Starfish Hill itself and 15 on Salt Creek Hill

  14. It was basically a lack of resilience in the system caused by the fact that SA now has no local baseload power in such conditions.

    If you have to import near as dammit 100% of your power from hundreds of miles away using no more than a couple of separate lines then you’re asking for trouble. I’m not positive if both were actually struck but I do know they weren’t that far apart.

    Moreover, entirely unsurprisingly, Victoria’s generators and grid couldn’t see why they should subject their own local customers to potential instability from the leech next door so they cut the leech off.

  15. Tim N, what happens – do they fly off, or push themselves over?

    In the case of tips going supersonic, I think the blades break apart. But before that gets a chance to happen, from what I’ve seen in videos like the one Jim posts above, the turbine catches fire or the whole structure comes down. I’m not sure what the mechanism is for the latter, but serious forces must be being applied somewhere they are not supposed to be.

  16. @quig

    Good pictures there – lots of pylons down in flat country, which will play havoc with distribution regardless of generation source.

  17. 22 transmission towers taken out.
    Looking at the photos of some of them, they are large pylons. I suspect if 22 main pylons in the UK were brought down then we would have some serious issues with blackouts. It doesn’t matter what generates the electricity, if you have sections of the cables that transmit that electricity effectively missing then, that electricity is going nowhere. Whether from solar, wind, coal or gas.

  18. Lifted from ElReg:

    it was the fact that SA has more than 15% (40%) renewables that forced the grid controllers to shut down the grid. The downed towers were only incidental.

    More than 15% renewables start forcing instability into the grid, there is no heavy reserve to act as an anchor to the frequency (the Germans found that out a year or so ago) and once you lose frequency lock you have to shut everything down for safety.

    Apparently SA had only one real power station working at the time and no spinning reserve. They lost lock with Victoria and the wind turbines started shutting down. The real power station couldn’t keep the lock going so the grid had to be shut down.

    The renewable power lobby will never learn because of the money they get from it.

    IANAEE, but it sounds highly plausible.

  19. If your whole system depends on imports then any problem with the link causes a failure. As in the case of Denmark’s brown-out when one transmission station linking it to Swedish nuclear generator failed.
    South Australia should have at least one CCGT plant on standby to cope with fluctuations in wind not some mothballed coal-fired plant that takes ages to restart. The South Australian businesses should be able to sue the power authority for damages due to culpable negligence (not the lightning strike itself but the lack of back-up for a foreseeable event).

  20. I suspect if 22 main pylons in the UK were brought down then we would have some serious issues with blackouts.

    We’d have a serious issue with those who construct pylons, too. That shouldn’t happen.

  21. This does rather piss all over the fanciful idea that we should put massive solar panels in the Sahara desert to power Europe. Long-distance power lines are inherently vulnerable, both to weather and to politics/terrorism. The UK is fortunate to have both mild weather and mild politics.

  22. Chris Miller, not totally sure on this one, but certainly you need to have a lock on your AC frequency, but I would have thought that as long as the total “body” of generation was in frequency step then having one or two go off shouldn’t make a big difference. Certainly when I was in charge of getting alternators synchronized (manually) you didn’t want to get it wrong. When I say manually its all done automatically these days. Quite happy to be proved wrong though.

    Tim Newman, if you look at my follow on comment you can see that sometimes no matter what items of infrastructure are designed to cope with in the way of weather. Sometimes the weather says otherwise.

  23. @ Andrew M
    Not totally – there would be multiple sets of transmission cables, so if one or two went down most of the power would still get through. The likelihood of more than two going down simultaneously should be tiny.

  24. Tim Newman, if you look at my follow on comment you can see that sometimes no matter what items of infrastructure are designed to cope with in the way of weather. Sometimes the weather says otherwise.

    Yeah, but 22 pylons should only come down in a freak storm of such ferocity that you get a fair body count as well. We haven’t seen roofs ripped off nor trucks picked up and thrown around, but we’ve had 22 pylons torn down. Somebody’s fucked up.

  25. @Daedalus, thanks. I’ve seen other reports that the one thermal station that was operating at the time suffered a serious lightning strike and went offline. then the instabilities cascaded and it was game over.

  26. 22 pylons come down!
    What is the frequency of 1 pylon coming down? It should be less than 1 in a million. So the chance of 22 pylons coming down is less than 1 in 10 to the power 132: sorry, I can’t write it out because there isn’t space for 132 zeroes on a line which is only 79 characters long.
    That is how unbelievable it is!
    We need Tim Newman for PM of South Australia to sort out the mess

  27. I have now seen the wind energy graph for South Australia on the 28th September. It literally fell off a cliff at just after 15:00 going from 950Mw to nothing in an instant.
    That undoubtedly crashed the system not allowing the operators to start up alternatives.

  28. Yeah, but 22 pylons should only come down in a freak storm of such ferocity that you get a fair body count as well. We haven’t seen roofs ripped off nor trucks picked up and thrown around, but we’ve had 22 pylons torn down. Somebody’s fucked up.

    Never were truer words spoken. I thought exactly that – where are the bodies? The same storm is passing over northern Victoria and southern NSW right now (missed us in Melbourne, fortunately), lots of flooding, wind damage, etc. But without taking down the entire state grid.

    Sniggering is completely fair. If a transmission line gets damaged, of course it gets shut down, but that’s not supposed to cascade to the entire grid. It’s hard to tell what exactly happened, but you can say something fucked up somewhere. And no amount of bleating by Jay Weatherill (SA Premier) about freak storms and climate change is going to cover that up.

  29. The Australian wind power chart for the day in question can be found here. To see the South Austrailia situation, untick the boxes Total, ACT1, NSW1, QLD1, TAS1 and VIC1.

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