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Governments must take stock from SA's electric shock


Source: AFR, 30 Sep 2016

In July South Australians endured an electricity shock when wholesale power prices soared to nearly $9000 per megawatt hour. This week they suffered a frightening power blackout. They must be wondering what's next.

As the electricity grid returns to normal, calm heads are needed to avoid conflating these two events. The Prime Minister's reported comments that intermittent renewable energy sources posed a "real threat" for energy security, imply a link between high levels of renewable energy and Wednesday's blackout. But the issues are different and require different responses.

The first step is to understand the reasons for Wednesday's state-wide blackout and their implications. All the information we have so far indicates that the high proportion of wind power in South Australia neither contributed to the problem nor worsened its consequences.

Dramatic photographs of broken transmission towers testify to the ferocity of the storm. Damage of this magnitude demanded that the power generators shut down quickly to protect public safety and the generators themselves. It seems that the instability in the system became impossible to contain and quickly cascaded, leading to the blackout.

The initial effect of the storm on electricity infrastructure could not have been avoided. What the government will focus on is whether the power outages could have been contained and the blackout avoided. There will also be debate about whether different designs of this essential infrastructure, even taking critical transmission lines underground, could enable it to better withstand such extreme weather events. These debates are vital: our society is highly dependent on its power supply.

Second, we need to return to the underlying issues exposed by the price shock in July – the urgent need to manage the transition to a low-emissions future while maintaining reliable, secure and affordable electricity. We should remember that as the physical system responded to protect people and assets in September, so the market responded to keep the lights on in July.

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