Fact Check: Severe weather, not renewables, cause of South Australia power outage

Severe weather knocked out power for 1.7 million Australians this week, and while some have sought to blame renewables, the reality is wind power likely helped lessen the damage.

Extreme weather was the true culprit

High-speed winds and 80,000 lightning strikes from the worst storm in 50 years knocked out 22 transmission towers and lines in the territory, which caused the local grid to shut down to prevent even greater damage.  The power system is designed to continue operating with the loss of multiple transmission lines, but not dozens in a short period of time. Designing for enough redundancy to protect against a once in a lifetime event like this week’s storm would be prohibitively expensive.

Despite the false claims of some critics, wind didn’t play a role in causing the disruption. At the time of the outage, wind farms were generating nearly half of South Australia’s electricity. The storm didn’t cause the turbines to stop generating— rather, it damaged the power lines that carry electricity created by all of the region’s generators: wind, coal, natural gas, and hydropower.

As the premier of South Australia explained, “The baseload power was operating in South Australia at the time this event occurred. If this had happened 20 years ago when there was no renewable energy the same thing would have happened. That’s the advice we’ve received from the Australian energy market operator…This is a weather event, not a renewable energy event.”

Wind power likely helped lessen the disruption

The truth is if wind played a role in this rare event, it was to lessen the damage. The Guardian noted that if South Australia’s recently closed Port Augusta coal plant were still operating, the electricity it would have generated would have been cut off from the market too. This likely would have caused an even greater disruption, because the change to the area’s electricity system would have been even more sudden. As the Guardian further explained:

The irony is that if anything, more wind energy might have actually made the system more robust against this sort of rare event. The disruption occurred because of a sudden change to the network’s generation. And that happened because so much power was cut off at once. If there was more generation distributed around the state, it might have limited the impact of the loss of the transmission lines.

Wind offers the same reliability services as other energy sources

The reality is that diversifying our electricity mix with wind energy makes the power system more resilient. Aside from the inherent value in having a more diverse energy mix, wind plants have technical attributes that make them better contributors to power system resilience than conventional power plants in many regards.

Many recent electric reliability events in the U.S. and around the world have been caused by large conventional power plants unexpectedly going offline when the power grid experiences a voltage or frequency disturbance, as would have occurred during this event as transmission lines failed due to the extreme weather.

Fortunately, wind plants far exceed the ability of conventional power plants to “ride through” voltage and frequency disturbances. In fact, in many countries, including the U.S., wind plants meet a far more stringent standard for voltage and frequency ride-through than conventional power plants. In the U.S., some owners of conventional generators blocked efforts to enact a standard that would bring conventional generators up to the same ride-through requirements as wind generators, as their plants cannot meet the wind plant requirement. All modern wind plants have this capability because sophisticated power electronics electrically isolate the wind turbine from the grid, allowing the turbine to remain online when a conventional power plant would have been forced offline.

These power electronics also make wind turbines better than conventional power plants for stabilizing the grid following a disturbance. Wind plants can provide far faster and more accurate voltage and frequency regulation than conventional power plants, allowing the power system to more quickly return to normal following a disturbance. Wind’s reliability capabilities are discussed in more detail here.

We’ve seen the same scenario play out in the U.S., with wind helping to keep the electric system operating during times of distress. During 2014’s Polar Vortex weather event, the extreme cold knocked numerous conventional power plants offline. However, because wind turbines kept turning, Great Lakes and Mid-Atlantic consumers saved $1 billion over just two days.

Similarly, when New York’s Indian Point nuclear reactor unexpectedly went offline in December of last year, wind turbines helped keep electricity prices from spiking because they were running at near capacity. As Bloomberg explained at the time, the last time such a large amount of power suddenly went offline in New York, “spot power more than doubled… Wind turbines in the state came to the rescue, running close to capacity and compensating for the loss of the reactor.” Ultimately, electricity prices barely changed.

Contrary to some naysayers, the truth is wind power makes a significant contributions to a diversified energy mix. South Australia’s outage also shows the importance of modernizing energy grids and building new transmission, necessities for a robust, cost-effective power system regardless of the energy source.

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