Last Wednesday’s power blackouts in South Australia and to a lesser degree yesterday’s in the south west of our state are devastating on several fronts, people have the right to question how-and-why. It is unfortunate that for South Australia at least, the advocates of the coal industry tried to blame the higher percentage of renewable energy in South Australia. Fortunately there has been an overwhelming rebuttal of this by experts in the field. What the Energy & Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, is now saying is that the power distribution systems are old and required significant funds to bring up to a reliable standard. But just a minute, were we not told last year that high-energy prices were due to “Gold Plating” the distributive systems? What some commentators are now saying is that ‘energy security’ is an important issue, rightly so and that is what we should learn from the South Australian blackouts.
Rather than claims and counter claims we need to better understand the how-and-why. In both cases it was severe storm damage to the distribution infrastructure that resulted in the power outages. Countries that traditionally relied predominantly on coal power employed large generators adjacent to the coal resources and linear high voltage transmission lines to the areas of demand. This is a classic linear system, resources in at one end and product out at the other. This is no surprise, because that’s how things were done last century, consider cities with one CBD and linear roads into or out of them, or consumer products that start with a resource which is processed or manufactured, used by consumers, and then sent to landfill. The 21st century model is circular, with cities now having many strategic centres linked by radial transport systems, or product cycles being circular with the use of reusing, recycling and reengineering. In Perth that linear thinking resulted in the large generators being located in Collie, connected to the Perth metropolitan area by several high voltage power lines. The result is competitively priced power due to the economies of scale, despite the large power losses across the very long distributive systems. The down side is increased vulnerability, and of course huge carbon emissions. If you have all your generating eggs in 3 or 4 large power station baskets and likewise your distribution via 3 or 4 high voltage distributers failure of any one of these puts the system in severe stress, loose two and the system could go down, across the board, just like South Australia. Ironically this is a legacy of the coal industry, South Australia’s wind generators were plugged into that linear system, had the renewable energy system been designed from scratch it would have been very different and whilst not immune, would have been much less vulnerable to storm generated outages.
So what would a circular energy system look like and how would it significantly reduce power disruptions? Renewable energy production is best served by employing multiple small-scale generating facilities. Think of the 1.5 million domestic roof top solar systems that generate power right where it is needed, rather that being carried hundreds of kilometres to the end user. An ideal renewable energy network would be like a spiders web, with many smaller interconnecting strands, like a miniature version of the World Wide Web. That way if one piece of infrastructure fails another takes over to cover the shortfall. A perfect system would see a supply and demand balance at the suburb scale. Very high demand users such as the Water Corporation, or large industrial areas would require special attention, but still would be a part of the balanced system.
The fact is that overall demand has reduced as electrical appliances become more efficient. Modern reverse cycle air conditioners and LED lights use significantly less power, while sustainably designed homes require less heating, cooling or lighting. This reduced demand still occurs at peak times. Power generating and distribution systems are designed to operate at these peak times, even though the only happen a couple of times a year. To some degree the power industry supports this because it is exactly those peak occurrences that pay them the highest dividends. Introduce a smart grid and variable pricing and suddenly demand smooths out. I use Smart Power, and as such most of my power is consumed at night when it’s half price. The problem is we had to change our consumption behaviour to achieve this. Smart grids do the thinking for you, on a minute-by-minute timeframe. A smart grid not only carries power, it also carries digital information that talks to your appliances allowing them to tailor power consumption with supply, through price triggers. Add suburb wide battery systems and even in times of real stress the supply is maintained. All this is not expensive, but it is new and will be fought tooth and nail by the fossil fuel industry.
The extreme storm events that took out power in South Australia and our southwest were inevitable consequences of climate change; these events will get more frequent and severe. We must constrain our emissions to guarantee at global rise in temperature to less than 2 degrees. Coal and gas will cook the planet. We must adopt renewable power generation as a matter of urgency, to have any hope of keeping temperature rise to 2 degrees.
Picture courtesy of ABC