21st October 2016
Not everyone was going without power in the middle of the South Australia blackout on Wednesday. Those in off the grid remote areas, or simply off the grid in the big city, had everything working just fine.
“Well, it is nice to find out there’s a power outage as without the ABC we would never know, but staying nice and warm and in for a night of TV,” said one South Australian resident as he read news reports of the blackout.
“One remembers the questions when we said we live off the grid – ‘do you live in a cave?’. Well, who’s living in a cold cave now?”
He wasn’t the only one enjoying the benefits of off-grid living or hybrid storage. Simon Hackett, the internet entrepreneur who now heads battery storage developers Redflow, says his family didn’t realise there was a blackout until an hour into the event.
Hackett has two 10kWk ZCell Redflow zinc bromine batteries in his Adelaide home (pictured above). Normally they are charged by his 10kW solar array, but given the stormy conditions, Hackett decided on Wednesday afternoon to start charging the battery system at home on grid energy ‘just in case’.
“The Hackett household is happily up and running as usual – I had got about 50% (charge) into the house (batteries) before the power failed (while I was on a plane to Brisbane),” he told RenewEconomy.
“I landed (in Brisbane) to the news of a statewide blackout… except for my house, where the teenagers are continuing to charge their smartphones and play computer games perfectly happily. (That’s his house above pictured last night)
“It took them an hour to figure out the power had failed – they had to read about it on social media – they hadn’t noticed!”
Another enjoying power in the midst of the blackout was Brian Gillespie, from the Eden Valley, who used his recently installed Tesla Powerwall battery to deliver power until 3am on Thursday, when it finally ran out of power.
Installers Natural Solar said this 12 hours of backup power was enough for Gillespie to be able to use his lights and appliances normally whilst the state was suffering.
Like other major blackouts, such as the week-long shut-down in NSW last year, and the hour long outage that affected more than 130,000 customers in West Australia last week, the event in South Australia is likely to lead to more households and businesses looking at battery storage as a back-up to the grid, or even to go off grid altogether.
Natural Solar says it received a trebling of enquiries in the last 24 hours from potential customers in South Australia and in other states, each of them seeking more independence from the grid.
“In the past 24 hours there has been a 228% increase in enquiries from customers South Australia wanting to know more about battery power, with their locations directly correlating to more severely storm affected areas,” managing director Chris Williams said.
“This trend has swept across the country with a 148% increase on enquiries Australia wide.
It is difficult to estimate exactly how many homes and businesses in South Australia have battery storage, but it is likely to be a few hundred at most. Some battery storage systems are not designed to operate independently from the grid, so like the 200,000 households with rooftop solar in South Australia, they will lose power anyway.
Battery numbers are expected to increase dramatically in coming years, however, as the Adelaide council and the state government supporting the rollout of battery storage, AGL Energy is conducting a big trial of homes that will have their solar and battery storage linked as a “virtual power plant”, and the local network operator is also launching a major trial to see if battery storage can be used to reduce the cost of maintaining the network.
Last year, more than 200,000 homes in NSW were without power for more than a week after storm damage to the network. That inspired a lot of interest for battery storage, but also for generators, which can be incredibly dangerous to households and line operators if simply attached to the household network in the middle of an outage.
A similar reaction followed the major blackouts in New York in 2012 after Hurricane Sandy left thousands of households and businesses without power for weeks, and it has led to calls from environmental groups for Australian authorities to think more about climate resilience.
That hurricane caused people to consider battery storage and even micro grids and New York has since become a world leader in taking a new approach to energy security, and not relying on centralised power.
That might be the biggest lesson that comes out of the South Australia blackouts – that it does not really matter how you generate the electricity, a reliance on a centralised grid leaves consumers open to such massive disruptions.
“The opportunity to identify solutions to the real causes of South Australia’s statewide blackout, and thereby help Australia prepare for the future, will be lost if anti-renewable energy agendas are allowed to overtake a careful investigation of the situation, said The Climate Institute’s John Connor.
The TCI’s analysis of Australia’s electricity system in 2012 found Australia’s electricity system to be “underprepared” for the impacts of climate change. It assessed the risk of damage from more extreme wind intensity and rainfall as “high”.
“These events raise difficult questions for not only South Australia, but for the entire country. How should we ensure our 50,000 km of transmission lines are sufficiently resilient to increasingly extreme weather, and how can we do this without repeating the price shock that was caused by over-build of the distribution networks?” Connor said.
Networks in South Australia and other states have already highlighted the cost of maintaining elongated grids and their vulnerability in the face of storms and bushfires, which is why many are looking at micro-grids as a cheaper and more reliable alternative to centralised generation.
So, one of the knee-jerk reactions to South Australia may be to add impetus for a new interconnector. But that wouldn’t have solved the problem. But a series of micro-grids, and a new focus on battery storage and localised renewable energy, just might. But it will take some serious efforts from governments and regulators to shift the rules that currently favour a dependence on centralised fossil fuels.