GILES PARKINSON. Uhlmann’s bizarre prediction of “national blackout” if we pursue wind and solar

Sep 30, 2016


The ABC is supposed to have a ban on advertising. But even if it was allowed, money couldn’t buy the sort of advocacy the fossil fuel industry and incumbent energy interests are receiving this week from the network’s chief political correspondent, Chris Uhlmann.

On Thursday, we took Uhlmann to task for the way he reported the blackout event in South Australia, and his suggestion that the state’s large portfolio of wind energy assets were at fault.

Later that day, Uhlmann doubled down, in an article on the ABC website, and then on a major piece to camera on the flagship 7pm TV news. The result, presented as “analysis” and to the layman as a collection of “facts”, was more than the fossil fuel industry could ever wish for.

Uhlmann insisted that wind energy may yet have been at fault for the blackout, despite the clear conclusions from the market operator and grid owners that it wouldn’t have mattered if the energy was green, black or brown, the network would still have gone down in such a catastrophic weather event.

Then, after a wander through the definitions of oblique terms such as “synchronous” and “asynchronous” energy – that looked and sounded like it was lifted from a lobby group’s playbook –  Uhlmann argued that if the country continues to pursue wind and solar, then the whole nation could be blacked out.

“Rushing to a target to parade green credentials exposes the electricity network to a serious security risk and, in the long run, risks permanent reputational damage to the renewable energy cause. The grid is being transformed, and that transformation needs to be managed sensibly, or the entire nation might go to black.”

That plays right into the hands of the coal and gas lobby, and their defenders, the Coalition government and other right wing politicians who want to slow down or even stop the deployment of wind and solar, and who want to prevent individual states from adding more renewable energy.

Instability and system problems is exactly what the incumbent business interests want the public to believe will happen, but like his previous efforts on Wednesday, this was just nonsense.

It represents old fashioned views about how an energy system should operate. It’s true that many in the industry still think that way, either because they are locked in 20th century technology and practices, or because their narrow business interests demand that it be so.

It wasn’t so very long ago that utilities and energy experts were saying it was impossible to accomodate more than 10 per cent wind or solar into a grid, then it was 20 per cent.

Now, even the head of China’s State grid says that accommodating very high levels is not a technical issue, but a “cultural one.” The head of UK’s national grid has suggested that large centralised generators will soon be all but redundant.

The world is moving rapidly away from the sort of dumb grid that Australia relies upon to a smart grid that embraces renewables, battery storage and other smart technologies that may well have avoided the scale of the blackout that occurred in South Australia.

The truth is, Australian can have a 100 per cent renewable energy electricity system. AEMO did a report three years ago and said there was no technical barrier to such ambition.

Still, Uhlmann wanted the public to think that South Australia may not have lost power if it had relied on coal and gas instead of wind energy. He seems to have forgotten that 23 towers in five locations, affecting three major power lines, were lying on the ground, ripped out by the storm.

As Simon Emms from Electranet made clear on Thursday, when you take more than 700MW of generation out of the system in a matter of seconds, no grid that he knew of could have kept going – no matter what colour the power is, green, black or brown, the result would have been the same.

(Some energy analysts do wonder if large amounts of battery storage might have been able to save the day, because of their ability to respond in milliseconds, unlike coal and gas generators. Indeed, the population of South Australia could probably be thankful that they didn’t have to rely on coal generators to regain power, because that could have been a long process waiting for the coal plant to crank up again).

A little bit of research would have shown that, contrary to the claims of the fossil fuel industry repeated rote-like by Uhlmann, wind energy, and solar for that matter, can help provide the synchronous generation and other ancillary services crucial to keeping a grid stable, and do so in Europe and north America.

In fact in Germany, they have found that the costs of balancing the system actually decreases as the amount of renewable energy rises, and as forecasting improves and competition is increased. They actually need less back-up, not more, and balancing costs have fallen by 50 per cent over a five year period.

In Australia, wind and solar farms could do so too – it’s a matter of configuration – and AEMO is looking at those possibilities, including wind, solar and battery storage, and released a paper on that just last month.

But currently there is no market for it. One of the reasons is that the gas generators and others want to keep that market for themselves.

They are petrified of the impact on their business models and the loss in revenue of the sort illustrated in that graph above. In small numbers, they can still charge what they want for providing those services, as they did during recent network upgrades, and also here.

As the report on Germany said: “The design of balancing power markets constitutes an unnecessary entry barrier to this market, and prices in balancing and imbalance markets do not regularly reflect marginal costs. With appropriate market design, variable renewable wind and solar not only consume but can also provide balancing services.”

Another option is to move to smart technology and battery storage, which can also provide the sort of ancillary services that Uhlmann suggests can only come from fossil fuels.

In Germany, the battery storage developer Younicos suggests it could replace all the coal generatorsby providing the same services they do. Battery storage is now being used commonly in north America to provide those services.

But in Australia that is not yet happening, because the sort of interest groups feeding Uhlmann his lines about asynchronous generation are fighting tooth and nail to stop changes in rules that would encourage battery storage and remove the market power from gas fired generators, in the same way they have fought carbon pricing, renewable energy targets and energy efficiency schemes.

In the last few weeks, they won a significant victory by convincing the rule maker not to change the rules to make it easier for demand response technologies, where large and small energy users agree to reduce their load to keep the system in balance, to compete with fossil fuel generators.

Now those same vested interests are fighting changes to rules, focusing on bidding practices and settlement periods, that could remove some of the horrendous price spikes seen in South Australia in July.

But there you go. The lobbyists have been desperately keen to sow doubt in the minds of the population about the risks of renewable energy. Uhlmann delivered in spades, and we’re taking him to task because his position demands he do better. A lot better.

To suggest that the whole nation faces a blackout is the sort of fear-mongering you’d expect in trashy tabloids or the Murdoch media, or the far-right blogs that proliferate on the net.

It is extraordinary that anyone would want to make that remarkable suggestion as a piece of analysis, and astonishing that anyone would agree to publish or broadcast it on a national platform. As someone must have said at some point: Money can’t buy shit like that.

Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of, Australia’s leading website on clean technology and climate issues. He is a former Deputy Editor of the AFR, columnist on The Australian and The Bulletin, and former Editor Climate Spectator.  See link to his newsletter: 

Uhlmann’s bizarre prediction of “national blackout” if we pursue wind and solar

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