Australian debate reaches far and wide


October 24, 2016

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In Australia, an argument is raging that could damage the wind sector worldwide. It all kicked off last month.

On 28 September, one of the worst storms to hit the state of South Australia in 50 years knocked out the state’s whole electricity grid, plunging people into darkness for days. It was not long before pundits, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, found their scapegoat. He said the outage was caused by the large amount of wind power in South Australia, which has distorted the power grid.

It is an easy connection for the likes of Turnbull to make. South Australia gets more than 40% of its electricity from wind farms, and has been closing its coal-fired power stations. This is well ahead of other Australian states, and puts South Australia ahead of nations including Germany, where wind supplies 32.5% of electricity.

The coal industry has also seized on the opportunity to spread misinformation. Well, who doesn’t love a bit of trolling, right?

But it is wrong to lay the blame squarely on wind. The Australian Energy Market Operator released a report last week that said damage to the electricity grid had knocked out 23 transmission towers and caused a series of other grid disturbances.

These led to the shutdown of nine of the 13 wind farms in operation at the time, and shifted their 445MW capacity to the Heywood interconnector with the neighbouring state of Victoria. Heywood could not cope with the demand. The result: blackout.

Wind farms did play a part in the electricity system collapse, but so did the damage wrought on the transmission grid by a once-in-50-years storm. So did the Heywood interconnector, which left South Australia unable to buy electricity from its neighbour.

And, if the state had coal-fired power stations instead of wind farms, then the result would have been the same. They would have shut down in the same circumstances.

But it has been nearly one month since the blackout happened, and we continue to see wind-blaming headlines despite the analysis from experts including AEMO that has largely absolved the sector. This is worth noting because, like it or not, politicians and the public will take notice of such headlines, and it will hit appetite for wind. This may be an Australian argument for now but with the potential to cause damage globally.

So what can the industry do?

The first step is to keep making the case, loudly and clearly, about why wind farms were not the biggest problem here. That will help, but only up to a point. We are well aware that it is often easier for a simple lie to gain traction than a complex truth. Look at the lies in the Vote Leave campaign for the UK’s referendum on European Union membership. Look at Donald Trump.

The second step, then, is to not get too caught up in Australian politics. The country was once a renewables leader and, when it comes to bold targets, South Australia still is.

But there is also still a deep hostility to wind in parts of the political class, from previous prime minister Tony Abbott, his predecessor Turnbull and others. There is only so far that wind investors can change the minds of those unwilling to listen.

And the third – most important – step is to keep doing what firms
in the wind sector are already doing: investing in new types of technology, including storage, to help bolster grid resilience. Energy storage systems can provide a vital source of back-up electricity, and make the type of arguments above irrelevant.

As more countries install more wind farms, we can expect more of the blame stories we are seeing in Australia today. Further investment can help to neutralise them.

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