Recently we wrote about the dangers that investing heavily into intermittent renewable energy poses when the reality of nature enters the picture and a region’s or nation’s electricity grid cannot cope. The Australian state of South Australia faced such a disaster three weeks ago when a rare storm knocked out all of the power in the state and a few weeks later the power is still not on in areas of the state. 1.7 million people were suddenly in the dark. The storm also shut down major businesses and caused millions of dollars in damage to them. South Australia relies on wind energy for over 40% of its electricity supply.

As a result of the calamity, questions are being raised about the government’s renewable energy strategy. The key question is whether that state’s heavy reliance on wind turbines might have increased the risk of a state-wide blackout. More broadly, the devastating storm raises serious concerns over how renewable energy was being integrated into an electric grid that was not designed to cope with it.

In the days after the devastating storm Australia’s federal energy minister announced that a full inquiry into exactly what happened was needed as well as a “real debate” about the increasing role that renewables are playing in energy systems. In particular there needed to be a national discussion about the intermittent supply of wind and solar power and how that impacts the stability and price of electricity. And the energy minister also weighed into the climate change debate by emphasizing that there is a trade-off between reaching greenhouse gas emissions targets agreed upon at Paris last December while still ensuring the lights will be kept on.

“Of course, reducing our emissions is vitally important but some states seem to put that ahead of energy security, and we don’t. We’re unapologetic that keeping the lights on and energy security is our No 1 responsibility and our No 1 concern. Some states seemed to have adopted their emission targets without understanding the impact that will have for energy security.”

True to his word, federal and state energy ministers met on October 7th to pave a way to address the issues created by the disaster. At the meeting the ministers agreed that their primary responsibility is to ensure the security, reliability and affordability of the energy system for all Australians. After the meeting the ministers announced there will be a wide-ranging independent review to provide advice to governments on a coordinated, national reform blueprint. The review will be chaired by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel.

The review is expected to deliver a blueprint via a final report early in the new year. It is likely to include specific actions, both physical and financial, and address not just the issues raised by the state-wide blackout but also the dramatic spikes in electricity prices South Australia has been enduring under its renewable energy drive.

The focal point of the review will be one the rest of the world will be watching closely. In a very short time world electricity grids have had to cope with rapid technological change, the increasing penetration of renewable energy, a more decentralised electrical generation system, withdrawal of traditional base load generation (coal, nuclear), and changing consumer and industrial demand.

There is much uncertainty to how some of these factors will evolve over the next two decades. It will be important to see how the blueprint is able to address a range of plausible long-term scenarios yet focus on near-term options that can be adapted to evolving developments on all fronts. And doing this will require a full understanding of current and likely future developments in energy technologies and being able to determine how intermittent technologies like wind and solar can be safely incorporated into evolving electric grids.

In the end, any new energy policy going forward must ensure electricity reliability and security or that policy will be seen as a costly waste of time and effort.

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