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18 seconds that blacked out South Australia

Listen to PM Malcolm Turnbull, Australia - if you want your electricity to be like his NBN

Comment In spite of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) putting South Australia's blackout down to fallen 275 kV transmission towers, the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has doubled down on the stupid notion that renewables made the blackout.

One of his comments is plain silly: saying that in electricity grid priorities, “the number one has to be keep the lights on”.

You're wrong, Prime Minister.

Any engineer will tell you: the number one priority in an emergency is that you can recover, that you can return to normal without weeks or months of work. That you don't blow up generators to stop ice-cream melting.

South Australia managed that: if it had prioritised “keep the lights on”, it would not have. A generator that self-destructs because it's programmed by politics is no use to anyone.

Hence when the Victorian interconnect's power rose to 860 MW (rated for 600 MW), the statewide grid responded within 0.3 of a second.

The PM's other dogged-adherence-to-politics is to claim that because wind farm outputs dipped during the emergency, renewables contributed to the blackout.

This table tells you why he's wrong.

Blackout timeline

Time Event
-43 seconds Brinkworth to Templers West 275 kV down
-17 seconds Davenport to Belalie 275 kV down
-16 seconds Davenport to Belalie 275 kV reset
-8 seconds Davenport to Belalie 275 kV down
-7 seconds Wind farm output falls by 123 MW from North Brown Hill Wind Farm, Bluff Wind Farm, Hallett Wind Farm
-3 seconds Davenport to Mt Lock 275 kV down
-0.9 seconds Hornsdale wind farm output falls by 86 MW
-0.9 seconds Snowtown #2 wind farm output falls by 106 MW
-0.5 seconds SA-Victoria interconnect spikes to 850 MW
-0.2 seconds SA-Victoria interconnect cut
0 seconds Blackout

It's an abridged version of the table that occurs in the full AEMO report, which is in this PDF.

The too-long-didn't-read version? Most of the crisis unfolded in a scant 18 seconds: too brief for policy to have created a blackout.

The AEMO's rather completely dopey media release gave the PM – and idiot-in-search-of-a-village Senator Nick Xenophon – their quotable quote. The media release says “following multiple faults in a short period, 315 MW of wind generation disconnected”.

From Turnbull we hear, therefore, that disruption to the wind turbines “put extra strain on the interconnector”.

Bollocks: look at the timeline again.

The entire emergency unfolded in 43 seconds – you've already spent more time reading this article.

The blackout didn't become a certainty until the last 18 seconds, but wind farms in South Australia only dipped their outputs in the last seven seconds before the blackout was complete.

After most of the big damage to transmission infrastructure – the fallen towers – had already happened (except for the Davenport to Mount Lock 275 kV failure).

The system was in collapse before wind farm outputs fell, and according to AGL's investigation, the dip in wind output was insufficient to cause the blackout.

As for the silly – very silly – idea that if Alinta Energy hadn't closed the Playford power stations in Port Augusta, this wouldn't have happened, there are two things to note.

First: the last-half-second draw-down from Victoria was 860 MW, more than three times Playford's 240 MW. Playford wouldn't have prevented the blackout.

Second: while news stories this year talked about the power station being “closed” in 2015, that merely formalised what happened in 2012, when its generators were mothballed.

The AEMO's investigation continues, and one part of it is to ask why the wind farms throttled back in the final 10 seconds and 1 second of the emergency.

Vulture South guesses the most likely reason is that with the whole network acting weird in a very short time, systems designed to protect the infrastructure were trying to cope. As tens or hundreds of thousands of consumers disappeared from the network, the facilities tried to cope.

One last consideration. The fastest Frequency Control Ancillary Service category defined by AEMO is six seconds. What that means is that if something goes wrong on the grid (that's what FCAS responds to), a fast-response generator will pick it up within that time.

In South Australia's blackout, the end of the crisis took place in 17 seconds: the two generators responsible for stabilising the grid (their names are commercial-in-confidence) got one shot each at filling the shortfall.

The AEMO's interim report about the blackout would probably let an engineer identify who provides stabilisation, and therefore work out why they didn't cope. I couldn't possibly comment.

And the Prime Minister? His certainty that he knows better than any electrical grid engineer puts us rather in mind of his conviction – now discredited – that he can deliver a broadband network better than any engineer.

It would be nice if nobody had ever told Malcolm Turnbull he was the smartest person in the room. It's done us no good. ®

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