Queensland just had its worst outage in 40 years. Why and what’s next.
It’s news to absolutely nobody that it can get quite hot in Queensland in summer. In fact, the Sunshine State is literally synonymous with the sun shining pretty much all the time. Apart from when the odd cyclone brings torrential, flooding rain.
Being a part of the world where the sun shines a lot, Queensland is also a poster child for the adoption of rooftop solar by the average household, as well as being a popular location for large-scale solar farms.
So why did the state just experience its worst electricity outage since 1985, with more than half a million properties across the state affected?
A couple of weeks ago, on January 21st and 22nd, power was cut to hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses, while some shopping centres, traffic lights, and hospitals had to rely on backup generators for a short time.
Why was there not enough power to go round?
There was no extraordinary event that precipitated the shortage of electricity. It was a seemingly normal Queensland summers day that the system is expected to cope with.
It was extremely hot. There was an abundance of solar-generated energy available all day, although not much wind. There was a turbine fire at the Callide power station near Biloela, which is operated by state-owned generator CS Energy.
Then the sun set.
What did the Queensland government do?
After a spate of overnight blackouts and with temperatures forecast to again reach the high 30s on Monday January 22nd, Queensland’s Energy Minister Mick de Brenni said the cause was “a combination of high demand and prolonged heat”:
“Our message for Queenslanders is to stay cool, to stay hydrated, and to absolutely use appliances like air conditioning; however, if it’s not necessary to use something, then that will help,” the Minister said.
“Queenslanders know how to be responsible on days like this, just as they have been every other heat wave event.”
As we followed the story with interest in the news and on social media, we noticed plenty of public feedback. Much of it echoed the sentiment that perhaps relying on the majority of people to “do the right thing” isn’t the most practical, dependable, secure, or sustainable policy.
Did AEMO intervene?
As expected, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) raised its alert level for generation reserves in Queensland on those problematic days.
At the same time, it sought “a market response” to increase the buffer between available generation and expected demand. This means either generators offering more supply or large industrial customers cutting usage, or both.
AEMO also issued alert notices that there would likely be generation reserve shortages in NSW later that week.
How much energy was being used?
On the evening of Sunday January 21st, electricity demand in Queensland surged to near-record levels, Then, on the Monday, demand reached almost 11,000 MW, well above the record.
At the peak, around 5:20pm, demand was around 500MW above what AEMO had forecast.
Soon after, the wholesale price in Queensland reached the $16,600/MWh price cap, which is almost 200 times higher than the price when everything is running smoothly.
Around the same time, NSW prices topped $9500/MWh as solar generation faded and wind-generated energy remained negligible.
How long did the outage last?
Unfortunately for many residents of southeast Queensland, the Sunday night-Monday morning interruption to their electricity supply wasn’t brief.
Some had no power for most of the night until it was restored on Monday morning, but others still had none on Monday evening.
As of 9.32pm on that Monday night (January 22nd), 22,050 homes were without power in southeast Queensland. Brisbane City households suffered the highest number of outages at 9,413, with 4,935 Moreton Bay residents and 3,267 Redland City residents also in the dark.
Is this the “new normal”?
As we’ve outlined previously – most recently just a few months ago in the post Our Free Lunch Plan is tapping into the abundance of solar in the middle of the day – the changing sources of generation and the changing patterns of demand are not always aligned.
Following this Queensland outage, electricity market watcher Paul McArdle noted how complex managing the national power grid has become.
Writing on his Wattclarity online news service, McArdle pointed to the “massive” difference between the middle of the day, when solar generation from rooftop systems and large-scale plants is at its peak, and the far smaller amount of available energy in the grid when the sun goes down.
On that Sunday evening, with only about 100MW of wind generation available, the system really needed gas peaking plants, liquid fuel generation, and supply from large-scale batteries to contribute.
Having an abundance of solar-generated energy during the day is great, but given how much is available, it’s not worth very much. That’s just economics, when supply outstrips demand.
However, because non-renewable-sourced energy is far more in demand when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, that’s more valuable, which means more expensive.
Can we expect more of the same?
Last November, AEMO warned that this summer’s forecast for hot and dry El Niño conditions “could see electricity demand reach a 1-in-10-year high”, raising the likelihood of load shedding and rolling blackouts or brownouts. Mind you, if you live in Victoria, you might be wondering how accurate that prediction was.
At the time, we asked Are you ready for load shedding? in a post that explained what load shedding is, why it becomes necessary, and what to do about it.
Nothing that has happened in the couple of months since has made the experts believe that we’ll avoid the need for load shedding altogether. When AEMO sought “a market response” to the Queensland shortfall, that was the last mechanism prior to load shedding.
But then outages happened, anyway.
Until we’re able to fully replace the more traditional dispatchable power that’s available on demand with enough reserves generated by renewable sources and stored until needed, the cost of electricity will continue to be driven by demand.
And when demand is greater than supply, we’ll not only see volatile prices but also load shedding and outages.