Blackouts In SA While Generators Stand Idle & Politicians Bicker

Barnaby Joyce Coal Heatwave

Joyce titters, Weatherill gets mad, Australia cooks.

Late on Wednesday afternoon, in the middle of a heatwave, electricity was cut off to roughly 90,000 Adelaide properties for around 45 minutes.

Because I have access to a working TV at the moment1 I have seen an implausible number of people shitting bricks over this incident.  So many bricks I could use them to build a Great Wall of South Australia.  I’m sure it would be effective at keeping foreigners out.  After all, who’d want to enter a state surrounded by shitty bricks?

To all the people who are acting like this is some sort of unprecedented event2, I have to ask which bloody country do you live in?  Rolling blackouts during heatwaves in Australia are not uncommon and have occurred in every mainland state, including those that are almost entirely powered by coal.

But for those who are complaining for the right reasons, your anger is bloody well justified.

The reason there was a blackout is because not enough electricity was supplied to meet demand.  There was a shortfall of around 100 megawatts and because no additional power was supplied there was no choice other than to blackout part of the state.  But while thousands of people in Adelaide had to go without power, there were 250 megawatts of generating capacity sitting idle at Pelican Point Power Station, another 120 megawatts was going unused at Torrens Island Power Station, and 50 megawatts at Port Lincoln.

This means the reason there was a blackout was because generators decided not to supply power.

The Usual Mob Of Idiots

Of course it is not possible for a faulty hair dryer to trip a circuit breaker in a Glenelg barber shop without a Coalition politician blaming renewable energy and Wednesday’s blackout was no exception.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s Treasurer, appeared in Parliament with a lump of coal and all but announced their upcoming engagement.

“Kiss me, you impetuous fool!”

Australia’s minister for the Environment and Energy, Josh Frydenberg,  said South Australia should reopen a partially demolished coal Power station:

“If that means going back to the owners of the Northern Power station and saying ‘this is something that we must investigate to re-start this, even though the closure’s been announced’, then you must do it.”

This means his solution to gas power plants not being turned on is to rebuild a 32 year old coal power plant that shut down because it was uneconomic to run.  He didn’t outline what steps would be taken to make sure it would be turned on when its power was needed.

Grime Minister Turnbull May Take The Cake

Prime Minister Turnbull is usually very careful to ensure he is not the one in his party who says the stupidest thing on any topic, but he may have taken the cake by suggesting South Australians are idiots who aren’t smart enough to know the wind doesn’t blow all the time.

The PM in favour of dirty power, Grime Minister Turnbull, said:

“When they have their biggest heatwave, there is no wind. When there is no wind, all their windmills are not generating electricity and they haven’t planned for that.”

I find it acutely embarrassing that our Prime Minister doesn’t appear to know South Australians are fully aware that heatwaves and minimal wind go together.  This knowledge is baked into our bones.  I think it is something Australians know at a cellular level.  He was raised in Australia, so how could he not know this?  Has anyone seen his birth certificate?  I guess he must have been one of those rich kids whose parents had air conditioning and it has made him out of touch with basic knowledge possessed by everyday Australians.

Let me assure you, Mr Turnbull, South Australians and Australians in general are fully aware of the correlation between heatwaves and a lack of wind.  The Australian Electricity Market Operator (AEMO), which is the national level organization in charge of managing our electricity markets, knew the state had enough dispatchable3 generating capacity to meet demand.  The problem was, not all of it was turned on.

Also, it appears like Mr Turnbull has confused South Australia and the Netherlands.  South Australia has wind turbines while it is the Netherlands that has windmills.  But I guess it’s an easy mistake to make.  Both places are pretty flat and have at least one Dutchman in them.

Tom Koutsantonis Gets Cranky

South Australia’s Energy Minister, Tom Koutsantonis, said he called the AEMO and had a cranky conversation:

“I said to him that the National Electricity Market is a failure and the system is broken. It chose not to turn that generation on.”

The trouble with this is, the AEMO isn’t actually responsible for turning generation on.  Or rather, it would be more accurate to say it chooses to act as though it doesn’t have that responsibility, because it definitely could be argued one of its duties is to keep the lights on.

Why Were Generators Left Sitting Idle?

So why were 250 megawatts at Pelican Point, 120 megawatts at Torrens Island, and 50 megawatts at Port Lincoln left idle instead of being switched on?

  • 120 megawatts at AGL’s Torrens Island Power Station was supposedly shut for maintenance.  In the middle of a heatwave.  Talk about bad timing.
  • Engie’s 50 megawatt diesel generator at Port Lincoln was apparently was also undergoing maintenance in the middle of a heat wave, which is exactly when its output would be in greatest demand.
  • At Pelican Point Power Station, also owned by Engie, 250 megawatts of gas capacity are shut down for no good reason I am aware of.

Engie’s explanation for putting half or more of the plant in mothballs was electricity prices weren’t high enough to keep the whole plant open, but since then they have refused to reopen no matter how high wholesale electricity prices go.  And this is while far less efficient and more costly to run power stations continue to operate.

It is really quite bizarre.  I expected Pelican Point Power Station to come fully online when the Northern Power Station was closed in May last year, but that did not happen.  It returned to full capacity in July last year at the request of the South Australian government, but after a week they were back to under half capacity again.

All I can say is it very lucky for the other generators that the owners of Pelican Point have decided not to run at full capacity, because this has made electricity prices much higher than they would have been otherwise.  AGL was even lucky they had to close down 120 megawatts of capacity for “maintenance” on Wednesday because that helped push up prices even more for Torren Island’s other 1,160 megawatts of generation.

There Is Not Enough Competition In South Australia

If a market does not have perfect competition then it is possible for suppliers to game the system by withholding supply to force up prices.  This is what cartels do and OPEC is probably the most famous example.

In order for competition to be perfect the number of suppliers has to be infinite.  In practice fifty sellers is pretty close to perfect, but in South Australia we’ve got AGL, Engie, Origin, and Energy Australia which makes four.  There’s also electricity imported through the two interconnectors with Victoria, which mostly comes from the same companies.  Far from perfect.

I am not saying that anyone is intentionally withholding supply to drive up prices, I’m just saying it sure as hell looks that way.

Jay Weatherill Spits The Dummy

Yesterday, Jay Weatherill, the South Australian Premier appeared before the press and said he was as mad as a cut snake over the state being screwed over like a brothel mattress by the National Electricity Market and as far as he is concerned the entire NEM can sit on his extended middle digit and rotate until it squeals like a piglet used as a brake pad, because South Australia is going to forge its own electricity future:


If you watched the video above then you probably realize I slightly paraphrased his words.

So it looks like we South Australians live in interesting electrical times.  I don’t know what Weatherill has planned, but it certainly sounds like he has something substantial up his sleeve.

Speculation On Weatherill’s Solution

Australians have not been happy about the huge increases in grid electricity prices we have suffered this decade and the majority of Australians want a clean energy future.  So whatever Weatherill has planned, it could have major national repercussions.

I have no idea what he intends to do, but some possibilities include:

  • Build a new interconnector to bring in electricity from another state
  • Build a state owned gas peaking plant.
  • Introduce capacity payments.  These are payments given to generators to guarantee they will supply a specified amount of power when required.  In Western Australia they ended up as free money for power companies.
  • Provide an incentive for west facing rooftop solar.  This would increase the amount of electricity generated during the late afternoon summer peak.
  • Provide a subsidy for home and business energy storage.  This could also apply to electric vehicles.
  • Invest in utility scale pumped, thermal, cryogenic or other energy storage.
  • Introduce demand management.
  • Nationalize generating assets in South Australia.  Or since it would be happening at the state level that would actually be sub-nationalize generating assets in South Australia.

One thing he won’t be planning is new coal fired generation. Even if that was a feasible technical or economic solution (it isn’t), using coal to try and cope with heatwaves exacerbated by burning too much coal is beyond nutty.


  1. I recently broke mine.
  2. As soon as Australia becomes the 51st state of Trumpistan, it will become an unpresidented event.
  3. Dispatchable generation can be turned on and off as desired and in South Australia mostly consists of gas generation with a small amount of diesel capacity.  Because we can’t control the wind or sun, wind and solar power aren’t dispatchable.
About Ronald Brakels

Joining SolarQuotes in 2015, Ronald has a knack for reading those tediously long documents put out by solar manufacturers and translating their contents into something consumers might find interesting. Master of heavily researched deep-dive blog posts, his relentless consumer advocacy has ruffled more than a few manufacturer's feathers over the years. Read Ronald's full bio.


  1. Good one Ronald I always like a sermon on the mount made of renewables. I think you need to point out to Malcolm that if drops his cross once more he will be out of the procession. Of course when you are not part of the solution you are always going to be the problem. And wasn’t Scotts performance in parliament just fantastic hoping that the pressure he applied would miraculously turn the lump of coal in his hand into a diamond. And of course all those who have installed PV have to be parasites that have worked together to create a failing energy supply system plant of BS available there. When it comes to coal I think the LNP are trying to convince us that it is entirely possible to pick up a turd by the clean end.

  2. Steve Charles says

    Clearly, the system of predicting power demand and bringing capacity on line is broken. Adding more power stations or rooftop solar will not change this and blackouts will occur again until something is done to resolve the systemic power management debacle.
    On top of this, it is not known how many solar installations trip out during the best part of the day due to high line voltages and this makes a mockery of the so celled solar capacity in SA. As more and more solar installations come on line, voltage regulation issues will only get worse. Many people with solar do not check to see if it is working correctly and check only the quarterly bills. If they do check the inverter panel and see it is not working, they blame the inverter, not the fact that it is the high line voltage that has caused it to trip out. My voltage exceeds the upper limit of 253 Volts on most days.
    Renewables are the future and we need more in SA, but this will require much better management of our existing infrastructure. We have a management failure, not a renewables failure as bleated by some pollies.

  3. Engie – unlike AGL – aren’t vertically integrated. It makes more sense for AGL to run Torrens Island to meet their own contracted demand than for PPCCGT to operate intermediate load at times.

    There were a few contributing factors this time but essentially boiled down to lack of available supply. Didn’t help wind forecasting was a bit off target as well.

    Forcing generators online is one option the regulator has but not a good one long term – artificial manipulation of the market is bad enough without this occurring. QLD government owned generators are making handsome dividends by gaming the market at present for example.

    Also of note is the forecast LOR3 for NSW this afternoon.

  4. Richard Maddever says

    How feasible to have short term storage now with RFX battery technology.
    100 mw to avoid recent shutdown for a million or two?

  5. Mal November 6 says

    Sell of all the assets to private companys and this is what happens.Not rocket science.

  6. jamie leigh says

    Something very stinky going on with all this…
    It smells like a set it up to slander renewable energy…

  7. simon mason says

    In the short term, nationalise all fossil fuel generators in the state and operate them in a coordinated, least cost manner to meet demand.
    In the medium term, build the additional interconnector to NSW.
    in the longer term, build substantial (GW) solar thermal capacity around Port Augusta and Whyalla along with further solar PV and wind deployments.

    Weatherill even has the template provided by Thomas Playford to follow.

  8. We can’t be the only ones thinking that citizens have to fightback against govt stupidity and/duplicity.

    Please run some numbers on back up batteries with standalone solar for those with and without grid connected solar. Our 2007 1.7kW solar panels pay for our small usage via the Powershop 68c FIT but that doesn’t help with blackouts. We want to add more panels with storage to maximise the FIT and give us blackout protection for at least frig, lighting and computers. Air con might be a necessity at some time in the future but I doubt most can afford the sort of battery storage that could accommodate them.

    I see every solar panel as being a sign of civil disobedience and a message for all our politicians as they fly over town and country. We are not wealthy but I would get more fun out of additional solar panels than spending 1.75M buying a prime ministership.

    • Batteries make financial sense at about $800.00 kW. Going off grid is really not an option in a suburban environment where your on demand backup might have to be a Generator [noise issue]. The trick with batteries is their charge and discharge rating. We have an Enphase 1.2 kW battery which has a maximum charge and discharge rate of about 240 watt-hours. If at any point your consumption is more than that you have to have access to an energy source to supply the consumption shortfall. The other issue is that during any one day you might not have enough surplus PV production to charge the battery/s. Optimising a domestic system is a task not as simple as you might think. They say the average consumption for a household should be about 17 kWh per day but in our case we have consumed upwards of 50 kWh on any one day this month February. So far this month our average per day has been grid usage 23 kWh feed in 5.3 kWh PV Production 22 kWh Consumption 40 kWh [Lots of hot and rainy overcast days]. These results were produced with an Enphase 5.75 kW micro inverter system plus the previously mentioned 1.2 kW Battery. Our consumption tends to be higher during the rainy season here in FNQ. So on these figures I would probably have to upgrade to a 10 kW PV system and a minimum of 6 kW Storage. The other bit of clever distributor anti PV strategy is that our supplier will not allow us to upgrade from a 5 kW system up to 30 kW without changing from single to three phase. Together with the cost of the new digital meter that installation is about $1,500 – $2,000 alone before you do anything else. One would be forgiven for believing that those costs are an attempt to restrict the number of PV installations to 5 kW. And of course the other gotcha soon to be introduced are Seasonal Demand Charges where you pay a fixed fee to have available power at peak consumption times which you might or might not use. Our return on investment [ROI] tax free is about 14.00% and payback approximately 6 years with our current system and a reduction in energy cost about 50%. We are currently crunching the numbers on upgrading our on the Roof PV to either 8 – 10 kW and Storage to 7.2 kW.

  9. AEMO’s demand forecasting and dispatch process is fine. What is failing is the bid process. It is being manipulated and we’re all paying for it. For a dispatchable generator to abstain from the market at any time nevermind when they knew wholesale prices would be high is simply gaming the market and an attempt to blame renewables for failing to deliver. But we all know it’s an own goal.

    The future? Will include storage.
    Not a huge amount is required to properly stabilise and form the grid, but as the proportion of renewables increases so should the storage capacity.
    And quite frankly most of the future investment into the industry needs to be in storage.

    • I agree as the battery market matures it will make financial sense to store your own PV production rather than sell it for the average spot price [0.5c – 0.7c]. At some point of time in the future unless they change their business model generators and distributors will be substantially reduced to providing backup energy. At the very least it is going to force them to think about pricing. Without PV our annual cost would be $3,500 with PV about $1,500 and with our planned upgrade we should be able to get the annual cost to about $500 [network cost only no usage]. So who gets to pay the $3,000 loss of income?

  10. And with the increasing prevalence of power blackouts, I would suggest anyone who is going solar ensures that their panels will still be able to run their premises if the mains power drops out. Mine didn’t and I found out that the W.A. regulations are skewed towards an external blackout also nuking the panels on my roof. Just another trap for the unwary.

    • Essentially any property with a solar system that DOES NOT also have battery storage as well, WILL NOT provide power when the grid goes down. So that is the vast majority of solar systems out there. No battery = no back-up.

      To have power when the grid goes down you will need a proper hybrid inverter system. Which may or may not be part of a battery storage system.

      • Ronald Brakels says

        It is possible to have a hybrid inverter (also known as a multimode inverter) that will allow rooftop solar power to be used without batteries, but they are not common. Managing the load with such a system can be difficult as obviously output will vary through the day. But it can be used in combination with a generator.

        For most people, either a small generator or just putting up with not having power is probably the most cost effective way to deal with infrequent blackouts.

  11. You say you don’t see why Pelican bay did not jump in? It may be very simple: the mwh wholesale price is capped at 100 grands, so when demand peaks, it’s possible that the plant decides to not bid to deliver the additional power, because it’s not worth it. You say there’s not enough competition? But what fossil fuels electricity operator wants to invest knowing they’ll be crushed in the years to come by more push in renewables and taxes on fossil fuels? Yeah. None. Renewables have to come with more tolerance towards price peaks. The only way around it is storage. Stop thinking you can somehow work around the market. You cannot.

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