Renewable Energy under a Cloud

Renewable Energy under a Cloud

On 13 October, the air conditioners went out in Alice Springs. 12,000 people were without power for up to 10 hours. Not ideal in 39 degree heat…

It was the third ‘system black’ for Alice Springs since 2015 and the ninth ‘incident’ since then.

In other words, Alice has been struggling with its electricity of late. But why?

Now, I read about what had happened on the ABC and NT News websites. But there was absolutely no mention of what had actually gone wrong that day in their two articles. What had caused the blackout?

The media reported in astonishing detail how government incompetence was to blame and why people have been fired. There were investigations which revealed people couldn’t find the right manuals. Nobody knew who was supposed to restart the grid. And so on and so forth.

But no mention of the initial cause.

At the bottom of the ABC News story about the drama was hidden the tag ‘solar-energy’. Meaning someone at the ABC had identified the article as topical for anyone interested in solar energy, even though the word ‘solar’ didn’t get a single mention in the article.


Well, Alice Springs is heavily reliant on solar power. And on 13 October, this happened according to a report from the Utilities Commission:

The output of Uterne solar station was relatively constant at around 3.3 MW until 1:43 PM. At 1:43 PM a cloud passed over the station and station output became highly variable with reductions in output to as low as 0.5 MW.

Yes, a cloud laid low a town’s electricity supply for 10 hours. And it’s not like there are many other towns nearby you can go to for relief.

As the Katherine Times put it:

The NT’s claim to be home to one of the world’s leading solar energy resources lost some of its shine yesterday. All because of a cloud.’

The sudden drop in solar power wreaked havoc on the city’s grid. Rooftop panels experienced the same sudden loss of power at the same time as the main station, adding household demand to a depleted supply all in the same moment. A perfect solar storm, you might say.

But as the Utilities Commission pointed out, even in Alice Springs, the prospect of clouds is foreseeable:

Reduction in solar generation due to cloud which precipitated the system black is not considered a root cause of the system black, as a power system should be designed as far as practical to be sufficiently robust to withstand this.

In other words, don’t blame the cloud. Not that I’m sure who would.

And don’t blame solar either. Don’t even mention solar in your news article about what went wrong.

Blame human error

Blame human error — clouded judgement. Clouded by a renewable energy frenzy perhaps?

The lack of backup power was the key issue in the end. The thing is, there was backup power. A battery and gas backup both failed too.

And what’s the point of solar if you need gas standing by for every cloud that passes by?

Solar power critics jumped on the event. If you have to maintain backup power for cloud cover incidents, how does solar power compare in terms of costs? The same for wind.

Having a gas power station sitting there waiting for clouds is expensive, I’m assuming. And it must add a lot to solar’s CO2 emissions on cloudy days in any fair comparison.

A quick hunt around the internet and I found next to nothing on the topic. What is an ‘all in’ realistic cost and emissions level for solar when you include the required backups?

Perhaps we now know why Australia’s electricity prices are so high, despite the cost of renewables supposedly plunging.

Now I don’t pretend to know enough about any of this to stake a claim any which way. Eventually renewable energy will be better, I’m guessing.

My question for you today is whether this sort of shemozzle is just part of life under climate change — something we will come to accept. Or is it enough of a problem that renewables will be hampered wherever they’re implemented?

The Alice Springs hospital was down for about 30 minutes before its emergency power supply kicked in. If renewable energy costs human lives instead of just wildlife, how popular will it be for long?

Then there’s the plan to power Singapore with solar panels situated in the Northern Territory. The Guardian reports investment in the project is underway:

The desert outside Tennant Creek, deep in the Northern Territory, is not the most obvious place to build and transmit Singapore’s future electricity supply. Though few in the southern states are yet to take notice, a group of Australian developers are betting that will change.

I think I can see storm clouds gathering over the project…

Can you imagine if Singapore was laid low because of bad weather in Australia?

It’s easy to think about events in Alice as growing pains for a brighter future, pun intended. And I hope that’s true.

But I’m worried about the green bubble — the ‘grubble’. It’s struggling everywhere I look. Electric vehicle sales plunge when governments don’t subsidise them, people are protesting against windmills, and the cost of electricity and renewable energy companies keep hitting the news as disaster stories instead of success stories. It seems to me the tide is turning on green energy.

You know something has reached its peak when central bankers support it. And that’s become a fad of late. The ECB might even be reformed to include climate change in its mandate.

My deeper concern is that, when renewables finally do become viable, they’ll be held back by the interest groups which rely on government support to keep their inefficient failed investments of the past viable.

Mark my words — the renewable energy source that should be rolled out won’t be. Because it would upset the incumbent industry too much. Imagine the amount of invested money that would’ve been wasted if a viable energy source popped up…

Sound absurd? Then have a read about the history of Thorium and Uranium nuclear reactors. You’ll discover exactly how interest groups will undermine renewables too.

It’s stories like those, which you won’t find elsewhere, which make our publishing company flourish. Thorium was one of my first discoveries, back when I was on your side of the screen — a reader of our work.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble Signature

Nick Hubble,
For The Daily Reckoning Australia