Meltdowns and ramp-ups

Early in January Sydney was dubbed the hottest place on earth when the mercury hit 47.3C. Temperatures during the last weekend in January then soared in Victoria which resulted in an overload on air conditioning systems. The record demand – which peaked around 6pm with more than 9.2 GW – triggered fuse faults at electricity substations, causing a series of blackouts that impacted tens of thousands of suburban households.

In this instance the spotlight was put on the failure of electricity networks rather than a lack of supply, and Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews stepped in to question the high cost of network maintenance charges that are reflected in household energy bills.

Suggesting Victorian consumers were being “ripped off” by power companies, the Premier called for compensation for the 90,000 households impacted by outages. (Spare a thought for avid tennis followers affected by power cuts and unable to tune in to the finals of the Australian Open.)

AEMO emphasised that the power cuts had nothing to do with last year’s closure of coal fired power station Hazelwood and that there was more than enough capacity in Victoria’s energy grid that day, and no lack of reserve, despite the state’s new record for peak power demand.

According to AEMC, 90 per cent of all power failures in the five years to 2010 were caused by a failure of distribution and just 1.2 per cent of blackouts across the NEM was caused by a lack of capacity.

The question is how the network will cope with warmer weather and higher peak power demand in coming years. And if you think the past few years have been hotter than normal, you are correct, data just in confirms the world experienced its hottest five years from 2013 to 2017.

The release of the news coincided with the Climate Council publication ‘2017: Record-breaking Year for Heat and Extreme Weather which illustrates broken records for hot, dry conditions with more than 260 heat and low rainfall records broken throughout winter.

The record is part of a sharp, long-term upswing in global temperatures, with 17 out of the 18 years hottest years on record all occurring in this century. In other key findings, 2017 was the third hottest year ever recorded, and the world’s 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998, with seven of the ten hottest years on record in Australia happening since 2005. Five of the seven have occurred the past five years.

The Climate Council says increasing global heat, driven primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, exacerbated extreme weather events around the globe and in Australia during 2017.

But are we reaching a tipping point on home shores, given the stellar projections for solar PV – clean energy – this year?

New highs for solar PV installations were set in 2017 with 1340 MW operational by the end of December with close to five million solar panels commissioned. Queensland and NSW were the biggest markets for solar PV in 2017 accounting for 33 per cent and 25 per cent share respectively, according to Green Energy Markets.

The residential market remained the mainstay of the PV industry during 2017, accounting for 64 per cent of total installations and the commercial sector tallied 18 per cent while utility-scale installations reached 185 MW (DC) in 2017.

Impressive though the figures are, during 2018 the industry is on track to commission 2.6 times this level of solar PV with an additional 13 million solar panels installed adding more than 3500 MW, inclusive of large-scale solar projects under construction: more than 2,300 MW (DC) of utility-scale projects will be commissioned in 2018.

The Green Energy Markets chart below illustrates the magnitude of the market.

Solar PV capacity installed in Australia (MW DC)

GEM’s Ric Brazzale attributes the dramatic increase in the level of installations to heightened media attention on blackouts and energy security along with higher power prices; events that have bolstered investment in energy independence by households and businesses.

Victoria’s recent blackouts could lend greater impetus to the solar PV market.