1.3 million homes could be hit by power blackouts this summer

Living Well | Story: Larissa Dubecki | Illustrations: The Project Twins | Photos: Matt Harvey | Posted on 18 December 2019

Summer power cuts: why you might be left in the dark.

Summer is here once again, which means ice-cream, swimming pools and arguments about the reliability of Victoria’s power supply. Hot on the heels of last summer’s record-breaking heatwave, the Bureau of Meteorology is predicting yet another season of scorching temperatures. 

It signals a potentially challenging summer for our electricity supplies as ageing coal-fired power plants fail to keep up with demand and the grid struggles to integrate the rapid growth of renewable energy sources.

In August, the Australian Energy Market Operator, which runs the nation’s power grid, warned that 1.3 million Victorian households could be hit by blackouts this summer if repairs to a unit at AGL’s Loy Yang A coal-fired plant and Origin Energy’s Mortlake gas plant are not completed by their late-December deadline.

Energy illustration

Last summer’s blackouts, which affected about 50,000 Victorian households and businesses on 24 and 25 January, have been blamed on a range of culprits, including a lack of coal and gas-fired power and too much renewable energy. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is that it’s no fun to be without power in 40-degree heat. 

So what’s the likelihood of such an event happening again? 

“The origin of the concern is old coal and new gas generators which have had major outages and proved incapable of keeping up with the system,” says director of the Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Bruce Mountain. 

He says the energy market operator shares his concerns and has already set up contracts that can be activated at short notice, with large power users and demand management groups to reduce their power usage when demand is forecast to exceed supply. 

“It’s not necessary to panic,” says Bruce. “There is foresight of the situation – but the underlying problem rests with the old decrepit coal generators that are just not keeping up.”

Australia’s electricity system is undergoing a rapid and seismic transformation. Rooftop solar has been embraced so enthusiastically that we now have the highest penetration of residential rooftop solar in the world – currently there are around 2.15 million Australian solar homes – and a growing uptake of battery storage. The AEMO predicts that by 2040, rooftop solar will account for the highest generation capacity in the network, surpassing coal-fired power.  

At the same time a host of large solar farms are springing up around Victoria. The biggest to date opened earlier this year at Numurkah with 373,839 photovoltaic panels spread over 515 hectares, producing 120 megawatts of electricity that will partly power Melbourne’s tram network. The Numurkah farm’s French owner Neoen is also developing a $350 million, 200MW wind farm with 56 turbines on an old gold mine site near Stawell in western Victoria. Neoen is one of three operators granted a permit to build new solar farms near Shepparton. 

While all this new renewable energy production looks promising for the state government’s new Renewable Energy Target of 50 per cent by 2030, a problem lies in the fact our 20th-century electricity infrastructure has not been set up for 21st-century renewables. Designed to handle large amounts of power from a handful of coal-fired power stations, the poles and wires that make up our power grid struggle to provide reliability when handling input from a large number of renewable sources. 

Yet while last summer’s blackouts have sparked calls by the coal lobby for new coal-fired power stations to be built, they remain the outliers in the debate.   

“Instead of coal, the smarter solution is more interconnection to other states, battery storage or pumped hydro or other forms of generation that aren’t dependent on wind or sun,” says research fellow Dylan McConnell from the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College. “Although the lack of a national framework means no one is making these investments.” 

Energy statistics
Green power illustration

Australia has the highest penetration of residential rooftop solar in the world – and a growing uptake of battery storage.

“A separate challenge to reliability and blackouts is that the grid has really good infrastructure going to coal plants. But where we have good solar and wind resources, on the other hand, we don’t have good transmission.”  

The state’s north-west, which is home to numerous large-scale wind and solar projects, has been labelled the “rhombus of death” due to question marks over the necessary system strength to accommodate all the projects planned for the area.

That will be one of the challenges facing the tiny Wimmera town of Natimuk as the local community plans a small-scale, community-owned solar farm, which it hopes will enable a 100 per cent renewable energy future. Natimuk Community Energy plans to install 4572 solar panels on 1.6 hectares outside town that can generate enough electricity to power the 500-strong community.

Project president Edwin Irvine says, “The land we’ll lease is a massive paddock that we only require a small part of. It will still have grazing sheep, and they’ll be able to stand under the panels for shade.”

He hopes the farm will serve as an example to encourage other communities. “We want the solar farm to be in an obvious place so people can see that we’re proud of it.” 

Emblematic of a growing community energy sector taking back ownership of their own energy generation – other towns include Yackandandah and Newstead – Natimuk Community Energy has received a $339,000 state government grant to work towards approvals, studies and design.

The project still has plenty of hurdles to jump, not the least the capacity of the superconnector, but Edwin is confident it will come to fruition. “Ideally we’ll see the build begin after harvest in 2022.”

A significant concern for this and other projects in the pipeline is that solar penetration has reached a “tipping point” where aging infrastructure cannot cope with further growth in renewables. 

In September the AEMO issued a clarion call as part of its “Grid of the Future” review, for distribution network businesses to make urgent reforms to increase access to the network for new solar connections.

“Failure to act now would mean either fewer people are able to export solar to the grid, or all consumers will pay more to build new substations and poles and wires that are rarely needed,” AEMO chairman John Pierce warned.

Key to reform is transforming the existing one-way grid, where a handful of coal-fired power stations feed power to consumers, into a dynamic platform for production and consumption of energy, in which millions of power sources can feed into and draw from the grid as required.

To that end, there is increasing focus on “demand-response initiatives” which provide incentives for users to switch off non-essential power guzzlers during periods of peak demand. This summer, as they did last year, electricity distributors will offer eligible customers cash incentives and prizes for turning off non-essentials such as pool pumps and air-conditioners for three-hour periods on so-called ‘event’ days.

“It takes the edge off the hottest days – generally those that are predicted to be over 34 degrees, and roughly from 3pm to 7.30pm,” a United Energy spokesman says of the company’s Summer Saver program. “It’s behavioural change we’re looking to implement, that affects people over maybe six days in a summer instead of investing millions of dollars in infrastructure with the costs passed down to customers.” 

AEMO is also setting up a national database of what it calls ‘distributed energy resources’, or DERs, which include household solar systems, batteries, electric vehicle chargers and other devices that can feed power back into the grid during times of peak demand. Starting from 1 December, installers will be required to register each new system in the DER database, which will lay the foundation for a dynamic two-way energy system. 

“The main thing is visibility,” explains DER program manager, Chris Cormack. “Right now we don’t really know where all the devices are. This will give us a much greater level of granularity and we can manage the system better because of it.” 

Also in the pipeline are several pilot studies examining the feasibility of peer-to-peer energy trading, whereby energy generators, be they individual households with rooftop solar or larger wind or solar farms, trade directly with energy users, without going through an electricity retailer. The parties agree when and how much power will be traded, either for a one-off transaction or over an agreement lasting weeks or even years.

One such trial in Melbourne is using blockchain technology to enable neighbours to share or trade power. Spearheaded by AGL Energy with support from the Australian Renewable Energy agency, the trial involves various combinations of household solar panels, batteries and smart air-conditioners to investigate how peer-to-peer trading might affect energy markets generally and how a peer-to-peer market might be developed.  

In five years’ time we could expect to see the grid immeasurably changed and its one-way flow become a two-way highway, augmented by the adoption of initiatives such as grid-scale batteries, capable of storing energy for an entire suburb.  

For now though, households wrestling with some of the highest prices in the world are receptive to practical measures that appeal to their hip-pocket nerve.

It goes some way to explaining why monthly allocations for the Victorian government’s $2225 solar home rebate are so quickly exhausted. The government was forced to triple its monthly rebate quota in September after the entire August quota was exhausted in less than 90 minutes.  

“First and foremost, solar is saving households money,” says Kieran Davies, RACV’s solar senior product manager. “In around five years, a rooftop system would comfortably have paid for itself. A typical Australian home can produce as much power as it uses during the day from rooftop solar. As the infrastructure adapts and evolves it will only become a more attractive proposition.”

And while that infrastructure catches up, Victorians are taking energy into their own hands. 

Edwin Irvine

Natimuk Community Energy project president Edwin Irvine.

Solar panels on roofs

Rooftop solar has been embraced enthusiastically.

What to do in a power cut

Last January’s blackouts hit 200,000 Victorian households when a heatwave overloaded the system, but outages can hit anywhere and any time.

Severe weather such as storms, high winds, lightning, floods and heatwaves are often to blame, especially if wild weather causes trees to fall across powerlines.

As Victorians brace for summer outages, here’s what to do in a blackout.

Before an outage ensure you have:

  • A charged mobile phone.
  • Alternatives to mains lighting such as torches, LED lanterns, candles or even head lamps.
  • A battery-powered radio for updates on outages and weather.
  • A generator or battery power if you have life-saving equipment.
  • A list of important phone numbers, including power distributors.

During an outage: 

  • Turn off and unplug all electrical appliances to prevent damage from a power surge when electricity is restored.
  • Check if your neighbours have lost power and if they haven’t, check that your safety switch hasn’t tripped.
  • Offer support to neighbours and relatives, especially the disabled and elderly.
  • Move food from the fridge to your freezer and open fridge or freezer doors only when necessary.
  • Put an insulation blanket over food.

After an outage:

  • If food is no longer cold to touch (less than five degrees) it can be eaten within four hours or must be thrown away.
  • People who experience long or frequent power outages in a year may be eligible for compensation. Check with your electricity distribution company.
Kylie Chappell

Kylie says the elderly and the ill are at risk during power blackouts.

When the lights went out

As temperatures soared past 40 degrees in January, Kylie Chappell was one of hundreds of thousands of Victorians left without power – just when it was needed most.

A rolling blackout hit 200,000 households from 1.30pm on 25 January, leaving people without air conditioning at the peak of a heatwave, including vulnerable people like Kylie.

When the temperature hit 42.8 degrees in Melbourne and Avalon recorded the day’s state high of 45.6 degrees, Kylie retreated to an ice bath at her Glenroy home.

“I had a heart transplant when I was 13 and my medication affects my kidney function,” she says.  “I’m at risk of dehydration and heat stroke and was already feeling giddy when the power went out.”

Kylie, 41, says she watched the temperature gauge inside her house quickly rise to 38 degrees as she tended to her pets until she realised she was feeling unwell.

She says because there was no warning, she couldn’t plan around the outage.

Kylie, an ambassador of the Shaun Miller Foundation which raises awareness of congenital heart disease, says the elderly and the ill are at risk during power blackouts.