Criticising South Australia’s battery for not meeting peak demand is akin to raging at your smartphone because it can’t send a fax
- Ketan Joshi is a communications consultant for the renewable energy industry
‘Lithium ion batteries are perfectly suited to our millisecond needs – they’re quick to build and incredibly responsive, with no moving parts.’ Photograph: Reuters
Wednesday 12 July 2017 12.10 AEST Last modified on Wednesday 12 July 2017 12.42 AEST
The Australian electricity grid’s most recently announced extremity is a gargantuan battery system in South Australia, designed to bolster grid security. The facility has been met mostly with a warm welcome, interspersed with weird, interesting and tense hostility. Buried in the mix of reactions are clues about how a new phase of grid transition might play out, as we switch from the rapid build out of zero carbon power sources to building and integrating them into a system designed for fossil fuels.
Before we interrogate the misunderstandings of South Australia’s new battery, we have to step back and look at the system as a single, electric organism.
The National Electricity Market (NEM) (Western Australia is excluded – it’s made up several smaller grids) is long, thin and connected by a web of wires. It’s Australia’s biggest machine. Within the bowels of this machine, every millisecond, a balance is struck between power generated and power consumed. When a big chunk of either disappears suddenly, like several voltage-tripped wind farms did in response to fallen power line last September, the balance (frequency) is thrown off. If this balance veers too dramatically outside a safe operating envelope, the grid shudders to a halt.
The Australian Energy Market Operator, Aemo, sits at the helm of Australia’s biggest machine, pulling many thousands of levers to keep frequency – the fine balance of supply and demand – within an acceptable band. They monitor how fast frequency changes, and they use a variety of tools to wrestle it back into the safe envelope when they spy it heading out of the safe zone. In addition to millisecond frequency changes, Aemo works at an hourly level, ensuring supply meets demand – managing plant availability and resource availability (using wind and solar forecasts, and hydro reserve levels).
In the even-longer-term, policymakers and regulators have to start planning for the looming retirement of Australia’s ageing, increasingly obsolete generation technology. This trio of timescales underpinning grid security is neatly summarised in this Bloomberg graphic, outlining how renewable energy necessitates a more complex management of grid security:
South Australia’s new battery system is designed, very specifically, to address the “controlling frequency” chunk of the reliability challenge – another tool in Aemo’s toolbox for wrestling frequency into that safe range, by pulling the levers of the market.
Lithium ion batteries are perfectly suited to our millisecond needs – they’re quick to build and incredibly responsive, with no moving parts. As opposed to major projects like coal-fired power stations and pumped hydro, these plants can spring up quite quickly.
Other battery systems are better suited to the middle, minute-level chunk of the grid security challenge, such as Australian company Lyon’s SA-based solar/battery combo with a potential expanded capacity of 500 megawatt hours – just under four times the potential duration of Tesla’s wind-connected beast.
South Australia’s new battery is a very specific answer to a very specific question. The nuances of the question are understandably impenetrable for the vast majority of energy consumers, and, less forgivably, a worrying number of commentators.
Federal MP George Christensen criticised the storage system for not meeting peak demand, as did the deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, Senator Malcolm Roberts and a range of conservative columnists at various media outlets. Senator Cory Bernardi seems to believe the battery will only generate power for 15 minutes during its lifespan. The assumption underlying these arguments is very odd: that any new infrastructure must be able to meet all statewide demand for a very long time.
The misunderstanding stems from the confusion between timescales. An hour seems tiny in the context of the endless days of a hot summer, but it’ll be an eternity in those milliseconds when a sudden, rapid injection of power is needed to halt a rapid skew in the balance between supply and demand. Criticising SA’s battery for not meeting peak demand is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nuances of grid security. Alan Jones is furious at a pair of scissors because he has correctly predicted it’ll take quite some time to mow his lawn with them.
Part of why this blinkered understanding of grid security exists is an intense dependence on the word “baseload”. It’s an outdated way of understanding the complex and increasingly dynamic interplay between supply and demand on the grid – Australia’s biggest machine is changing, piece by piece.
The technologies and philosophies of grid management are shifting under our feet. Though the outcomes are largely the same – power flows into our appliances when we summon it – the changes underneath the hood are going to be huge. Assuming new grid technologies will precisely replicate the service provided by hulking power stations is akin to raging at your smartphone because it can’t send a fax. It gets the job done, but it does it in a smarter, more connected way.
There’s more to this story than a disconnection between grid knowledge, or a denial of big grid changes. Part of the ferocity response comes too from how uniquely tripartisan these moments will be. Technologies that aren’t held as symbolic of political allegiances are poor candidates for cultural and ideological sparring. Tony Abbott, who recently called for a federal prohibition on converting the kinetic energy of wind to electricity, has left the battery news well alone.
SA’s energy plan was welcomed by LNP voters, Labor voters and Greens voters alike. A flexible, responsive grid creates an incredibly diverse collection of economic opportunities for startups to capitalise on clever solutions, and it clears the way for rapid emissions reductions on the grid. Consumers are happy too, met with the opportunity to save money on their bills as they become active participants in the traditionally passive process of consuming electricity. These efforts to integrate renewables and update grid technology exist so distant from the baffling trenches of the wind turbine culture wars. There’s no doubt this inspires frustration.
Storage technologies, whether they’re electronic tweezers used to tweak millisecond-level frequency changes or whether they’re long-running technologies servicing weeks of demand, are in the crosshairs because they’re likely to hasten emissions reductions while shoring up reliability in a grid built on a new philosophy of flexibility. Every new piece of the puzzle will be attacked because it doesn’t resolve a complete picture, and judged on ludicrous standards not applied to existing fossil fuels.
There is some real optimism to be found in this state of affairs. If much of this reaction is due to a shifting, more technologically advanced energy system being infertile ground for long-running spats and ideological wrangling, so be it. Australia’s biggest machine is going to transition in tiny increments. If the ecosystem of misunderstanding that has enveloped energy policy discourse for decades loses its lustre, the transition to a low-carbon, reliable, cheap grid might be quicker than we expect.