Guest essay by Eric Worrall
During the recent statewide blackout in South Australia, there is no doubt that unstable output from wind farms triggered the cascade of events which caused the power outage. The question is – are wind farm operators liable for the economic harm their “product” caused?
Lawsuit looms over South Australia wind shutdown
South Australian businesses left without power could form a class action after it was revealed yesterday nine of the state’s 13 wind farms tripped or reduced output during last month’s storms because of a “software issue”.
Litigation funder IMF Bentham said the statewide blackout was on the company’s radar as state Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis warned of “lawyers at 20 paces everywhere”.
The Australian Energy Market Operator yesterday released an update to its preliminary report on the September 28 blackout. It identified six voltage disturbances which occurred in the network and also downed transmission towers, triggering the “ride through voltage” systems of nine wind farms.
The wind farm systems tripped as a result, causing them either to shut down or to reduce their output, pushing 445MW of electricity demand on to the Heywood interconnector linking South Australia to Victoria.
With the sudden rush in demand, the interconnector shut down to protect itself and isolated the state from the national grid.
“We knew this storm was coming, could there have been better preparation? I think so,” Mr Koutsantonis said.
The turbines affected remained on the factory settings and were installed unchanged, he said. “It wasn’t wind energy per se that caused this black system; it was a software glitch.”
The Institute of Public Affairs seized on the report. “The report shows that the five operating thermal generators powered through the storm, in contrast to the wind turbines that turned themselves off,” said Brett Hogan, research director at the free-market think tank. “Australia is a land of heat, cold and other weather extremes. At these times in particular, households and businesses need safe and reliable electricity.”
The Clean Energy Council said there was no evidence to show the power system would have stayed running if wind farms had not tripped off in an unsafe electrical environment.
The agency pointed to the finding in the AEMO report that five transmission line faults resulting in six voltage disturbances on the network “led to the SA region black system”.
The following is an excerpt from the AEMO report referenced by The Australian.
In this updated report, it is now known that five system faults occurred within a period of 88 seconds on 28 September 2016, leading to six voltage disturbances.
Data now shows that nine of the 13 wind farms online at the time of the event did not ride through the six voltage disturbances, resulting in a loss of 445 MW of generation. Preliminary discussions with wind farm operators suggest this inability to ride through all disturbances was due to ‘voltage ride-through’ settings set to disconnect or reduce turbine output when between three to six disturbances are detected within a defined time period.
Thermal generators remained connected up until the SA system disconnected from the remainder of the National Electricity Market (NEM). The Heywood Interconnector remained connected up until the sudden increase in electricity flow resulting from the loss of generation caused the automatic protection mechanism to disconnect the lines.
This affair could go very badly for wind farm operators.
Serious players, large mining and manufacturing companies, are making big claims against their insurance policies or reporting large losses to shareholders, because of the damage the South Australian blackout caused to their operations. The insurance companies are facing millions of dollars of payouts. The only option for recovering all those millions is to sue whoever was responsible, to sue wind farm operators, or possibly to sue the South Australian Government, if the courts determine that government energy policies rather than wind farm operators are to blame for the loss.
The comments by South Australian State Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis suggest the state will vigorously oppose any attempt to pin the blame on the government. Suggesting the problem was caused by turbines which had been misconfigured, left on their “default settings”, in my opinion suggests that Mr. Koutsantonis thinks the turbine operators were negligent.
Even if wind operators manage to wriggle out of legal and financial liability for the South Australian disaster, the world is watching – unless operators find an acceptable solution to the problems which caused the wind farms to abruptly disconnect from the grid, it is only a matter of time before something similar happens again. Reconfiguring turbines to be more tolerant of voltage disturbances might have prevented the wind turbines from going offline, but more fault tolerance might also create a higher risk of damaging voltage spikes and other electricity supply problems.
Whatever happens in this case, one thing seems clear. The financial risk of being a wind farm operator just skyrocketed.