On Wednesday evening a significant storm took out the entire South Australian electricity grid. Most suburbs were blacked out for at least 4 hours, businesses closed and traffic snarled slowly home as it navigated a city in darkness without traffic signals.
The population is in shock. Nothing like this normally happens.
It would be wrong to compare the storm to Superstorm Sandy which devastated New York and left some inner city suburbs without power for 2 weeks. But the surprise we’ve experienced is worth dwelling on because, like New York, this moment could be a catalyst for a better electricity system.
New York’s ‘reforming the energy vision‘ or REV process is the talk of the town across the USA and micro grids is today’s buzzword. In 2014 Governor Cuomo announced $40million in prizes for communities that build local energy supplies, aiming to increase the resilience of New York State’s electricity infrastructure.
Those in charge of the process have a vision. Audrey Zibelman has come from the cleantech sector, she understands the opportunities that new technology is presenting and the need to reform the entire electricity system to get the most benefits. Richard Kauffman emphasises the opportunity to make the electricity grid a more efficient investment, ‘can you believe that this asset is so poorly utilised and utilisation is getting worse?’, He asks.
Halfway around the world in Japan, a similar conclusion has been reached in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. In Higashimatsushima, a development with replacement homes for those who lost theirs in 2011 is the site of a smart grid experiment aimed at community resilience. The electricity infrastructure feeding the 85 households includes solar power, battery storage and backup biodiesel generation. It can operate self sufficiently if power is lost in the region and, during prolonged blackouts, can service the hospitals and community hall. The community has embraced the new system enthusiastically and talk about the benefits. These are citizens that have already lost their homes in one disaster – and they are keen to see their micro-grid play a role in the broader region if they have power while others don’t.
After Wednesday, we are focused on the value of energy security. It’s a no-brainer that we should build a renewable energy grid that works aswell, if not better than the current system.
So let me offer one last story, this one based in Denmark. Many of you may know that Denmark had a key policy moment in the 70’s when it decided not to pursue nuclear energy and instead set about diversifying its energy mix and making it more efficient. The small wind turbines that littered the countryside in the 90’s heralded the start of its famous wind industry. Many villages invested in combined heat and power generators (DCHP) to produce electricity and feed waste heat into district heating networks. The picture above shows the decentralised nature of energy supply by the middle of last decade. And so an experiment was born to see if this could be converted into energy resilience. The Cell Controller project tested if a whole region could be disconnected from the main grid and continue to keep the lights on. This was done with variable loads, unknown wind supply, a controllable CHPgenerator and some battery storage.
We are almost ten years on from the Danish experiment and technology is moving apace. South Australia needs to have a serious discussion about the shape of its future grid and how to build the infrastructure that will benefit us the most. I have no doubt this will involve some commitment to experiments and innovation – not processes the electricity regime is renown for. Superstorm Sandy did it for New York. Let’s hope this latest event can be used as a catalyst to force some future planning and design into our energy market.