Why is the Australian energy regulator suing wind farms – and why now?



Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is suing four of the wind farms involved in the 2016 South Australian blackout – run by AGL Energy, Neoen Australia, Pacific Hydro, and Tilt Renewables – alleging they breached generator performance standards and the national electricity rules.

These proceedings appear to contradict the conclusions of a 2018 report which said while the AER had found some “administrative non-compliance”, it did not intend to take formal action given the “unprecedented circumstances”.




Read more:
What caused South Australia’s state-wide blackout?


However the AER has since said this report focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the blackout, not the event itself. The case hinges on whether the wind farms failed to provide crucial information during the blackout which hindered recovery.

In particular, the AER is arguing the software protecting the wind farms should have been able to cope with voltage disturbances and provide continuous energy supply. On the face of it, however, this will be extremely difficult to prove.

Rehashing the 2016 blackout

The 2016 South Australian blackout was triggered by a severe storm that hit the state on September 28. Tornadoes with wind speeds up to 260 km/h raced through SA, and a single-circuit 275-kilovolt transmission line was struck down.




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After this, 170km away, a double-circuit 275kV transmission line was lost. This transmission damage caused the lines to trip and a series of subsequent faults resulted in six voltage dips on the South Australian grid at 4.16pm.

As the faults escalated, eight wind farms in SA had their protection settings activated. This allowed them to withstand the voltage dip by automatically reducing power. Over a period of 7 seconds, 456 megawatts of power was removed. This reduction caused an increase in power to flow through the Heywood interconnector. This in turn triggered a protection mechanism for the interconnecter that tripped it offline.

Once this happened, SA became separated from the rest of the National Energy Market (NEM), leaving far too little power to meet demand and blacking out 850,000 homes and businesses. A 2017 report found once SA was separated from the NEM, the blackout was “inevitable”.




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What went wrong at the wind farms?

The question then becomes, is there any action the wind farms could reasonably have taken to stay online, thus preventing the overloading of the Heywood interconnector?

The regulator is arguing the operators should have let the market operator know they could not handle the disruption caused by the storms, so the operator could make the best decisions to keep the grid functioning.

Wind farms, like all energy generators in Australia, have a legal requirement to meet specific performance standards. If they fall short in a way that can materially harm energy security, they have a further duty to inform the operator immediately, with a plan to remedy the problem.

To determine whether a generator has complied with these risk management standards, a range of factors are considered. These include:

  • the technology of the plant,
  • whether its performance is likely to drift or degrade over a particular time frame,
  • experience with the particular generation technology,
  • the connection point arrangement that is in place. A generator will have an arrangement with a transmission network service provider (TNSP) that operates the networks that carry electricity between generators and distribution networks. TNSP’s advise the NEM of the capacity of their transmission assets so that they can be operated without being overloaded.
  • the risk and costs of different testing methods given the relative size of the plant.

Plenty of blame to go around

The series of events leading up to the 2016 blackout was extremely difficult to anticipate. There were many factors, and arguably all participants were involved in different ways.

  • The Heywood interconnector was running at full capacity at the time, so any overload may have triggered its protective mechanism.

  • The transmission lines were damaged by an unprecedented 263 lightning strikes in five minutes.

  • The market operator itself did not adopt precautionary measures such as reducing the load on the interconnector, or providing a clearer warning to electricity generators.

Bearing this in mind, the federal court will be asked to determine whether the wind farms complied with their generator performance standards and if not, whether this breach had a “material adverse effect” on power security.

This will be difficult to prove, because even if the generator standards require the wind farms to evaluate the point at which their protective triggers activated, it is unlikely the number of faults, the severity of the voltage dip, and the impact of the increased power flow on the Heywood interconnector could have been anticipated.




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The idea AEMO could have prevented the blackout if the wind farms had alerted it to the disruptive potential of their protective triggers is probably a little remote.

None of the participants could have foreseen the series of interconnected events leading to the blackout. Whilst lessons can be learned, laying blame is more complex. And while compliance with standards and rules is important, in this instance, it is unlikely that it would have changed the outcome.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Murray-Darling report shows public authorities must take climate change risk seriously


Arjuna Dibley, Stanford University

The tragic recent events on the Darling River, and the political and policy furore around them, have again highlighted the severe financial and environmental consequences of mismanaging climate risks. The Murray-Darling Royal Commission demonstrates how closely boards of public sector corporate bodies can be scrutinised for their management of these risks.

Public authorities must follow private companies and factor climate risk into their board decision-making. Royal Commissioner Brett Walker has delivered a damning indictment of the Murray Darling Basin Authority’s management of climate-related risks. His report argues that the authority’s senior management and board were “negligent” and fell short of acting with “reasonable care, skill and diligence”. For its part, the authority “rejects the assertion” that it “acted improperly or unlawfully in any way”.

The Royal Commission has also drawn attention to the potentially significant legal and reputational consequences for directors and organisations whose climate risk management is deemed to have fallen short of a rising bar.




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It’s the public sector’s turn

Until recently, scrutiny of how effectively large and influential organisations are responding to climate risks has focused mostly on the private sector.

In Australia it is widely acknowledged among legal experts that private company directors’ duty of “due care and diligence” requires them to consider foreseeable climate risks that intersect with the interests of the company. Indeed, Australia’s companies regulator, ASIC, has called for directors to take a “probative and proactive” approach to these risks.

The recent focus on management of the Murray-Darling Basin again highlights the crucial role public sector corporations (or “public authorities” as we call them) also play in our overall responses to climate change – and the consequences when things go wrong.

Australia’s economy, once dominated by publicly owned enterprises, was reshaped by waves of privatisations in the late 20th century. However, hundreds of public authorities continue to play an important role in our economy. They build and maintain infrastructure, generate energy, oversee superannuation portfolios, provide insurance and manage water resources, among many other activities.

This means that, like their counterparts in the private sector, many face risks associated with climate change. Take Melbourne Water, for instance, a statutory water corporation established to manage the city’s water supply. It will have to contend with increasingly hot summers and reduced rainfall (a physical risk), and also with the risk that government policy in the future might impose stricter conditions on how water is used (a transition risk).

What duties do public authorities owe?

Our new research from the Centre for Policy Development, shows that, at the Commonwealth and Victorian level (and likely in other Australian jurisdictions), the main laws governing officials in public authorities are likely to create similar obligations to those imposed on private company directors.

For instance, a 2013 federal act requires public authority board members to carry out their duties with the degree of “due care and diligence” that a reasonable person would exercise if they were a Commonwealth official in that board position.

The concept of a “reasonable person” is crucial. There is ever-increasing certainty about the human contribution to climate change. New tools and models have been created to measure the impact of climate change on the economy. Climate risks are therefore reasonably foreseeable if you are acting carefully and diligently, and thus public authority directors should consider these risks.

The obligations of public authority directors may, in some cases, go beyond what is required of private company directors. The same act mentioned above requires Commonwealth officials to promote best practice in the way they carry out their duties. While there is still wide divergence in how private companies manage climate change, best practice in leading corporations is moving towards more systematic analysis and disclosure of these risks. Accordingly, a “best practice” obligation places an even higher onus on public sector directors to manage climate risk.

The specific legislation that governs certain public authorities may introduce different and more onerous requirements. For instance, the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s governing legislation, the Water Act 2007, imposes a number of additional conditions on the authority. This includes the extent to which the minister can influence board decision-making.

Nonetheless, our laws set out a widely applicable standard for public authority directors.

Approaches to better manage public authority climate risks

While some public authorities are already carefully considering how physical and transition climate risks affect their work, our research suggests that standards vary widely.

As with the private sector, a combination of clear expectations for better climate risk management, greater scrutiny and more investment in climate-related capabilities and risk-management frameworks can all play a role in raising the bar. Our research highlights four steps that governments should consider:

  • creating a whole-of-government toolkit and implementation strategy for training and supporting directors to account for climate-risk in decision-making

  • using existing public authority accountability mechanisms – such as the public sector commissioner or auditor general’s office – to more closely scrutinise the management of climate-related financial risks

  • issuing formal ministerial statements of expectations to clarify how public authorities and their directors should manage climate-related risks and policy priorities

  • making legislative or regulatory changes to ensure consistent consideration, management and disclosure of climate risk by public sector decision-makers.




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Measures such as these would set clear expectations for more consistent, sophisticated responses to climate risks by public authorities. However, even without any changes, it should be clear that public authority directors have legal duties to consider climate risks – and that these duties must be taken seriously even when doing so is complicated, controversial or politically sensitive.The Conversation

Arjuna Dibley, Graduate Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


Bradley J. Moggridge, University of Canberra and Ross M Thompson, University of Canberra

The Murray-Darling crisis has led to drinking water shortages, drying rivers, and fish kills in the Darling, Macintyre and Murrumbidgee Rivers. This has been the catalyst for recommendations for a Royal Commission and creation of two independent scientific expert panels.

The federal Labor party has sought advice from an independent panel through the Australian Academy of Science, while the Coalition government has asked former Bureau of Meteorology chief Rob Vertessy to convene a second panel. Crucially, the first panel contains no Indigenous representatives, and there is little indication that the second panel will either.




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Indigenous meaning

Water for Aboriginal people is an important part of survival in the driest inhabited landscape on Earth. Protecting water is both a cultural obligation and a necessary practice in the sustainability of everyday life.

The Aboriginal peoples’ worldview sees water as inseparably connected to the land and sky, bound by traditional lore and customs in a system of sustainable management that ensures healthy water for future generations.

Without ongoing connection between these aspects, there is no culture or survival. For a people in a dry landscape, traditional knowledge of finding, re-finding and protecting water sites was integral to survival. Today this knowledge may well serve a broader vision of sustainability for all Australia.

While different Aboriginal Nations describe this in local ways and language, the underlying message is fundamentally the same: look after the water and the water will look after you.

Native title

In the current crisis in the Darling River and Menindee Lakes, the focus should be on the Barkandji people of western New South Wales. In 2015, the native title rights for 128,000 square kilometres of Barkandji land were recognised after an 18-year legal case. This legal recognition represented a significant outcome for the Barkandji People because water – and specifically the Darling River or Barka – is central to their existence.

Under the NSW Water Management Act, Native Title rights are defined as Basic Landholder Rights. However, the Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan provides a zero allocation for Native Title. The Barkandji confront ongoing struggles to have their common law rights recognised and accommodated by Australian water governance regimes.

The failure to involve them directly in talks convened by the Murray Darling Basin Authority and Basin States, and their exclusion from the independent panels, are further examples of these struggles.

Over the past two decades, Aboriginal people have been lobbying for an environmental, social, economic and cultural share in the water market, but with little success.




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The modern history of Aboriginal peoples’ water is a litany of “unfinished business”, in the words of a 2017 Productivity Commission report.

In 2010 the First Peoples Water Engagement Council was established to advise the National Water Commission, but was abolished prior to the National Water Commission’s legislative sunset in 2014.

The NSW Aboriginal Water Initiative, tasked with re-engaging NSW Aboriginal people in water management and planning, ran from 2012 until the Department of Industry water disbanded the unit in early 2017. In a 2018 progress report the Murray-Darling Basin Authority described NSW as “well behind” on water sharing plans.

Even after a damning ABC 4Corners report shed light on alleged water theft and mismanagement, the voices of the Aboriginal people of the Murray-Darling Basin were absent.

In May 2018 the federal Labor party agreed to a federal government policy package of amendments to the Basin Plan, including a cut of 70 billion litres to the water recovery target in the northern basin, and further bipartisan agreement for better water outcomes for Indigenous people of the basin.




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While the measures also included A$40 million for Aboriginal communities to invest in water entitlements, a A$20 million economic development fund to benefit Aboriginal groups most affected by the basin plan, and A$1.5 million to support Aboriginal waterway assessments, how worthwhile are they in a river with no water?

The recent crisis emphasises the perpetual sidelining of Aboriginal voices in water management in NSW and beyond. Indigenous voices need to be heard at all levels, with mechanisms that empower that involvement. Indigenous communities continue to fight for rights to water and for the protection of its spirit.The Conversation

Bradley J. Moggridge, Indigenous Water Research, University of Canberra and Ross M Thompson, Chair of Water Science and Director, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Damning royal commission report leaves no doubt that we all lose if the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails


Jamie Pittock, Australian National University

In the wake of revelations of water theft, fish kills, and towns running out of water, the South Australian Royal Commission into the Murray-Darling Basin has reported that the Basin Plan must be strengthened if there is to be any hope of saving the river system, and the communities along it, from a bleak future.

Evidence uncovered by the Royal Commission showed systemic failures in the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. The damning report must trigger action by all governments and bodies involved in managing the basin.

The Basin Plan was adopted in 2012 to address overallocation of water to irrigated farming at the expense of the environment, river towns, Traditional Owners, and the pastoral and tourism industries.

The Commission has made 111 findings and 44 recommendations that accuse federal agencies of maladministration, and challenge key policies that were pursued in implementing the plan.




Read more:
Aboriginal voices are missing from the Murray-Darling Basin crisis


What did the report find?

The commission found that the Basin Plan breached federal water laws by applying a “triple bottom line” trade-off of environmental and socioeconomic values, rather than prioritising environmental sustainability and then optimising socio-economic outcomes.

I and my colleagues in the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists provided evidence to the commission from our independent assessment of the Basin Plan in 2017, which the commission’s findings reflect.

Contrary to current government practices, the Commission recommendations include:

  • prioritising environmental sustainability
  • basing the plan on transparent science
  • acquiring more water for the environment through direct purchase from farmers
  • meeting the water needs of the Basin’s 40 Indigenous nations
  • ensuring that state governments produce competent subsidiary plans and comply with agreements to remove constraints to inundating floodplain wetlands
  • addressing the impacts of climate change
  • improving monitoring and compliance of Basin Plan implementation.

Resilience in decline

The Murray-Darling Basin is not just a food bowl. It is a living ecosystem that depends on interconnected natural resources. It also underpins the livelihoods of 2.6 million people and agricultural production worth more than A$24 billion.

The continued health of the basin and its economy depends on a healthy river – which in turns means healthy water flows. Like much of Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin is subject to periods of “droughts and flooding rains”. But over the past century the extraction of water, especially for irrigation, has reduced river flows to a point at which the natural system can no longer recover from these extremes.

That lack of resilience is evidenced by the current Darling River fish kills. More broadly, overextraction risks the health of the entire basin, and its capacity to sustain productive regional economies for future generations.

From the perspective of the Wentworth Group, we support the commission’s main recommendations, including increasing pressure on recalcitrant state governments to responsibly deliver their elements of the plan, and to refocus on the health of the river.

We particularly support recommendations related to the use of the best available science in decision-making, including for managing declining water availability under a changing climate.

We welcome the recommendation to reassess the sustainable levels of water extraction so as to comply with the Commonwealth Water Act. These must be constructed with a primary focus on the environment.

In line with this, the 70 billion litre reduction in environmental water from the northern basin adopted by parliament in 2018 should be immediately repealed. So should the ban on direct buyback of water from farmers for the environment.

We also recognise that the Basin Plan’s water recovery target is insufficient to restore health to the environment and prevent further damage, and would welcome an increase in the target above 3,200 billion litres.




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South Australian Premier Steven Marshall has taken a welcome first step in calling for a Council of Australian Governments meeting to discuss the commission’s findings. Our governments need to avoid the temptation to legislate away the politically inconvenient failings exposed by the commission, and instead act constructively and implement its recommendations.

This is not only a challenge for the current conservative federal government. The Labor side of politics needs to address its legacy in establishing the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and the Basin Plan, as well as the Victorian government’s role in frustrating the plan’s implementation by failing to remove constraints to environmental water flows.

Now, more than ever, we need strong leadership. If the Murray-Darling Basin Plan fails, we all lose.The Conversation

Jamie Pittock, Professor, Fenner School of Environment & Society, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

It’s time to restore public trust in the governing of the Murray Darling Basin



File 20190114 43535 1d0sshz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Going all the way back: rules for the Murray Darling Basin are in Australia’s constitution.
KnitSpirit/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

Jason Alexandra, RMIT University

Fish deaths in the Darling River have once more raised the public profile of incessant political controversies about the Murray Darling Basin. These divisive debates reveal the deeply contested nature of reforms to water policy in the Basin.

It feels like Australia has been here before – algae blooms are not uncommon in these rivers. In 1992, the Darling suffered the world’s largest toxic algal bloom, over 1,000 kilometres long. This crisis became an iconic catalyst, and helped prompt the state and federal governments agreeing to water reforms in 1994.

Hopefully, our current crisis may be an opportunity to shine a strong light on the complexities of governing the Basin, and initiate the meaningful reforms needed to restore public trust.




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Forewarned is forearmed

The rivers of the basin are unique and precious. Australia needs high quality and independent science to understand them and guide their management. Unfortunately in 2012 state and federal governments cut three important programs that provided vital research on the Basin’s rivers:

So while yesterday’s announcement of A$5 million funding to a new native fish recovery program is welcome, good science alone is not enough. Good policy processes and robust institutions are needed to apply this information. We cannot continue to ignore expert warnings.

A crisis of trust

Since a 2017 Four Corners program exposed disturbing allegations of water theft and corruption, the media has revealed a host of further probity issues.

These and a plethora of formal inquiries into MDB governance indicates a crisis of trust, legitimacy and public confidence – in short, a loss of authority.

The 2018 federal Senate inquiry documents a litany of concerns, while disturbing evidence given at a South Australian Royal Commission raised substantive doubts about failures to heed the best scientific advice in the development of the Basin Plan.




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More Commonwealth oversight is not enough

Without doubt pressure is mounting for more reforms. The Senate’s Rural and Regional Affairs Committee and the Productivity Commission have recommended splitting the Murray Darling Basin Authority into two entities – the MDB Corporation and a MDB Regulator – in order to clearly separate the Commonwealth’s regulatory oversight from other roles.

These proposals deserve critical scrutiny. Structural reorganisation can provide an illusion of government action, but can have long-term effects on the efficacy and justice of water governance.

The Murray Darling has a unique place in Australia’s history, environment, economy and culture. Agreements about its governance have their origins in debates leading up to Federation in 1901. Any renegotiation needs to respect the Constitution and the different legal powers of the states and the Commonwealth.

So reform to institutional arrangements need bespoke design. These are the legitimate remit of our discursive democracy. Nonetheless, the OECD’s 12 water governance principles usefully provide guidance about the need for clarity of roles, transparency, effectiveness, efficiency and broad stakeholder engagement.

Current calls for reorganisation focus on clarifying the Commonwealth’s regulatory role, but this is fairly narrow. Reforms are needed at all scales.

The governance challenges in the MDB require modernisation and redesign of arrangements across regional, state and Commonwealth agencies. This includes structuring “constructive tensions” that ensure transparency and accountability. Just like the police don’t control the courts, we need to more clearly define and separate roles in the water sector.

Embracing radical transparency

We need all water agencies to adopt a formal charter of transparency and openness. All state and Commonwealth agencies should open their books to scrutiny, rather than hiding information behind claims of “commercial in confidence” or opaque “freedom of information” processes.

Greater transparency measures should also be a condition of all water licences. It’s entirely feasible to create modern monitoring regimes, using state-of-the art digital metering coupled with annual water-use declarations. These would be similar to tax returns enforced with random audits and satellite verification of areas irrigated. If made publicly available, all interested parties could audit water extractions.

But doubts don’t exclusively focus on irrigators’ compliance. We also need to address the states and their willingness and capability to enforce regulations. Policies of radical transparency could be supported with openly available water data. With digital meters and automated gauging of river flows, we could create a computer platform where anybody could develop river models using real data, in near real-time.

Harnessing the power of citizen involvement, trust and openly sharing information has been a hallmark of Australia’s landcare and natural resource management. This is where we should look for the next generation of governance in the Basin.

Open books means communities, industries, research and educational institutions can all help monitor our institutions and ensure rivers are managed in the public’s interest.




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Finally, droughts should not come as surprise. They are a recurrent feature of the Basin. With climate change, more frequent and intense droughts are predicted. As a nation we can do better than lurching from crisis to crisis each time drought returns.

We need careful deliberation about the institutions that will rebuild public confidence and restore trust in the governing of the Murray Darling. It’s time to develop a 21st century system that is cooperative, transparent and just.The Conversation

Jason Alexandra, PhD candidate, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Happy birthday, SA’s big battery, and many happy returns (of your recyclable parts)


Aleesha Rodriguez, Queensland University of Technology

A year ago today, Tesla’s big battery in South Australia began dispatching power to the state’s grid, one day ahead of schedule. By most accounts, the world’s largest lithium-ion battery has been a remarkable success. But there are some concerns that have so far escaped scrutiny.

The big battery (or the Hornsdale Power Reserve, to use its official name) was born of a Twitter wager between entrepreneurs Mike Cannon-Brookes and Elon Musk, with the latter offering to build a functioning battery in “100 days or it’s free”.

Musk succeeded, and so too has the battery in smoothing the daily operation of South Australia’s energy grid and helping to avert blackouts.




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The battery has also been a financial success. It earned A$23.8 million in the first half of 2018, by selling stored electricity and other grid-stabilising services.

These successes have spurred further big battery uptake in Australia, while the global industry is forecast to attract US$620 billion in investments by 2040. It’s clear that big batteries will play a big role in our energy future.

But not every aspect of Tesla’s big battery earns a big tick. The battery’s own credentials aren’t particularly “green”, and by making people feel good about the energy they consume over summer, it arguably sustains an unhealthy appetite for energy consumption.

The problem of lithium-ion batteries

The Hornsdale Power Reserve is made up of hundreds of Tesla Powerpacks, each containing 16 “battery pods” similar to the ones in Tesla’s Model S vehicle. Each battery pod houses thousands of small lithium-ion cells – the same ones that you might find in a hand-held device like a torch.

The growing demand for lithium-ion batteries has a range of environmental impacts. Not least of these is the issue of how best to recycle them, which presents significant opportunities and challenges.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve claims that when the batteries stop working (in about 15 years), Tesla will recycle all of them at its Gigafactory in Nevada, recovering up to 60% of the materials.

It’s important that Tesla is held account to the above claim. A CSIRO report found that in 2016, only 2% of lithium-ion batteries were collected in Australia to be recycled offshore.

However, lithium-ion batteries aren’t the only option. Australia is leading the way in developing more sustainable alternative batteries. There are also other innovative ways to store energy, such as by harnessing the gravitational energy stored in giant hanging bricks.




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Solving symptoms, not problems

Tesla’s big battery was introduced at a time when the energy debate was fixated on South Australia’s energy “crisis” and a need for “energy security”. After a succession of severe weather events and blackouts, the state’s renewable energy agenda was under fire and there was pressure on the government to take action.

On February 8, 2017, high temperatures contributed to high electricity demand and South Australia experienced yet another widespread blackout. But this time it was caused by the common practice of “load-shedding”, in which power is deliberately cut to sections of the grid to prevent it being overwhelmed.

A month later, Cannon-Brookes (who recently reclaimed the term “fair dinkum power” from Prime Minister Scott Morrison) coordinated “policy by tweet” and helped prompt Tesla’s battery-building partnership with the SA government.




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Since the battery’s inception the theme of “summer” (a euphemism for high electricity demand) has followed its reports in media.

The combination of extreme heat and high demand is very challenging for an electricity distribution system. Big batteries can undoubtedly help smooth this peak demand. But that’s only solving a symptom of the deeper problem – namely, excessive electricity demand.

Time to talk about energy demand

These concerns are most likely not addressed in the national conversation because of the urgency to move away from fossil fuels and, as such, a desire to keep big batteries in a positive light.

But as we continue to adopt renewable energy technologies, we need to embrace a new relationship with energy. By avoiding these concerns we only prolong the very problems that have led us to a changed climate and arguably, make us ill-prepared for our renewable energy future.

The good news is that the big battery industry is just kicking off. That means now is the time to talk about what type of big batteries we want in the future, to review our expectations of energy supply, and to embrace more sustainable demand.The Conversation

Aleesha Rodriguez, Phd Student, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Would an eruption in Melbourne really match Hawaii’s volcanoes? Here’s the evidence


Heather Handley, Macquarie University; Jozua van Otterloo, Monash University, and Ray Cas, Monash University

Spectacular images of recent volcanic eruptions in Hawaii are a little disheartening – especially given news reports suggesting there is a sleeping volcano under Melbourne that could awaken and erupt at any moment.

Understanding the geological differences between Melbourne and Hawaii is really helpful in working out how we can keep an eye on future risks in Australia.




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The Newer Volcanics Province

Victoria and South Australia do host an active volcanic field, called the Newer Volcanics Province (NVP). This is not a single volcano with a large single chamber of molten rock (magma) — the common image of a volcano — but a widespread field of multiple small volcanoes, each with a small volume of magma.

Location of the Newer Volcanics Province in southeast Australia showing the extent of lava flows and the different types of volcanoes.
Julie Boyce 2013

Melbourne lies at the eastern end of the NVP, and the most recent eruptions in this area occurred over a million years ago.

Mt Gambier in southeastern South Australia represents the western margin of the volcanic field and the most recent eruption — only 5,000 years ago.

Between Melbourne and Mt Gambier there are more than 400 small volcanoes that erupted over a period of 6 million years.




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The NVP was most active between 4.5 million to 5,000 years ago and volcanologists consider the field to still be “active” with the potential for future eruptions.

We do not know when the next eruption will take place.

Volcanoes of the Newer Volcanics Province (a) Mt Napier, SE of Hamilton (b) The Noorat complex (c) The Mt Gambier Volcanic Complex, near Mt Gambier (d) The Mt Schank Volcanic Complex, near Mt Gambier (e) Purrumbete volcano, near Camperdown (f ) Tower Hill volcano, near Warrnambool (g) The Red Rock Volcanic Complex, near Colac.
Ray Cas and co authors

The NVP is located within a tectonic plate – and not along a plate edge like the Ring of Fire volcanoes (for example, Mt Agung on Bali).

Tectonic plates are large slabs of rock made up of the Earth’s crust and uppermost part of the mantle (the lithosphere) which form the outer shell of the Earth, and move around slowly relative to each other.




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Volcanoes act in different ways

While Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is also located within a tectonic plate, it has several key differences with the NVP in Southeastern Australia.

Magma source and volume

While Hawaii sources large volumes of magma from deep within the Earth, the NVP only receives small amounts of magma from just below the Earth’s crust.

It’s worth noting here that the makeup of the magma is similar in both locations, with both erupting runny basalt – a type of rock low in silica, and high in iron and magnesium.

We suspect that in Australia’s NVP, magma can move very fast from its source to the surface (on a time scale of days). This can bring rock fragments of the mantle (xenoliths) to the surface as the magma moves too fast for them to melt.

Fragments of the mantle (xenoliths) in a volcanic bomb erupted at Mt Noorat, brought to the surface by ascending magma.
Ray Cas

Eruption frequency

Hawaiian volcanoes can erupt numerous times, but NVP volcanoes are largely monogenetic — that is, each only erupt once or over a restricted period of time.

Crust thickness

Hawaii is located on the oceanic crust of the Pacific Tectonic Plate, which is a thin (around 7 km) layer of material that is dense and rich in iron. The magma can rise through this crust quite easily.

In contrast, the NVP is located on continental crust which is much thicker (about 30km), richer in silica and much less dense. Magma finds it much harder to travel through this kind of material.




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Water adds danger

The explosivity of a volcanic eruption can depend on availability of water.

“Dry” eruptions – where magma has little-to-no interaction with ground water or water on the Earth’s surface – typically produces mildly explosive eruptions such as lava fire fountains, showers of lava fragments and lava flows.

The most explosive, hazardous eruptions form where rising magma interacts with ground water, surface water or sea water. These “wet”, (phreatomagmatic) eruptions can produce deadly, fast moving, ground-hugging currents of gas and volcanic material – called pyroclastic surges, and send abundant fine volcanic ash into the atmosphere.

The Australian Mt Gambier eruption 5,000 years ago was a “wet” eruption, and had a volcanic explosivity index of 4 on a scale of 0-8 (where 0 represents a lava eruption, 1 a spectacular lava “fire” fountain as recently witnessed in Hawaii, and 8 represents a catastrophic explosive super-eruption).

The accompanying ash column is estimated to have reached 5km to 10km into the atmosphere.

On Hawaii explosive eruptions are rarer because the magma has a low gas content and groundwater aquifers are not as large as in the NVP. However, when lava flows into the sea there are often phreatic or steam explosions which can be hazardous to nearby spectators.




Read more:
From Kilauea to Fuego: three things you should know about volcano risk


Mt Gambier’s Blue Lake was created by a huge volcanic eruption.
from www.shutterstock.com

There’s a lot we don’t know

Another important factor relates to how we keep an eye on volcano risk at the two sites. Kilauea on Hawaii is extremely well monitored, and tracking magma moving underground has helped predict eruptions.

In contrast, the NVP is less well monitored, likely because there is no present volcanic activity, and it’s a huge region.

However, warning signs of an eruption are likely to be similar in the NVP to those on Hawaii – small earthquakes, minor uplift and/or subsidence of the ground, changes in ground temperature and gas or steam rising out of the ground.




Read more:
I’ve Always Wondered: Why are the volcanoes on Earth active, but the ones on Mars are not?


Also, based on present knowledge of the NVP, there is no clear eruption pattern we can use to try to predict when or where the next eruption will be.

If the NVP were to erupt, significant impacts on our lives would likely occur. These may include:

  • the closure of surrounding roads by lava flows and ash fallout
  • volcanic ash and rocks loading roofs of local buildings
  • contamination of water reservoirs by ash
  • damage to machinery and electricity infrastructure by infiltrating ash
  • respiratory problems for people prone to asthma, and
  • disruption to air traffic across southeastern Australia due to drifting ash clouds driven by prevailing south-westerly winds.

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Further scientific research is required on active volcanic fields such as the NVP to know how fast magma travels from its source to the surface, how much warning we might have before an eruption, and how long an eruption and its impacts might last.

Heather Handley, Associate Professor in Volcanology and Geochemistry, Macquarie University; Jozua van Otterloo, Assistant Lecturer in Volcanology, Monash University, and Ray Cas, Professor emeritus, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.