3 June 2021


By Nicky Ison, Energy Transition Manager, WWF-Australia

Blackouts like the one that occurred last Tuesday in Queensland disrupt our lives.

In Australia, we are fortunate to be able to take electricity for granted when it is there to turn the lights on, cook our food and so much more. When it stops flowing, the consequences can range from annoying inconveniences, to scary ones, like children who were trapped in an elevator. It can even be life-threatening for people at home who depend on health sustaining equipment. For the workers who keep our lights on there is an even greater risk of severe injury from fires like the one at Callide C coal power plant on Tuesday. Thankfully, reports are suggesting nobody was injured and teams are back on the job restoring power and keeping the lights on. We are lucky to have them.

However, when any major crisis occurs, it is important to analyse it and learn from it. What could have been done better? How can we avoid similar situations in the future?

Blackouts are an inevitable part of a modern electricity system. Next to no technology works 100 per cent of the time. There will always be the risk of mechanical failure or human error. Queenslanders have reliable power, the system works 99.998 per cent of the time. When it doesn't it is usually due to a tree falling on powerlines, not a major explosion. That said, big electricity generation units at coal power plants present a much bigger risk of blackouts than solar and wind plants. If something goes wrong at a coal power plant, 100s of MW of capacity go offline all at once. If something goes wrong in a wind turbine maybe 5MWs go offline. Big units create a bigger point of failure, as we are increasingly finding out. Renewables and smart technology can help us not just in the long-term, but in the short-term too.

As Queensland Energy Minister Mick de Brenni noted, it was renewables and storage in the form of wind and pumped hydro that helped get the power back overnight after the blackouts. Queenslanders lead the world in the uptake of rooftop solar - a technology that was invented in Australia. If Queensland were to couple this rooftop solar boom with more home and community batteries and even electric vehicles, we could use smart control systems to keep the lights on at a suburb level when big accidents occur or transmission lines go down. This is a process called islanding. Currently, when an accident occurs at a coal power plant or a transmission line goes down, fuses trip or other signals tell power to shut down at the customer end of the system, plunging those customers into inconvenient, frightening or life-threatening situations. What happens at hospitals, however, is the signals cause the local distribution networks to disconnect from the main electricity system and switch to a back-up generator.

With more local storage and solar, we have the building blocks to expand this system to other customers and even whole suburbs.

If we invest in an electricity system that has these smarts, which can island suburbs and switch them temporarily to depend on local renewables and storage, our electricity system will be even more reliable in the future. This will also help build Australian expertise in creating and maintaining modern and more reliable electricity systems of the type the world is moving towards, which presents a great opportunity for Aussie jobs and wealth creation. It would also help position Queensland, and Australia, to export this knowhow as we can generate more than we need. Indeed, we could be a renewable exports powerhouse.

The recent blackout was a statewide reminder of the urgent need for diversification. It is timely, as the Queensland Government releases its annual budget next month. This presents a huge opportunity to invest in a future ready electricity system, including more support for household, community and large-scale batteries. Doing so would enable Queenslanders to benefit from more safe, stable and sustainable energy, as well as opportunities to lead the world as an energy innovator and renewable superpower.