Solar squeezing WA grid
Experts say the rise of solar power is jeopardising the WA energy grid.
On Western Australia’s main grid, covering Perth and the populated south-west corner, around 30 per cent of houses have a solar installation.
The combined capacity of rooftop solar far exceeds the state’s largest single generator — an ageing 854-megawatt coal-fired power station.
But the high proportion of renewable solar power threatens the stability of the entire system, according to energy expert Adam McHugh, an honorary research associate at Perth's Murdoch University.
“We talk about 'smart' this and 'smart' that these days,” he told the ABC.
“Well, solar at the moment is 'dumb' in Western Australia. We need to make it smart.
“We're at the front of the curve, the bleeding edge.
“The technology that we're seeing being developed rapidly around the world is flowing into Western Australia at a more rapid rate, potentially … than anywhere else on the planet.”
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) says the isolated nature of the grid in WA makes it more exposed to the technical challenges posed by solar.
AEMO chief executive Audrey Zibelman says on mild, sunny days in spring or autumn, excess solar power from households and businesses spills uncontrolled on to the system.
The only way to manage this is to scale back or switch off the coal- and gas-fired power stations, but these are not designed to be quickly ramped up or down, so they are ill-equipped to respond to sudden fluctuations.
“What's changing in the WEM [wholesale electricity market] is the fact that rooftop solar is now our single largest generator,” Ms Zibelman said.
“That has really made a huge difference in terms of how we think about the power system.
“The concern we have for the first time in probably the history of this industry is you start thinking about sunny days during the spring or [autumn] when you don't have a lot of demand, because you don't have a lot of cooling going on.
“And that becomes an interesting issue because you have lots and lots of solar and very little demand.
“We've never worried about a system around low demand. You're always worried about the highest periods of the summer.
“What we're recognising now is that the flexibility we need in the system is one [issue] that we have to think about — how do we integrate solar and storage better? And these are new problems that we have to solve.”
AEMO has warned that if nothing is done to safeguard the grid, rolling blackouts could occur, as soaring levels of renewable energy periodically overwhelm the system.
Rising renewable energy in WA has smashed the finances of state-owned electricity provider Synergy, which handed down a massive $657 million loss for the 12 months to June 30 this year.
WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston says the State Government has launched reviews in a bid to come up with solutions to the state's changing energy needs.