One of the big challenges with talking about energy security is that the term means very different things to different people. Power engineers for example think about the term very differently to most of the media or politicians, who as a general rule don’t engage with the more technical elements that are part of the energy security story.

Such was the case with the comprehensive review of our energy security by the Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel. The public debate focused on long-term policy and Dr Finkel’s proposed Clean Energy Target. But it was only one of the 50 recommendations from possibly the most comprehensive set of reforms since the design of the National Electricity Market.

One thing we do know is that as more and more renewable energy is added to the power system, we will have to do things very differently. This is true of power generation and supply, as well as some of the grid stabilising services which are currently provided by older power plants.

Clean Energy Council director of smart energy Darren Gladman.

In February, NSW managed to avoid major blackouts by a whisker during a heatwave. Speaking about the day in question, the state’s energy, resources and utilities minister, Don Harwin, told a Committee for Economic Development of Australia event: “Clean energy performed as forecast. Thermal generation did not.”

Extreme heat puts a strain across the whole system. In this case, 2GW of coal and gas went missing in action when it was most needed. Harwin said the event posed serious questions about the reliability of coal and gas supplies, and questioned the “old paradigm” about the importance of baseload power. It is important to note that I am not quoting some overly-enthusiastic environmentalist – this is a senior member of a conservative government.

But it’s also true that variable renewables are, well, variable. This obviously creates its own challenges, which can be addressed through initiatives such as the 100MW of battery capacity the South Australian Government plans to commission by the start of next summer.

Beyond the technology wars

If we can accept that we need to dramatically reduce emissions in our power system in order to deal with climate change, then we will continue to move away from coal power towards clean energy in the decades ahead. It helps that new wind and solar projects can produce cheaper electricity than gas-fired power, and at less than half the price of a new coal plant.

But this also means a range of technologies with very different properties when it comes to grid stabilising services such as frequency control and inertia. A range of reforms is required to allow these new technologies to fully participate in these areas and provide critical services to the energy market. This can mean tapping into the fast frequency response that batteries and solar inverters can provide, as well as using the mechanical energy from wind turbines.

Keeping the lights on next summer

Multiple energy security events from September 2016 to the end of summer this year showed there is a lot of work to do – and the fix isn’t always as simple as making sure there is enough power generation to meet the amount of power demanded by the country’s homes and businesses. We had a once-in-50-years storm that took down more than 20 huge electricity towers in South Australia, issues with the sensitivity of wind farm software settings, and coal and gas generators that didn’t work properly when confronted with extreme heat.

At one point last summer, a software glitch from SA Power Networks led to 90,000 homes in Adelaide being switched off for half an hour – three times more than were actually required. It was later revealed that the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) was using private weather modelling instead of official forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology. With a couple of degrees’ difference separating the two estimates, a gas plant was idle that could have been used to prevent the blackout altogether.

The new head of AEMO, Audrey Zibelman, has personally said that there is no energy crisis and that the electricity system will soldier on during the coming summer. But she knows the heat will be on, and not just the kind that sees millions of us heading for the beach over Christmas.

Dr Finkel recommended that AEMO publish an independent third-party review of its efforts to prepare for next summer by the end of September this year. The Clean Energy Council supports this recommendation, and we also support the many actions AEMO is taking before the temperature starts to climb again.

Supply more or use less

A good example of this is the demand management work AEMO is undertaking together with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Under the program, AEMO will pay homes and businesses to dial back their energy use during periods of extreme demand for electricity, freeing up extra power capacity and reducing the strain on the system.

“We need to find new, smarter ways of coping with spikes in demand and volatility as we move towards an electricity system with more variable renewable energy supply,” said ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht.

“Instead of building a power plant that is only switched on a few hours or days a year, demand response will allow us to reduce energy consumption during peak demand while also reducing energy costs and emissions for consumers. It’s a win-win.”

We don’t pretend renewable energy is the same as coal and gas. To ensure the security of our energy system long into the future, it’s time to start doing things differently.