When I first picked Blackout up from the shelf, all I wanted was an un-biased overview of the state of the Australian electricity grid. What I got instead was a well-written account of how Australia’s electricity grid works and why it is currently a mess, to put it lightly.
The book starts out by describing the current issues facing Australia’s grid and its recent failures, particularly in South Australia. It then gives an overview of the history of electricity and defines terms such as kilowatt, kilowatt hour, volt and hertz – all essential to understanding how renewables interact with a grid built for base load coal power plants. Blackout is incredibly accessible to the ordinary reader and professional alike. Warren’s explanations of technical terms were clear and to the point. He provides enough technical knowledge in the book to enable the reader to understand how the grid works without getting bogged down in the technical details.
In chapter three Warren details how the political decisions from Howard to Morrison resulted in the current electricity situation. Dogged pursuit of ideology and brownie points with misinformed voters have determined energy policy for a decade causing blackouts, increased emissions and power prices. As Warren says, the current situation is like a politician taking control of air traffic control before you are about to land.
For me the most illuminating chapter of this book was Warren’s description in chapter four of how the National Electricity Market operates. The NEM is a mystery to basically everyone – including almost all politicians – and Warren’s explanations of how just how efficient the hive-mind of the NEM can be is truly extraordinary. The NEM is an engineering marvel and its ability to signal when more generation is required both in the short and long term is ingenious. Unfortunately, as Warren goes on to explain these market signals have been unable to be acted upon largely due to highly uncertain political environment driven by ideology on both sides of politics with little regard to how the grid operates. Chapter four is probably the centrepiece of the entire book on which all other chapters build on.
Next Warren gives on overview of what renewables are. This then leads on the chapter six which deals with firm power. Along with chapter four, chapter six is probably the most useful as the public has little idea of what firm power is and how it is necessary in order for a renewables dominated grid to operate. Firm power is essentially power which can turn on and off quickly and reliably to make up for any electricity shortfalls caused by a reduction in electricity generation (such as when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining). Wind and solar now provide cheaper electricity than coal but cannot always reliably produce electricity. Hence, firm power is required to make up this short fall.
Another thing I learnt from this book is that base-load generators, such as coal and nuclear power plants, do not operate well in a renewables dominated grid due their inability to rapidly increase or decrease the amount of electricity they generate. Turning base-load generators off and on is not viable. Additionally, Warren discusses the rapid and unplanned rollout of rooftop PV and the related problems integrating this intermittent source of electricity into the grid. The grid is supposed to operate at 230 volts, but large numbers of rooftop PV systems feeding electricity into the grid can increase the voltage to level which are too high – a problem most people in the energy policy debate would never even consider.
In the final chapters, the author discusses possible solutions to the current electricity crisis, giving the reader a much-needed dose of optimism after the previous few chapters detailing how incompetent many government decision makers have been. Overall, I would recommend this book to anybody with an interest in energy policy. It gives a great overview of how Australia’s electricity grid operates and how renewables and firm power operate within it. It also shows that just about all the current problems in the grid were caused by government policy and handing these decisions back to the experts who run it would solve most of these problems. For investors this books outlines the very real risks for companies with electricity exposure (such as AGL) or companies who consume large amounts of gas or electricity such as building products manufacturers (Boral, CSR, Brickworks etc.). This book gives you the tools to understand – and debunk – the claims of politicians on both sides of the fence. 9/10.
The book can be purchased here.