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Wind power: why is South Australia so successful? By John Boland

The integration of wind energy generation into the electricity grid in South Australia is a success story.

The gross statistic often quoted is the total electricity produced as a percentage of the supply. In the year to June 2012, the electricity generated by wind farms in SA amounted to 3,349 GWh, or 26 per cent of the total supply. This was behind the 50 per cent supplied by natural gas and ahead of coal’s 24 per cent.

Possibly more significantly, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has revised upwards the fraction of installed wind generation capacity “firmly available” to meet maximum demand; that is, the amount that can be counted on to be available globally at any time regardless of local intermittency. This amount is up from 5.0 per cent to 8.3 per cent for the summer period and from 3.5 per cent to 7.5 per cent for winter demand.

The reasons given for this upward revision are twofold. There are more wind farms operating in the state, bringing with that greater geographical diversity. As well, the accuracy of the analysis of this characteristic has been improved (calculations are now based on five minute dispatch intervals rather than a 30-minute time scale. The previous method wasn’t as accurate in measuring the firmly available output).

The final significant statistic is publicly announced projects for potential new electricity generation plants. Eighteen out of 24 are wind farms, with a total installed capacity of at least 2,215 MW and perhaps greater than 2,607 MW. This compares with three projects with a total capacity of 695 MW for gas plants, the next highest.

Despite the apparent success of wind energy in South Australia, it is not all beer and skittles. There is, as elsewhere, some opposition to wind among some communities.

According to Chris Judd, REpower Australia Chief Executive, “Opposition to wind farm development in South Australia is driven by political ideology dressed up as a grassroots movement”.

I believe it is not quite as clear cut as that. I would suggest that in SA, and most likely elsewhere, there is a mixture of what is expressed above plus some genuine environmental concerns. At times, there is also a sense of being left out of the process.

Mr Judd goes on to give an example of the Ceres wind farm project on Yorke Peninsula. Construction there is set to begin at the end of 2013, and to be completed by 2015. It will have 180 turbines with installed capacity of 600 MW.

The crucial point about this development is that it was originally devised by a local farmer, John McFarlane. After talks with a business partner, he brought the idea to the attention of the South Australian Government, and the company Suzlon, which merged last year with Repower. The farm will be connected via undersea cable with Adelaide. The key feature is that this project was “brought to us by the community”, says Chris Judd.

I suggest that one would find a significant difference in attitudes towards wind farms in communities where genuine consultation and involvement has happened versus where it hasn’t. This is an obvious point, but one that still must be emphasised. Don’t forget that this was the original way wind farms developed in Europe – community ownership – and that model has been taken up with the Hepburn wind farm in Victoria. It extends to most development activities – truly involve the community and it is a lot easier; ignore it at your peril.

One point to make, in keeping with the community theme, relates to the demographics in South Australia and the way the SA Government has viewed the whole question of wind farms. South Australia is in some ways almost a city state. Of the approximately 1.5 million people in SA, about 1.1 million live in Adelaide. As such, the regions are even more vulnerable than in most other states or territories. As Chris Judd points out, South Australia has been quite “entrepreneurial in understanding the opportunity that wind brings to the regional communities”.

The picture is enhanced if one extends the discussion to other renewable sources. In SA there has been a reduction in electricity demand in the last couple of years and indeed a reduction in future forecasts. Some of this is due to reduced industrial activity but some is due to the high penetration of rooftop solar.

In 2011-2012, according to AEMO, rooftop solar is estimated to have generated about “2.4 per cent of South Australia’s annual energy” – I presume they mean electrical energy. More importantly, “AEMO estimates that 38 per cent of rooftop PV capacity installed in South Australia can be considered to be producing at times of summer maximum demand.”

This is an area where there has been a mismatch between wind and demand at times. There is a projected increase in rooftop solar, even with falling feed-in tariffs, but hopefully there will be the initiation of solar farms, such as the one being lobbied for at Port Augusta. Different types of generators, with differing temporal patterns, and generators spread across geographically diverse locations, will continue to increase the reliability of renewable energy.

John Boland is a professor of Environmental Mathematics at University of South Australia.

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