Last week, Victoria experienced the longest period of plus-40 degree temperatures for more than a century, while Adelaide briefly enjoyed the dubious honour of being the hottest city on the planet. Lots of people went to the beach or the local pool. Everyone who had an air conditioner turned it on, or took refuge at the office, the movies or the local shopping centre.

The resulting strain on the power system was immense, and a number of commentators over the last week have claimed that renewable energy was no help in dealing with the extreme conditions. But if you look at the contribution of renewables during most of the heatwave, it was pretty much in line with their performance throughout the rest of the year.

About 13 per cent of the nation’s power came from wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy during 2012, with much of the wind and solar installed as a result of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET). Despite the fact that the aim of the RET is to reduce the carbon intensity of our electricity system rather than deal with peak demand, these contributions were a big help during the four-day summer scorcher.

Some people have pointed to a lull in power from our wind farms mid-Wednesday as proof of their ineffectiveness, but they rallied later in the day and ultimately provided more than 20 per cent of South Australia’s power on Thursday and Friday.

Even on the supposedly windless day in question, they provided 11 per cent of the energy used by South Australians.

The state’s rooftop solar power at times also provided between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of energy needs during the heat of the day. This is above average, and helped shave the peaks off power use on the hottest days and avert a potential crisis.

Nothing works very efficiently when temperatures head north of 40 degrees for a sustained period.

The public transport system went into virtual meltdown in Melbourne and people were asked to leave work early to avoid peak hour – a similar concept to peak demand in the electricity market.

In contrast with many other sectors, the electricity system performed admirably in difficult conditions.

Despite supposedly unreliable renewable energy undermining power supplies, the grid operators did not need to switch off supply to homes or businesses to deal with the extraordinary demand for power.

While some people paint fossil fuels as the gold standard of reliable power generation, part of the Loy Yang A coal-fired power plant dropped out unexpectedly in the middle of last week’s heatwave and the Torrens Island gas plant went down for a while as well. These were the key factors that contributed to wholesale energy prices hundreds of times higher than normal.

Energy policy experts agree that building specific peak demand power plants or expanding the network are the most expensive and least efficient ways to deal with the handful of extreme temperature days we have every year.

Although power demand management programs sound like a sure-fire party conversation killer, they can be effective at dealing with extreme peak demand events. For example, the Air Conditioning Trial conducted during the Perth Solar City Program helped households save between a quarter to a third of their overall energy use by allowing their air conditioners to be cycled on and off remotely during peak periods using smart grid technology – without affecting their comfort levels.

This, of course, is just the beginning and we’ve barely scratched the surface of making better use of smart grid technology. But we should stop playing the blame game and pretending that renewable energy is the costly cause of our power problems. It’s simply not true.

Kane Thornton
Deputy Chief Executive

This piece originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review, 21 January 2014.