Research by the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) reveals that 97.2% of blackouts can be attributed to faults in the power distribution network. For comparison, only 0.24% of blackouts are caused by insufficient generation. There is a common misconception that the electricity supply in Australia became less reliable due to the intermittent output of solar and wind power, but the AEMC have demonstrated this is not the case.
Although billions of dollars have been invested in Australian power networks, and their operating cost represents more than half of the power bill you pay, they are still the weakest link in the electricity supply chain. The National Energy Guarantee (NEG) published by the Turnbull government is strongly focused on baseload and dispatchable power generation, but that approach will not increase the reliability of the power supply significantly if the network is the cause of most blackouts. In addition, investments in new generation capacity will drive up power bills even higher, and consider that Australian electricity tariffs are already the highest in the world.
Even if Australian power networks continue to be upgraded, they will still be vulnerable to events such as wildfires, strong winds and flooding. In addition, the sheer size of a power network creates many points where faults can occur.
Power networks must be built for the largest load that can be expected. This normally occurs during the hottest days of summer, when most energy consumers are using their air conditioners. The problem is that maximum load only occurs during a certain time of the year, and the network is used below its rated capacity the rest of the time. Networks can be upgraded accordingly, but this drives up the cost of electricity.
Commercial solar arrays and other distributed generation systems can help unburden the power network, by generating electricity at the point of consumption. This reduces the amount of energy that must be delivered by the power network, which also reduces transmission and distribution losses.
When distributed generation is combined with energy storage, it becomes even more useful towards reducing the burden on the local power network. For example, commercial solar power systems by themselves cannot reduce consumption after sunset, when total power grid demand reaches it highest point. However, if solar power is combined with batteries, energy can be stored precisely to reduce demand during these hours.
To make the Australian power supply more reliable, the solution is not to invest in more baseload electricity sources such as coal power plants. In fact, coal generation is becoming more expensive, as solar and wind power continue to decrease in price each year.
Since most blackouts can be attributed to power networks, the electricity supply will become more reliable as we deploy measures that make us less dependant on the grid. Rooftop solar arrays combined with batteries are promising because they can adapt to any project scale, from residential to large commercial and industrial installations.