Second-Rate Solar: Cloudy Weather Brings Chaos to Communities Reliant on Solar Power

Recharging a mobile phone with a solar panel when you’re camping might be a wheeze, but don’t expect solar to deliver serious power when you need it most.

A few years back, Greenpeace turned up in an Indian village, Dharnai and supplied it with a solar-powered micro-grid, crowing that “Dharnai refused to give into the trap of the fossil fuel industry”.

Locals had collected $US680 in the hope of buying access to the central power grid, which is fed by coal-fired power plants. But Greenpeace swooped to the ‘rescue’ with a solar system.

The day the electricity was turned on, the batteries were drained of power within a few hours. And locals were as furious as they were perplexed, having been promised around-the-clock power by Greenpeace and its acolytes.

A boy from Dharnai, hoping to do his homework early in the morning before leaving to work in the fields, was disappointed because there wasn’t enough power to run the family’s single electric lamp.

Oh, and then there was the cost. Power from Greenpeace’s self-contained solar system is three times more expensive than coal-fired power delivered by the central power grid, and it also requires the use of energy-efficient light bulbs, that cost 66 times more than normal light bulbs.

Dharnai’s inhabitants became fed up with the cost and unreliability of Greenpeace’s solar miracle, and demanded to be connected to the central power grid.

Shortly after firing up the local solar micro-grid, Greenpeace invited the state Chief Minister to the village so he could meet the grateful inhabitants.

However, the Minister was met by a large and angry mob, waving signs and singing songs demanding “real electricity” (the kind you can use to run the stove and the refrigerator) and not “fake electricity” (meaning solar energy).

Proving that all politics is local, a week later, a 100kW transformer was installed, and Dharnai started receiving reliable and affordable coal-fired power. You can read more on the story here: The Cruel Hypocrisy: West Drops Wind Power as it Forces ‘Fake Electricity’ on the World’s Poor

Closer to home, in October last year, Alice Springs (in Australia’s Red Centre) suffered a widespread blackout that lasted for around nine hours, thanks to a little pesky cloud cover that interfered with the output from its thousands of solar panels, which are meant to provide a substantial proportion of the power needed to run the outback town of around 29,000 inhabitants.

The NT government’s spin doctors went into damage control, with a waffling response that avoided any reference to solar panels being the (obvious) culprits, as the ABC dutifully reported:

The outage was caused by a cloud which rolled in to Alice Springs about 2:00pm on Sunday, which caused a “reasonably large increase” to the system, Mr Duignan said. “That resulted in the majority of our units going into an overload condition,” he said.

“Those units stayed in an overload condition for a number of minutes before they tripped off on their protection systems … the battery energy storage system went to full output before it tripped off as a consequence of the outage.”

So, what type of power source might be interfered with by “a cloud”? For more on that embarrassing RE failure, see Jo Nova’s post: Oopsie solar-battery fail? Cloud causes System Black event at Alice Springs affecting thousands

And still the NT continues to suffer from weather travesties, where clouds seem to be conspiring against Territorians, with another widespread solar power fail.

Telstra struggling with overcast conditions, flooding, to keep solar-powered network up
ABC
Stewart Brash and Samantha Jonscher
7 March 2020

Telstra says the stations that provide landline and mobile phone coverage to some remote communities in Central Australia are not robust enough to withstand several days of cloud cover.

Key points:

  • Under days of cloud cover, solar-powered Telstra stations do not charge and can run empty, resulting in no phone coverage
  • The telco’s staff are tackling bushfire reconstruction on the eastern seaboard, removing staff from the region
  • Outages mean ATMs can’t be used and power cards can’t be purchased — the pre-paid electricity system used in remote communities
  • The region has received significant rainfall recently thanks to ex-cyclone Esther, and as a result several communities have gone without phone coverage for more than 24 hours at a time.

“[The stations] are powered by solar power-charged batteries which charge during the day and last through the night,” Telstra’s Nic Danks said.

He said that in bad weather, however, the batteries do not charge and they can run empty, meaning that several days of cloud cover could result in no coverage.

“The issue is power. And we need to replace the batteries at those sites. It’s been a bad year for us and we apologise to customers at those sites,” he said.

He said that in these situations, Telstra typically deploys a technician with a back-up generator.

But because of the rain, some of the stations were inaccessible.

“Once the roads are flooded [we] throw our arms up in the air about that one,” he said.

Mr Danks said that recent bushfires had also removed staff from the region.

“We’ve all seen what’s happened on the eastern seaboard, to our infrastructure as well, so the guys that we would usually pull out and bring to this are tied up doing those jobs,” Mr Danks said.

He said communities could expect further service outages.

“If this weather continues, and the batteries there aren’t getting recharged, and we can’t get there, then yes — we may still have some interruptions,” he said.

Network loss means no food, fuel, power
The communities of Santa Teresa and Titjikala, south-east of Alice Springs, were without mobile and landline coverage for over thirty hours in a recent outage.

Several communities north-west of Alice Springs, home to over 2,000 people, have also been affected by frequent service disruptions.

In the most recent outage, Santa Teresa was also cut off by road because of flooding.

Santa Teresa parish assistant Sister Liz Wiemers said being that isolated was alarming.

“We couldn’t use ATMs, couldn’t buy fuel, community members couldn’t buy power cards,” Sister Wiemers said, referring to the pre-paid electricity system used in remote communities.

“If someone wanted the police or the clinic they just couldn’t get them. It wasn’t good. And the road was closed as well.”
ABC

Three days of clouds and solar and battery fails leaving remote community cut off without phones
Jo Nova Blog
Jo Nova
7 March 2020

If solar power and batteries were a winner anywhere, we’d hope it would be in remote Australian communities. But a cyclone clouded over Central-Australia for a few days and the batteries ran out. People had no money, no phone and no landline either. To boot, the rain flooded the roads, so people were cut off in every sense.

Welcome to Renewable World:

Telstra says the stations that provide landline and mobile phone coverage to some remote communities in Central Australia are not robust enough to withstand several days of cloud cover.

The communities of Santa Teresa and Titjikala, south-east of Alice Springs, were without mobile and landline coverage for over thirty hours in a recent outage.

In the most recent outage, Santa Teresa was also cut off by road because of flooding.

Santa Teresa parish assistant Sister Liz Wiemers said being that isolated was alarming.

“We couldn’t use ATMs, couldn’t buy fuel, community members couldn’t buy power cards,” Sister Wiemers said, referring to the pre-paid electricity system used in remote communities.

Obviously they need diesel-gens as a back up. But because the roads were blocked Telstra couldn’t send any technicians out with one. They said they need to replace those batteries, but may not be able to for a while (busy repairing things in the fire-zones presumably).

This is what 100% renewable looks like. Hope no one needs a doctor.
Jo Nova Blog

Clouds offer no silver lining for those stuck with solar.

About stopthesethings

We are a group of citizens concerned about the rapid spread of industrial wind power generation installations across Australia.

Comments

  1. sylvia.priest@googlemail.com says:

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  2. Chris Hart says:

    The comments about Telstra stations are illogical, though:
    “Telstra says the stations that provide landline and mobile phone coverage to some remote communities in Central Australia are not robust enough to withstand several days of cloud cover.”
    My (industry) understanding is that:
    a) Many remote Telstra sites have *never* had direct power, and have *always* run from solar and battery – even back in the late 70s! So its just not a question of choosing ‘powerlines’ vs ‘solar’; they were commercial decisions based on the otherwise comparably exorbitant cost of running tens/hundreds of kilometres of powerlines and associated transformers – for maybe *one* station!
    It is another matter, but associated nevertheless, to say that Telstra has not budgeted for big enough batteries for the classic ‘3 or more days without sun’ that all off-grid system designers have to address. So it is very remiss to just ‘blame it on solar’, as though it is intrinsically bad – after all, its done the job for remote stations for maybe more than 50 years. So get the design and budget right if 3 (or more) days without sun is required.
    b) For on-grid Telstra stations, they traditionally have always had back-up battery supplies. So how many hours without power would you like Telstra to contract for? Purely an economic decision on the battery size.
    I have heard that even suburban stations have nowhere near the backup capacity they used to have in case of a powercut. If so, it is a case that if a ‘big one’ hits, say goodbye to Telstra comms (other than satellite) – as the those in fired/flooded areas unfortunately found out.

    • Really, solar 50 years ago!?!

      The post wasn’t just about Telstra’s reliance on solar and batteries, it covered Greenpeace and its efforts to push fake electricity in India, and the blackouts in Alice Springs caused by its over reliance on solar and batteries. They continue, by the way.

      Mobile phone services are an essential service and monsoonal weather is not unknown in northern Australia. You mention bigger batteries, but the most effective and cheapest option would be to have a small diesel generator to automatically operate when the batteries go flat. A pretty obvious solution, don’t you think? Off grid systems designed to provide reliable power include a diesel generator. That’s just common sense.

      • Chris Hart says:

        Yes, solar was around then – not much, but it spread more widely as the cost came down.
        Yes, agreed, as read, Greenpeace provided a terrible solution – looking to be very under-designed, a bit like providing a foot-bridge when a 2-lane vehicle bridge is required. This really sums up what I am saying – when engineered properly, nothing wrong with solar intrinsically.
        Small diesel gens have always had their place – but for very remote Telstra stations, what do you do when the fuel runs out? Or the under-used diesel won’t start? Solar will recharge the batteries by itself, after however many hours/days were designed for battery recovery. These are all economics of function that allow the right ‘mix’ of engineering solutions to be applied.

      • Diesel generators in remote locations can and are provided with sufficient fuel reserves to last for days and, in any event, are designed to run without interuption for lengthy periods. We don’t accept that diesel generators are unreliable, they’ve been powering mines, mining camps, sheep and cattle stations for generations without issue, and any issue is easily resolved. But a cloud covered solar panel connected to a flat battery will produce nothing. At best, solar can be an adjunct in non-essential situations. And an expensive one at that. For a remote community, reliable phone systems mean life and death, which means having a constant supply of power, whatever the weather, is a serious matter. Solar and batteries are insufficient to protect precious human life and a diesel generator with a few hundred litres of diesel a small price to pay to protect those lives.

      • Chris Hart says:

        You misunderstand my point about remote Telstra stations – I’m talking about remote ones not inhabited – these would be more difficult to maintain with genset backup and small solar compared to sufficiently large enough solar. Inhabited remote areas off the grid should also all have diesel or some other alternative power supply to solar; just as you would if you were on the end of a sometimes flaky SWER-line (small mains supply). I’ve made no argument against the intrinsic worth of diesel gensets.
        A mix of genset *and* solar will cover you, and reduce your fuel costs – as proven time and again since around the turn of this century.

      • STT thinks Aboriginal lives are worth adding diesel gensets to Telstra’s mobile networks. A small price to pay, in our view.

    • Jacqueline Rovensky says:

      I am not sure about this but wouldn’t Telstra phone/internet services now be provided by ‘Sky Muster’, or has this nbn service not reached there yet especially for outlying areas?
      Of course if it is/has there would still need to be electricity to re-charge phones as well as for all other electrical needs like lights, refrigerators etc. So obviously if the solar is not firing up and batteries are depleted good old fossil fuel generators are needed to keep energy flowing.

    • Being a disgruntled neighbour of MacArthur WEF. On the side of road is a control or weather station with a solar panel and I presume it gets power from the turbines at times. Low and behold has a little diesel generator with small hole for its exhaust, obviously to make it reliable.

      • Chris Hart says:

        Repeat from my previous post:
        “Inhabited remote areas off the grid should also all have diesel or some other alternative power supply to solar; just as you would if you were on the end of a sometimes flaky SWER-line (small mains supply). I’ve made no argument against the intrinsic worth of diesel gensets.”
        And “…obviously to make it reliable.” Just as anyone who relies on computer has a UPS (battery system) in case of mains failure – and of course, technically, solar can be added to any UPS to extend its power-cut time, and reduce charging demand and costs when the grid is up.

      • STT still maintains that adding small diesel generators that will kick in automatically when batteries run flat is a small price to pay for the health and safety of people in remote communities, including the many Aboriginal people who live in such communities.
        From the several comments made we understand your position to be that the resilience and reliability of Telstra’s mobile network is purely a matter of economics, in relation to having bigger batteries (your apparent solution) you retort that “how many hours without power would you like Telstra to contract for? Purely an economic decision on the battery size”.
        Our response was to introduce the notion of adding diesel generators at a trivial cost, which would greatly improve the resilience and reliability of the mobile network in remote areas.
        You then asserted that diesel generators are inherently unreliable (eg “the under-used diesel won’t start”) or that the fuel might run out.
        Our response was that diesel generators, provided with sufficient fuel reserves, will run for days, if not weeks unaided.
        There is no evidence that diesel generators are inherently unreliable or “won’t start”. Provided they are properly maintained, they will start first time, every time. Our singular point was that solar and batteries are obviously insufficient to provide the type of resilience and reliability needed to ensure mobile phone network access to persons living in remote communities. The examples above are sufficient to make that point.
        The fact that mobile towers are remote or in uninhabited locations is no reason to not include diesel generators. Indeed, it is all the more reason to include them.
        You can add all the solar panels and the biggest battery you like (all at prohibitively ridiculous cost) to prove that it is possible to run an electricity-dependent system without fossil fuel support. But the total cost of doing so would make the system uneconomic, when compared to the trivial cost of adding a diesel generator and a few hundred litres of diesel in a tank. Then, next time the monsoon ‘surprisingly’ appears over northern Australia, the mobile network will continue to operate and provide life-saving communications to people in the outback.
        Then there is the broader point that, even with the scale of batteries being used at Alice Springs in order to support its solar generation plants, cloudy weather was enough to destabilise its solar/battery system and resulted in a system black. Since that story ran, Alice Springs has had numerous other blackout events. The idea that modern societies can run without fossil fuel generation (or nuclear, where that’s permitted) is delusional. That’s our point.

      • Chris Hart says:

        A long reply indeed! I’m not advocating ‘no diesel at all’. We do seem to have agreement that a ‘serviced’ remote facility will run largely on solar but with diesel (or other) backup – which requires exercising, and maintenance (less frequently). However, Telstra can rightly be criticised for not installing diesel (or other) backup at stations that have insufficient battery for exceptional runs of dark days (eg storm periods). Hence my comment that I believe that Telstra would’ve (if not, then ‘should’ve’) contracted for ‘x’ number of dark days for their remote facilities (from 3 to 5 or more days depending) – but if the number of dark days exceeds that, and no fuel-powered backup is specified; then the blame for inconvenience surely falls primarily with the purchaser who signed that contract. It is a matter of business economics – not a technology weakness.
        To summarise,the technology weakness of solar is that the array size and battery storage must match load for the forecast longest run of days, and the batteries must be replaced/augmented when their capacity drops.
        The technology weakness of diesel (and other) gensets is that at least some exercising and maintenance must be performed to ensure that it starts when required; the fuel must be regularly inspected and resupplied as necessary.
        Alice Springs certainly has problems, but is on a local grid scale, and is a different example to remote Telstra stations, so should not be conflated.

      • There isn’t so much a technology weakness with solar, it’s a natural one: it’s called sunset or cloudy weather. For very limited and remote applications, not requiring an Uninterruptible Power Supply for lengthy periods, it makes technical and economic sense. Pumping water from a bore for a few hours a day or powering electric fences to detain livestock, where the low-power draw can be met with small batteries, for example.

        Where connection to a coal-powered grid is available (the Indian example) or local conventional generation systems make economic sense (the Alice Springs example, where a small open or perhaps combined cycle gas turbine or two would readily power the town) solar and batteries are simply not economic. Solar combined with batteries will never offer the same volume of electricity at the same cost. The scale of the batteries required is both technically and economically unfeasible. The wild fluctuations in voltage and frequency with solar systems (as in the Alice Springs case) is not a mere matter of technical tinkering, either.

        WA is having the same issue at grid scale:

        https://stopthesethings.com/2019/12/14/sunset-industry-solar-power-obsession-threatens-to-destroy-western-australias-power-grid/

        But we’re glad that you have agreed to the proposition that adding diesel generators to remotely located mobile phone towers makes sense. Obviously maintenance is required, but that’s a small price to pay for a critical communication system. But you’ve made no mention of the fact that solar panels require maintenance in the form of regular washing to remove dust which deprives them of their efficiency, and in large arrays their operators regularly spray weeds to prevent grass pollen or vegetable matter from covering the panels. And batteries have a limited number of cycles before they become inefficient and redundant. Ultimately requiring their complete replacement.

  3. Nice blog. BUT, please change Dharmai’s 100kWh transformer to a 100 kW one, otherwise it is a useless battery.

  4. Terry Conn says:

    Sorry for the citizens impacted by this nonsense – but I can’t stop laughing. Talk about ‘we told you so, a million times over’!

  5. Reblogged this on ajmarciniak.

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