We turn on a tap we expect water, we turn on a light switch and we assume electricity will flow.

The LifeStyler has to pay those expensive electricity bills just like everyone else and the price of power in Australia is a whole discussion in itself.  Today I want to give you the idiots guide to why we might have blackouts in various parts of Australia.

A bit of history first, we are actually using less electricity as a nation than we were 10 years ago.  How can that be when we have had less than 25% population growth?  Two key reasons: firstly our appliances use less electricity than they used to; and secondly aluminium refining, which uses massive amounts of electricity, has closed down.

Our electricity network is made up traditionally of two main parts, power stations and a distribution network to get power from the power station to the house.  Power stations traditionally have been coal-burning or hydro-powered and the distribution network are the power lines running all over the country including your street.  Many years ago the states were also all connected so we could share power from one state to another. Note the further power travels the more loss is incurred so it is more efficient to send power 100km than 1000km.

This brings us back to today where we now have the addition of natural gas-powered generators, solar and wind turbines. 

If you are interested you can follow this link to see the actual breakdown

So why may we run out of electricity when we actually can generate more than we can possibly use? The problem is time and place, power may not be available when we need it most and not in the right places.  In this next graph, we can see that most electricity is used around 6pm at night which is also when electricity suppliers usually make the most money. 

Wholesale electricity is sold based on supply and demand and the price goes up and down.  Interesting enough, sometimes users are paid to take power rather than pay to use it, for example in the middle of the night.  This is because coal-fired power stations cannot easily go faster or slower so they still produce energy when it is not needed.  Another interesting occurrence recently has been that solar farms have shut down in the middle of a sunny day as if they export power they have to pay rather than earn income on it.  Some of these solar farms and wind turbines and even gas turbines don’t have the right network infrastructure to get their output to the places it needs to go (in the case of gas, not enough stored gas to run long periods of time topped up from smaller pipes)

Now we start putting all this together.  If the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine or the network cable cannot carry any more power to the place we need it, we end up with a blackout.  Of course a union strike or coal-fired or hydro malfunction can have the same effect but are much more reliable. Before you ask, battery capacity is too expensive and with current technology is more of a publicity stunt.

My parting thought is if you do have a blackout I know you might want a beer but try not to open the fridge as it will stay colder longer!