Graphs of the Day: A really bad day for so-called "reliable" coal | RenewEconomy

Graphs of the Day: A really bad day for so-called “reliable” coal

Multiple fault with multiple coal generators on Monday highlight the perils of relying on “baseload” coal to keep the lights on.


A series of Tweets from Simon Holmes à Court, who is currently a senior advisor to the University of Melbourne-based Energy Transition Hub, has demonstrated that variability in energy generation on the National Electricity market is not the preserve of renewable resources. Far from it.

As we have pointed out on RenewEconomy on a number of different occasions, the unscheduled failure of ageing coal units can be far more difficult to navigate for the Australian Energy Market Operator than forecast changes in wind power generation and cloud cover, or the daily fact of the sun going down at the end of every day.

Even the nation’s newer coal plants are not immune. In January this year, for example, the NSW grid had to be protected from the possible failure of Queensland’s most modern coal plant, as it melted in the summer heat.

The issues of Monday afternoon, however, don’t appear to be due to any extremes in weather.

Rather, as Holmes à Court notes, a pertinent example of what can go wrong with fossil fuel energy generation, even as so many in Australia’s Conservative political and media circles continue to argue that it is coal power is an essential ingredient to a reliable electricity supply.

These are important issues.

Not only does AEMO have to rely on these generators to help keep the lights on over summer, when demand gets much higher, there is also the issue about the proposed National Energy Guarantee, and what Ross Garnaut fears might be a conflating of the idea that “baseload” equals reliability, and that it might also been dispatchable.

What’s the point of a policy that forces people to pay for services from the most unreliable generators in the grid?

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  1. Ray Miller 3 years ago

    Under the new NEG definitions of “dispatchable reliable energy” generating units which meet the new criteria are like fairy gold dust, Ross Garnaut is calling out the illusion.

  2. Joe 3 years ago

    I’d label that as ‘Intermittent Coal’. I’d much rather rely on the other stuff..dispatchable RE.

    • Jonathan Prendergast 3 years ago

      Or “distributed RE”. Too few points of failure is part of the problem.

  3. Rob Passey 3 years ago

    Well if they want a level playing field then each coal-fired generator will have to provide sufficient back-up capacity to ensure reliable supply – and that’s an awful lot of batteries!

    • Ralph Buttigieg 3 years ago

      Or pumped hydro…. you know thats a good idea. They can pay for the storage required when they are replaced by renewables..

      • Rob Passey 3 years ago

        Of course, I think a whole range of options should be on the table, including demand side management – I just like the idea of a coal-fired generator having to pay households to provide back up 🙂

    • itdoesntaddup 3 years ago

      It’s simply another power station – after all, the grid did not collapse. Much cheaper than batteries. Perhaps if power stations weren’t under threat of closure, operators would find it worthwhile to spend more on regular maintenance, and there would be fewer trips while operating.

      • sunNwind 3 years ago

        Do you have reliable long term figures on total cost of RE plus battery compared to coal fired including cost of coal fired station rebuild and maintenance? How do they compare even if you ignore the cost of climate change? How will Australia meet its global obligations on climate by maintaining coal fired power plants?

        • Geoff Roberts 3 years ago

          Let’s discuss CO2 emission reductions as it is too fraught to discuss how those translate to climate change outcomes.

          We are committed to emission reductions and the IPCC processes assist to set CO2 emission reduction targets.

          As a nation I believe we are generally on track to meet our CO2 targets. I suggest we use gas to greatly reduce the CO2 emissions, using agile Gas fired generators in combined- cycle mode when possible, and Open-cycle when not (with modern reciprocating engines the start up delays of gas turbines are overcome, as are the part load efficiency issues, which work against the CO2 advantages of gas as fuel compared to coal.)

          But we must have a reliable system to support economy that can pay for this transition.

          It will be long time before we get enough build-out of Batteries and Pumped Hydro facilities to provide peaking and inertia from those sources.

          Looks like shortage of Lithium production already impacting. New battery technologies will allow Lithium to be targetted to Mobile applications, where weight is important, (think EV’s- the amount of Li in batteries for handheld devices is trivial.) Lots of potential for Australian research and commercialisation here.

          Beware purveyors of fully imported kit trying to cash in on our national enthusiasm to be good international citizens, but going beyond that to actually slander the facilities that stand in their way to profits.

          Many environmentally concerned individuals, from Prime Ministers and Premiers down to children, students and their professors, are enthralled by and I would seriously suggest under the spell of, some of the more eloquent participants in the Renewable Energy economy.

          With being articulate comes a responsibility to be truthful. We need a culture that values and enables debate and this is one of many good things about this site.

          Thanks Giles.

          • Geoff Roberts 3 years ago

            Oh and I should add that while gas may be in short supply in some locations, vs obviously a large national export overall, comparable to coal, but increasing, it is readily transported in LNG form.

            We just need to setup some simple floating storage and Regasification units in SE Australia, until the gas production potential of SE Australia fills the present market gap.

            It is costly to build pipes which we may not need in another 10years, far cheaper to use ships and road tankers to move LNG around to where it is needed.

            Pipelines, while intuitive to some, are a dated technology. (Inefficient too, as a lot of energy needed to push gas through them- ever tried breathing through a straw?)

            They lead to arbitrage opportunities for integrated has and power companies as available capacity can be manipulated. So public policy should steer against that further concentration of market power, but introduce more competition and supply wherever possible.

          • Alex Hromas 3 years ago

            Right on Geoff we should frack our way out of this mess created by the Lib/Nats who have had the beak on renewables ever since Abbot ate an onion. Contrary to what you believe we can build renewable capacity at a rate that will cover old fossil fueled plant as it ages and is retired. Why on earth should we endanger our aquifers and farming land just because our current government has cat food for brains. With any luck they will out in a few years and we can actually start doing something sensible

          • Ian 3 years ago

            The gas burning machines may be very dispatchable but the gas supplies are not. The reason behind having a backup of gas for renewables is the idea that the wind and solar resource will fail on occasions for a number of days. No body knows if this is true. Most ,if not all the time, there is some renewables generation happening and day to day storage can handle this . But consider a scenario where the whole NEM experiences no wind or solar for a week: that’s about 30GW x 24 x 7=5000GWH of electricity needed . If gas is to do the job at 7000cubic feet per 1MWH that’s 35 000 000 000 cubic feet of gas. Liquify that to LNG to 1/600 the volume 1.6 million m3 of LNG. A reasonably big LNG carrier is 140 000m3. So for our monster LNG backup power plant we need 12 tankers of LNG. Clearly this is no Barbie gas cylinder! Even 1GW gas , as used by SA, is going to use 200 000m3 of gas or 300m3 LNG an hour . Who’s going to be willing to supply huge volumes of gas only very occasionally? It’s got to be a daily gas market or not at all for such a large demand.

          • Geoff Roberts 3 years ago

            Well there are traders and gun weather-forecasters, with much higher incomes than I who calculate those risks but it is feasible to divert spot cargoes after they departure from load point, whether that be Gladstone, Dampier, Darwin or Qatar, to deliver gas to meet contract or spot demand.

            With rationing, the LNG storage we already have in Vic, plus the underground storage can last quite a while till the ships pull in and recharge the FSRU’s to repressurize the lines.

            Doesn’t take much genuine competition to lower price.

            Traders and their masters in diversified Gen-tailers know this better than most.

          • itdoesntaddup 3 years ago

            Who is going to invest in 30GW of CCGT for occasional use? Or rather, who will pay for it?

          • Ron Horgan 3 years ago

            Interesting sums Ian.SA could run 1GW continuously for 19 days if a tanker was tied up in port and used to supply emergency power directly? may be worth evaluating?

          • Geoff Roberts 3 years ago

            That is exactly what happens with Karpower’s Powerisland package of FSRU and Powership, which is connected into grid at the location where power is needed, for an agreed duration. A 500MW Powership is operating at Medan since July. A whole fleet of these ships with different capacities from 40MW and up exists.

            See article
            Turkish firm proposes ship-based power station for Port Adelaide | Adelaide Now


            Amazingly, the government chose smelly old diesel-fuelled open cycle gas turbines which are still being readied for commissioning, instead of this ready-to-use plug in gas fired solution for the emergency generation contract to help South Australia reduce its chance of blackouts this summer. On a hot day they may only produce ~70% of their rated output, and they take 10 minutes to start.

            Fingers crossed for many….

          • Ron Horgan 3 years ago

            Thanks Geoff, the Powership looks like a valuable but expensive emergency facility for longer term use. I didn’t know about them.Buying time to build a new power station?
            I was just thinking of a temporary LNG tanker supplying gas only to Adelaide to the existing power stations. Should be much cheaper insurance against crossed fingers for several days?

          • Geoff Roberts 3 years ago

            Hi Ron

            I believe they (Powership and FSRU) are rented, not sold, on a fully operated basis, just like say a drilling rig.

            They could be engaged each summer for next few years, returning annually to a predefined connection point.

            In the offseason they can do the same thing in another Northern Hemisphere market.

            If you supply gas to existing power station owners to make power, they will likely want to fully exploit their already too market power, and you haven’t added to capacity.

            So the diesel plant, also rented, will still get a very expensive, high emissions run, just to try to cover the power shortfall.

          • Geoff Roberts 3 years ago

            Main issue is who would build a fossil fuel power station using conventional gas turbine (open or combined cycle) when there is uncertainty about the duration of the market window. Soon we nearly all agree the extent of storage will be such that there is dimnished demand for gas firming. What we don’t know is whether that is 5, 10, 15, or ?? Years away.

            Apart from government who are spending other people’s money to avoid embarrassing shortage, there are not many nfrmed proponents for new projects in Australia, and gas turbine sales worldwide are plummeting. Major supplier GE laying off 12000 workers, with Siemens also reporting orders down to a trickle.

            Part of that is due to development in Lean burn internal combustion engines. Turbocharged medium speed units are more efficient than turbines and do not debate with normal ambient temperature, als, agile to get on and up to full load in under 5 minutes. Can be cycled on and off without maintenance penalty.

            AGL chose same technology for Barker Inlet.

            A Powership or Powerisland is a cost effective short to medium term alternative because when no longer needed that can be redployed to another market ie simply “sail away”. One recently deployed to Medan connected and generating 470MW in 3 days from arrival. Even mobile truck mounts aero derivatives or containerised gen sets require weeks or months to setup on site before running, in 40+MW situations. Powership is also combined cycle and fully self contained.

            Plug and Play.

          • Hettie 3 years ago

            Are you sure your given name is not Malcolm?

          • itdoesntaddup 3 years ago

            Pipeline economics relative to LNG are not quite as bad as you make out, but if you start with FLNG, you might as well ship it round the coast. Pipelines make sense when you can guarantee

            to fill them, and for medium distances. Make a commitment to replace coal with gas not wind, and I think you’d find pipelines look quite good. It was precisely because in the Fukushima aftermath with Japan buying every drop of LNG it could lay its hands on at fancy prices, gas exports looked highly lucrative relative to domestic sales that no-one thought to keep the domestic market supplied with new gas.

    • Peter Cavanagh 3 years ago

      Remove all subsidies and your renewable energy rubbish would collapse overnight.I notice the generation bar charts have apparently disappeared from this site due no doubt to renewables embarrassment

  4. John McKeon 3 years ago

    I think I’ll go and shove this in someone’s face.

  5. lin 3 years ago

    “What’s the point of a policy that forces people to pay for services from the most unreliable generators in the grid?”
    Exactly the same point as all of the LNP government’s energy policies – keep the rivers of gold flowing from our pockets into the pockets of their Panama and Paradise mates and donors for as long as possible. The bastards should be locked up for their treachery.

    • Joe 3 years ago

      ‘Treachery’….may be a bit harsh a description. I mean they are coming out as ‘dual citizens’ and are conflicted. Don’t have their hearts 100% for Australia’s well being.

      • Hettie 3 years ago

        Not even 10%, Young Joe.
        Their hearts are at least 90% devoted to their own short term financial benefit.
        What will they do when the planet fries, I ask myself?
        Eat coal? Breathe fracked gas? Drink oil?
        The old story that naughty children will get only a lump of coal for Christmas seems very apposite, if applied to climate idiot politicians.

        • Joe 3 years ago

          Young Hettie, you are spot on as always. Coal is the ‘sustainer of life’, at least here in NSW. The following is almost a book but please bear with me. In case you missed it recently there was a big issue surrounding The Springvale Coal mine which supplies coal to the Mount Piper coal power plant near Lithgow. The coal mine has been polluting Sydney’s Warragamba water catchment. Mine water discharge has flowed through The Upper Cox’s Valley via the Cox’s River and into Sydney’s drinking water reservoir at Warragamba Dam. Its been going on for a while. The Court of Appeal ruled in August that an extension to the Springvale coal mine was invalid which would mean that Mount Piper would have no coal to burn. Mount Piper supplies about 11% of NSW electricity. A resolution of the whole issue was to have been sorted in The Land and Environment Court. But, Premier Gladys and co pushed through legislative changes on 11/10/2017 to validate the coal mine extension and so keep the Mount Piper boilers cooking away. The to have been appearance in The Land and Environment Court was now nullified. But here is the kicker to whole episode. We all well remember ‘Lump of Coal Scotty Morrison’. Not to be outdone, NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts brought in his very own lump of coal into the NSW Parliament and plonked on the dispatch box while discussing the legislation changes to validate Springvale coal mine. And here I quote the Roberts…” This amazing piece of black rock keeps you cool in summer, warm in winter, it produces power to power electric motor vehicles. Indeed, it lights our schools, it lights our police stations. In fact, every minute of every day it’s saving peoples lives in hospitals.” The dude, there are no words…..and not a thought about the pollution of Sydney’s drinking water…we can all drink coal !

          • Hettie 3 years ago

            Oh Joe! I’m disappointed. How could you think I might have missed that?
            Well aware, well disgusted, well pleased that I’m well away from the madness that is Sydney, well pleased that although I have access to town water, I decided to have a 13,500 litre tank that gives me the water for all domestic purposes. Town water for the garden only.
            One reaches a sort of numbness about the criminality, stupidity, inhumanity of our governments.
            I count myself fortunate that in this area of rusted on National party voters, I have three friends on the same page politically, amongst the many with whom I can play cards, discuss books, gardening and family.
            Only three.
            Hard to bite the tongue with others sometimes, which is partly why I burst into print on sites such as this so often.
            BTW, good to see Trump thumped in Virginia.
            How could he think that robotweeting voters “I need you to vote for me” would do anything other than make them angry?
            No thought of what the voters need.
            What a moron.
            Rant over. Till next time.

          • Calamity_Jean 3 years ago

            “BTW, good to see Trump thumped in Virginia.”

            He didn’t get “thumped” in Virginia, he got pounded. He got thumped in several other states.

          • Hettie 3 years ago

            I like the rhyme.

          • Calamity_Jean 3 years ago

            Yeah, the rhyme is appealing.

      • lin 3 years ago

        Their allegiance to multinational corporations bothers me far more than their dual citizenship. There is nothing less trustworthy than a politician that plans to work for the industries they regulate, perhaps even hours or days after “retiring”. If treachery is too strong a word (and I don’t think it is), perhaps corruption, conspiracy and theft would be more appropriate?

        • Joe 3 years ago

          Hello Lin. May I suggest that Ian McFarlane and Martin Ferguson would be two candidates foremost in your firing line. No sooner do they exit Parliament and they are on the payroll for FF companies.

          • lin 3 years ago

            Don’t forget about Robb, Mirabella, Wooldridge, Bligh, Kennett, Stockdale, Carr etc etc etc. Jobs for the “faithful” knows no party boundary.
            The whole disgraceful bunch are to blame for not legislating appropriate rules regarding conflict of interest and appropriate periods where you may not work for areas you directly controlled as a politician (or public servant), and for deliberately failing to establish and resource a statutory body to investigate and prosecute political and administrative corruption.

        • davidb98 3 years ago

          nation-states seem to be an aging concept that in many respects have been overtaken by the multi-national corporations and their control of us humans

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