Intermittent: Another big coal unit trips – that’s four in a week

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A 700MW unit at the Eraring coal fired power station in New South Wales tripped on Monday afternoon, taking to four the number of big coal units that have failed without warning in less than a week.

The failure of the Eraring unit at 6pm on Monday follows unexpected trips at of a 420MW unit at Milmerran in Queensland on Tuesday, a 700MW unit at Mt Piper in NSW on Wednesday, and a 560MW unit at Loy Yang A (unit 3) in Victoria on Thursday.

The Mt Piper unit remains out of service, due to tube leaks, along with a 420MW unit at Liddell (out for six months due to turbine blade issues), and lingering problems at another 560MW unit (Unit 1) at Loy Yang A, which has been out for more than a month since tripping in early November.

It means that, aside from the unexpected trips, the equivalent of another Hazlewood power plant (more in fact) is out of service and unavailable as the summer heat intensifies.

The intermittent and unreliable nature of the coal fired power stations will be of particular concern to the Australian Energy Market Operator, charged with keeping the lights on and hoping it has enough reserve capacity to deal with failing coal and gas units.

AEMO last week issued a market notice pleading for operators to check their equipment and make sure it was in a good operational state and able to deliver something close to its rated capacity.

It is worried of a repeat of the events in NSW last February, when with two of four units at Liddell sidelined (840MW), the two biggest gas generators (more than 1,100MW) failed and a widespread blackout was only narrowly averted.

AEMO can predict with a large degree of accuracy any swings in output from wind and solar, but has made it clear that supply is most threatened by unexpected outages from a large thermal unit.

This week, a task-force commissioned by the NSW government after that February near miss warned of a potential “system black” in NSW and noted the lack of preparedness for such an event.

That conclusion is ironic because the NSW grid, sourcing some 88 per cent of its supply from coal fired generation in 2016/17 has the highest reliance on coal of any grid in the world.

The NSW task-force recommended a focus on new technologies, particularly distributed energy – local solar and other renewables and storage – to make the grid more resilient.

The Energy Security Board also delivered its own “health card” on the National Electricity Market (NEM). It declared it to “not in the best of health.”

The three immediate symptoms, it said, were:

▪ electricity bills are not affordable

▪ reliability risks in the system are increasing; and

▪ future carbon emissions policy is uncertain.

So much for Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s energy trilemma and the Coalition’s promise, made when it came to power more than four years ago, to address any or each of those issues.

The Loy Yang A unit trip last week prompted a remarkable intervention by the Tesla big battery in South Australia, which injected enough power to arrest a fall in frequency caused by the outage, even before big coal generators contracted to provide that service had reacted.

Although expected, the demonstration of its fast response capabilitiy is expected to increase pressure on market rule-makers to accelerate changes that encourage such technologies.

The rules currently are tilted in favour of ageing, incumbent technology, largely because the principal rule maker has failed to perceive an issue and has been slow to respond to new developments.



  • SA_Jack

    One of the greatest lies ever told is that fossil-fuel generation is inherently reliable. The almost constant string of failures of NSW and VIC coal generators needs to be placed front and centre whenever renewables are accused of unreliability, be that by the media, politicians, or energy incumbents.

    • lin

      I note with interest that the significant blackouts in Victoria overnight have not been immediately blamed on “intermittent renewables” by our partisan disgrace of a government and their cheerleading propaganda units. It’s amazing these guys don’t drive themselves insane with their mental gymnastics. Agile and Innovative! Very flexible with the truth.

      • Joe

        Only Agile an Inventive when it comes to giving a RE a public slapdown.

      • Michael Murray

        Victoria draws a lot of power from SA these days. Maybe those nasty renewable electrons are causing Victorian blackouts now. 🙂

    • epicycler

      yup, and we tend not to measure reliability in conventional terms of mean time between failure (MTBF) and mean time to repair (MTTR) from a network perspective because most times the network recovers within a few minutes. Instead we have some obscure annualised 0.002% expected unserved energy measure. Durrrr!

    • Joe

      Why isn’t ‘ABC Climate Scientist’ Chris Uhlmann interrogating Two Tongues Turnbull and his hand puppet Joshie ?

      • Hettie

        Because Uhlmann is just another hand puppet, of course. Besides, he’s too busy cuddling kittens on channel 9’s morning show.

        • Alastair Leith

          I’m so glad Uhlmann finally accepted my advice and found his natural home at nine.

          • Hettie


          • Joe

            Does anyone actually watch Channel 9 these days…besides the Poms getting wacked over in the cricket of course.

  • trackdaze

    Guaranteed to fail.

  • Grpfast

    Great deal we got with privatisation of power generators. Bargain prices and no financial input to maintain and invest in modernisation. Only shareholders benefit. Then walk away.
    Crooked or naive public servants and politicians.

  • Joe

    I live in Sydney and today has been a stinker of a hot day. Reading about those NSW Coalers, Eraring, Liddell, Mt Piper, should fill us NSW citizens with dread for the summer still to come. But not a word from Two Tongues Turnbull or his hand puppet Joshie about how unreliable their Coalers are.and these dopes want to build new ones at that. All they are interested in is playing silly political games like giving Premier Jay a giant public spray when it suits them in demonising RE. In today’s 40 plus degrees my Rooftop Solar Power Plant worked a treat…no ‘tripping’ at my home!

    • Alex Hromas

      They are lawyers and bankers and only know what the coal lobby tells them why would you expect sense

      • Alastair Leith

        Turnbull knows plenty, but he’s been a paid to sing whatever tune the piper plays for so long he’s forgotten who he is. Every time I hear him speak it sounds like he’s trying to convince himself more than anybody else. #hollowmen

        • jeffhre

          Turnbull has solar on his own home – and the party tells him to publicly support coal.

    • Ian

      Unless you can island your home from the grid your roof top solar will not work during a blackout. How much your inverter can protect against a grid voltage drop is not clear. Most grid-tied solar systems are very passive towards grid electricity. To achieve emergency independence from the grid you need batteries and the appropriate inverter charger.

      The batteries do not have to be big and do not need to be of the lithium kind, you could even buy a petrol generator to supplement during a blackout.

      Most people would be happy to just have their fridge, lights and communications running during a blackout.

      A discussion about islanding from the grid in an emergency and sharing ideas about equipment requirements, future step-wise upgrades to accommodate large lithium batteries, demand management would have very interesting socio-political consequences. 1 educating people about the unreliability of the coal dominated grid, and the inability of large stakeholders to remedy the situation. 2. Empower people to achieve energy self reliance, a very important alternative to the monopolistic grid service.

      Solar installers who spend any money on advertising in papers that people read should be using this blackout threat to promote standby grid independence vs the more traditional passive solar systems. Companies that have been so tardy in installing solar are risking productivity by not installing solar and batteries .

      As I see it the evolution of household solar is this. Generation 1. Passive grid-tied solar. 2. Grid-tied solar with small batteries to provide demand management , and emergency islanding functions 3. Larger batteries to provide day to day energy independence with grid connection for occasional standby energy import and planned export 4. Solar and batteries with EV V2G capability – grid connection entirely optional and very dependent on cheap P2P trading of energy and full and equitable participation in the grid stabilising market.

      The world’s lithium battery manufacturing capacity hasn’t exactly led to cheap battery storage for the home just yet, but people can transition to generation 2 in preparation for generation 3. This threat of blackout may be just the ticket to nudge the home solar industry on .

      Companies like Enphase have made battery offerings in the 1.2KWH range, which is interesting. These are not cheap but could provide just enough storage to better manage demand and maximise self consumption of solar during normal operation and provide islanding during a blackout for a few lights, communications and, at a push, to keep the fridge running. ie generation 2 home solar system. With a bit of electronics added a small Yamaha or other camping generator could possibly be plugged into this system to cheaply extend blackout proofing.

      Maybe others could come up with their favourite generation 2 solar system.

      • Joe

        Hello Ian, thanks for the information. I was being a little cheeky with my ‘no tripping’ at home. I am not islanded in a blackout and I will go black like most households when those Coalers pack it in during a heatwave or indeed whenever there is a power general outage like possums get fried or trees swinging down powerlines. When the home battery comes, sooner rather than later I hope, then the question of ‘blackout protection’ will get as much serious consideration as the home battery install.

        • jeffhre

          You could island with proper disconnects, and have power during the day, even in the longest blackouts.

          • Daz

            Some states and/or homes currently on certain buyback contracts, can not install such systems I think. Shame.

      • neroden

        Anyone with solar and batteries who is sensible has a system which can island from the grid; you are right to remind people how essential this is.

  • Robert Westinghouse

    An accident waiting to happen. I just installed a UPS for my home office. As with everything the government does…costs the average person more because the government screws everything it touches.

  • Hettie

    4 trips in one week, and it’s only December. Could some climate warrior possibly be indulging in sabotage?
    Whatever, coal is on the skids, and the downhill run is looking steeper every time that a dependable, reliable fossil fired unit fails.
    The solar installers are as busy as one armed paper hangers, so get your orders in quick, folks.

  • Ken Dyer

    It seems quite clear that with global warming, and the associated heat waves and extreme weather events, that the old fossil fuelled technology is not up to the job anymore.
    But never fear, we can be assured that the COALition’s NEG and the AEMC will continue to epitomise that old saying – ‘fiddling while Rome burns’. Never was a saying so true – roll on the next election.
    The common sense of AEMO will save the day, along with those brave businesses installing utility RE, and the thousands of smart Australians who continue to shell out their hard earned after tax dollars to put solar on their roofs, and batteries in their garages.
    Meanwhile, the Sun will keep coming up in the morning, rain, hail or shine, and we can all rely on that regardless of the political and ephemeral machinations and ideological ineptitude of the Turnbull COALition.

  • Petra Liverani

    To what level does a no-brainer from every conceivable angle have to be a no-brainer before the idiots in charge recognise it?

  • solarguy

    Oh dear what can the matter be, coal is shit and going down the lavatory………you know the tune.

    Down here on planet moron, in the great of state of NSW (NO SENSE WINS) Don Harwin, is warning about shit, that’s just about to hit the fan, while Aunty Gladys, spends shit loads of money on perfectly good football stadiums that don’t need it.

    Oh, I have an idea for all those who aren’t self sufficient for power like my home, get Scotty to beam you up, real soon.

  • Alex Hromas

    I suspect that the Lib/Nat non policy on energy chickens are starting to roost. A massive disrupting effort to stop re-newables which are relatively cheap to build and have a good payback period combined with the long lead times, high costs and future uncertainty in thermal plant has slowed growth of new generation capacity. AEMO wants a reasonable amount of spare capacity to ensure grid stability so these older plants are kept running longer and maintenance times are extended with fingers crossed. We are trying to squeeze extra running time out of old equipment as sure case for unexpected failure. The good availability of PV and wind plant coupled with the fast response of batteries will do the system a good turn but as the saying goes no good turn shall go unpunished

  • Colin_MacGillivray
    This is a good summary of the year in Australia. In Sarawak we pay around US 8c a kwh and the monopoly company SEB (government owned) makes a profit.

  • MaxG

    “AEMO last week issued a market notice pleading for operators”… ‘pleading’, what a joke? Why not put them under a service level agreement, which penalises them for not delivering their committed base load?