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NSW heatwave: Another catalogue of fossil fuel power failures

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A recent New South Wales power supply scare has been found to have been caused – not by renewables – but by a series of gas and coal plant faults and failures that happened to coincide with record high electricity demand as the state sweltered through a February heatwave.

A report published on Wednesday by the Australian Energy Market Operator has found that, like in South Australia, renewable energy performed more or less as expected. But it was the sudden and unannounced failures of gas generators that put power supplies in peril.

The NSW report confirms – as revealed last week by RenewEconomy – that the state narrowly avoided mass blackouts on Friday, February 10, after a faulty gas turbine caused EnergyAustralia’s 480MW Tallawarra gas plant (below) to trip, taking it out of action at around 4.30pm for two hours, just as demand was reaching its peak.

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Soon after, Snowy Hydro’s 600MW Colongra gas peaker facility, which had responded to AEMO’s call for supply, informed the market operator that all four of its units had failed to start, due to low gas pressure in the fuel supply line.

Also out of action were two units of the Liddell coal-fired power plant – another 1000MW of thermal generation capacity – that had been closed down the previous Monday due to valve problems.

Solar and wind energy generation were also on the decline, but AEMO insisted that this was in line with what had been forecast, and posed no issues.

Meanwhile, electricity demand in the state was peaking at 14,181MW, just under its February 2011 record of 14,744MW – forcing AEMO to call for Australia’s largest aluminium smelter, Tomago in the hunter Valley, to cut production by nearly 300MW.rsz_screen_shot_2017-02-22_at_25531_pm

This action, and a 200MW reduction in forecast demand that is suspected to have resulted from consumer savings after public pleas from the state government, was all that saved the state from the same sort of rolling blackouts suffered by South Australia in that same week.

“These factors, all coinciding at approximately 5pm combined to overload the NSW interconnections with Queensland and Victoria, creating an insecure operating state,” the AEMO report said.

“With no further generation available to serve the demand and relieve overloading interconnectors, as a last resort at 4.58pm AEMO directed Transgrid to shed the No. 3 hotline at the Tomago aluminium smelter (290MW). … The load was shed by 5.06pm and this action restored the power system to a secure operating state.”

The NSW incident followed rolling blackouts earlier that week in South Australia, as record heat and electricity demand put pressure on the grid.

The SA load-shedding event, which was forecast by AEMO, was swiftly blamed on renewables by the Turnbull government, with federal energy minister fingering the state’s low wind output and “gamble” on renewables.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and others joined in. Later, in question time, Frydenberg blamed the blackout on a “lack of wind”, and Treasurer Scott Morrison, infamously, brandished a lump of coal.

Importantly, AEMO staff told the Senate inquiry into the grid’s resilience that:  “Yes, we knew the wind would drop-off and we knew the solar would drop-off at a particular time, but our reserves were fine up until the point when we had forced outages” from gas plants.

The NSW incident, while providing further insight into the challenges facing Australia’s ageing electricity market, highlights a pattern that has been ignored by conservative media and politicians, where major gas and coal plants fail, or go missing, at times of peak demand, or other crises of supply.rsz_screen_shot_2017-02-22_at_30040_pm

In the case of the South Australian outages, 250MW of gas generation capacity at Pelican Point was not switched on, and 120MW of capacity of one of the Torrens Island units – which was running two days earlier – was also idle.

(An AGL spokesperson said the unit was “closed for maintenance”. A Pelican Point release said the unit “was not able to provide a market response under the current rules of the National Electricity Market, (NEM) unless directed by the market operator).”

A further 60MW was lost just before that outage due to gas plants not coping with the heat, while another 65MW was lost when the Port Lincoln gas plant packed it in.

350.org said today that AEMO’s latest report was a wake up call for the Turnbull government to stop it’s “ideological anti-renewable crusade” and focus on transitioning Australia’s ageing coal and gas infrastructure to clean energy.

“Malcolm Turnbull was so keen to use the South Australian blackout as an excuse to hit renewables – even though he was given evidence to show renewables played no part – but is silent on the danger ageing coal and gas plants pose to grid security,” 350.org energy spokesperson, Josh Creaser said.

“The saddest part for Malcolm Turnbull’s is that recent polling shows his desperate attempt at a scare campaign on energy security has failed dismally, with two-thirds of Australians supportive of more renewable energy.

“It is also up to AGL and EnergyAustralia to speed up the closure of these dirty power stations in line with climate science,” Creaser said.

“Climate change is only going to lead to more extreme weather events like the NSW heatwave, which will further put stresses on ageing coal and gas infrastructure. Many of these plants are already existing beyond their lifespan and are a liability to the grid and the climate.”  

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  • trackdaze

    These intermittent fossil fuel powered plants cannot be relied upon.

    • lin

      much like the intermittent fossils in “government”.

      • Craig

        The thing that baffles me is how these idiots keep on being voted in to run our country.

      • MrMauricio

        constant fossils in Parliament!!

    • Mark Duffett

      They were being relied upon because there was a reasonable expectation of them actually performing, whereas it was *known* that solar and wind wouldn’t be. How this can then be construed as a tick for the latter and a cross for the former is beyond me.

      • trackdaze

        Beyond you it is then.

      • lin

        Funny how the AEMO report says that wind and solar performed as expected, even as the coal and gas plants were failing to perform, but don’t let facts get in the way of an ideological position.

        • Mark Duffett

          It appears you haven’t grasped my point. “AEMO report says that wind and solar performed as expected”. Indeed it does. And that expectation was that their production would be plummeting at just the time the load shedding occurred, as can be seen in Figure 1.

          “AEMO insisted that this was in line with what had been forecast, and posed no issues” is spin. The reason no issues were ‘posed’ is that it was thought there was sufficient backup in place. But if elements of the backup fail, is the primary issue with the backup, or with the inherent performance characteristics of the components necessitating the need for the backup in the first place? Surely it’s the latter.

          An analogy. Say you run over a nail and puncture your tyre, then the spare tyre turns out to be flat, what is the primary cause of your immobility? I submit it remains the nail.

          • Cute analogy. But who’s spinning? It looks to the market operator that the nail was Tallawarra gas generator , and the flat tyre was Colongra. Which is what the market operators said about South Australia. They were in a position to cope before they ran over another lump of nails, the failure of the gas generators unable to do the jobs they were commissioned to do.

          • DevMac

            Poor analogy. You knew you were going to run over a nail and did it anyway because you assumed the spare wasn’t flat.

            And, don’t be talking “spin” when discussing coal vs. renewables, my god, the Federal Govt is doing as good a job as the Murdoch Press on “spin”.

          • lin

            No doubt you will be 100% behind the molten salt solar thermal plant and pumped hydro storage proposed for SA?

          • Mark Duffett

            To the extent that they will be an improvement on the status quo, yes. But changes to the AEMO rules to properly value dispatchable sources would be a better, more fundamental improvement.

          • lin

            But it is not an either or question. Both could and should happen simultaneously.

          • Mark Duffett

            I can’t see how rollout of dispatchable sources at the scale required will happen without the rule changes creating sufficient economic incentive first.

          • lin

            There are more ways to create economic incentive than changes to aemo rules.

      • DevMac

        “They were being relied upon because there was a reasonable expectation of them actually performing”

        This expectation is being whittled away, I think we’re down to “a reasonable hope of them actually performing”

        Solar and Wind are known to be variable and, when they’re generating, the power they provide to the market is cheap.

        Gas capacity is more expensive and therefore is used to fill in the gaps in supply when necessary. A number of recent failures to perform this role has put a question mark over its reliability.

        Coal is still the majority producer of power and is the load that solar and wind will continue to eat into, necessitated by environmental factors and the fact that many coal power plants are close to or beyond their expected operating lifetime (which leads towards issues of reliability and expense of maintenance).

        The more solar and wind generation is spread around, the less variable the overall system will be. A bit like how the internet routes around damage by having numerous different paths. With decentralised generation a singular outage has less effect. The challenge that needs to be addressed is how to get there from here. New gas / coal plants is about as far from the correct answer as you can get.

  • lin

    And now it seems that those controlling the power grid were happy to black Victoria out to keep Sydney’s lights on.
    “Victorian cities faced power cuts to ensure NSW made it through big heatwave”
    http://www.theage.com.au/business/energy/insecure-state-gas-generator-failures-in-heatwave-pushed-nsw-to-the-brink-20170222-guigsd.html
    I, for one, am heartily sick of being screwed by Sydney-centric political decision making. South of the border, we get shafted on GST carve up, infrastructure funding and education funding. They shut our car industry on a whim. Now they turn us into second-class citizens to protect themselves from their own planning follies and failures.

  • DevMac

    The current state of play appears to be:

    Reliability is a fossil-fuel generation problem. Could be solved by regular maintenance and testing – eats into profitability of the plants.

    Variability is a solar / wind problem. Already solved by weather predictions provided by the BoM.