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Record solar, wind “save” NSW consumers as coal, gas went missing

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Oh, the irony. NSW is one of the most coal-dependent states in Australia, with renewable energy contributing less than 10 per cent to its electricity mix on average. Over the weekend, however, wind and solar may just have helped keep the lights on.

It is now clear that solar (rooftop and large scale) was contributing more than 1GW to the grid during much of the day, and around 500MW in the late afternoon on Friday when the Australian Energy Market Operator had flagged the possibility of rolling blackouts.

The strong performance of wind and solar came despite the loss of more than 1GW of capacity of coal fired power and the sudden withdrawal of two of the biggest gas fired generators on Friday afternoon – at the height of the heatwave and supply-demand crisis.

NSW energy minister Don Harwin praised all fuels for their efforts, but singled out wind and solar.  “It’s the biggest day ever for solar,” he said in a statement, and added there was “plenty of wind power generation coming in from the wind turbines along the great dividing range.

nsw feb 10 solar map

Rooftop solar generation in late afternoon in NSW on Friday, Feb 10. Source: APVI Solar Map

That turned out to be useful, even crucial for consumers at risk of blackouts. Two 500MW units of one of the state’s biggest coal generators – Liddell in the Hunter Valley – had gone out of service earlier in the week due to problems with the boiler tube leaks..

That likely contributed to the decision by AGL Energy to cut power to the state’s biggest consumer of electricity, the Tomago aluminium smelter in the Hunter Valley on Friday. The AGL supply contract allows it to do that,

That “load shedding” removed more than 300MW of demand, and with the contribution of solar probably saved consumers from the type of rolling blackouts that afflicted South Australia last week when the country’s most efficient gas-generator sat idle.

It was a bad week for AGL and fossil fuel generators in general. Not only did Liddell lose half its production, with one unit returning on Saturday after the crisis had passed, a unit of its Torrens Island gas generator in South Australia also failed early last week – on the same day as Liddell.

The 120MW capacity from that Torrens Island unit may have helped South Australian consumers, many of them clients of AGL, from losing power last Wednesday in the rolling blackouts or load shedding.

Of course, many consumers – particularly those of Simply Energy, may be asking why the Pelican Point gas fired generator – touted as the most efficient in the country, and owned by the same company, Engie, chose to stand idle while they lost power. Or why the Australian Market Operator chose not to instruct it to fire up.

But more questions are emerging about the role of gas fired generators in NSW at the height of the supply crunch. Two of them, Colongra and Tallawarra, stopped generating in the afternoon peak on Friday, as these graphs provided by Dylan McConnell, from the Climate and Energy College in Melbourne, illustrate.

nsw gas generators

The 435MW Tallawarra gas station is owned by Energy Australia, owner of the Mt Piper coal plant, which (like all other generators) would have benefited from the $14,000/MWh power prices that occurred after Tallawarra stopped generating. It appears that Tallawarra had a fault that caused it to trip and damage some valves.

The 667MW Colongra power station is owned by Snowy Hydro. See our story last week – High power prices? Blame fossil fuel generators, not renewables” of how Snowy Hydro and Origin Energy acted to push up prices in NSW late last year.

NSW gas pricesThis is what happened when the two power stations stopped generating. Remember, this is when NSW was facing a supposed critical shortfall, and when the Tomago smelter had been forced to shut its pot lines, risking catastrophic damage and safety issues, according to its CEO.

Interestingly, AEMO issued a “non conformance” notice to Tallawarra on Friday evening, apparently because it did not follow instructions.

Asked for further details, a spokesman said: “AEMO does not comment on reasoning behind the generator non-conforming with their dispatch instruction as that is an issue for the generator.”

Meanwhile, the supply/demand issue remained critical in Queensland on Monday, which was expecting record power demand and potential shortfalls in supply.

Rooftop solar also played a critical role in that state over the weekend, when the state hit extraordinarily high levels of demand for a Sunday. Solar vastly reducing the peaks on grid use, as the AEMO warned of supply shortfalls.

This graph from Global Roam, providers of our excellent and popular NEM Watch widget, illustrates.

queensland solar global roam

The fact that rooftop solar was delivering so much power during the day would have limited the number of price spikes in the state. Notice how the price did not spike until demand fell, and rooftop solar was on a downward trajectory.

As we reported exclusively last Wednesday, Queensland prices have spiked more than 40 times more often in South Australia this year and have averaged more than $240/MWh. As ITK analyst David Leitch pointed out earlier last week, the afternoon prices have averaged more than $1,000/MWh.

In the last week it averaged more than $450/MWh and over the last 24 hours averaged more than $800/MWh, according to McConnell.

The Australian Energy regulator said on Monday that it would investigate eight different spikes above $5,000MWh in NSW and Queensland over the last three days, as it is required to do.

Back to NSW, energy minister Harwin said that renewable energy was providing 25 per cent of power needs during some of the daylight hours – when solar was strong and wind also blew, and Paul McArdle notes that it provided around 16 per cent of total production during the 24 hours on Friday.

Wind and solar provided more than 7 per cent but could, of course, have provided more but NSW has been deemed the worst place for large scale solar investment.

The AEMO provided this data for NSW at peak demand, but note that this is peak grid demand, not total demand, which is disguised from the grid operator because much of the rooftop solar is consumed within the households.

aemo forecasts

(We are seeking comment from AEMO, EnergyAustralia and Snowy Hydro).  

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  • Jonathan Prendergast

    And over 700MW of small scale solar in NSW at 3:30pm I noticed when the rolling blackouts were scheduled. Solar certainly saved the day, along with wind.

    • Andrew Thaler

      except for mine… I turned mine off in protest 🙂
      So my 6c/kWhr solar power had to be replaced (theoretically) by that $14/kWhr market power. An expensive drop in the ocean.

      • Rod

        I’ve often thought PV owners should have a union and go on strike (at exactly the same time) to push for fairer FiTs. Might have got some attention this week.

      • Trent Deverell

        Agree, it criminal to be paying 7.4c/kwh (Qld FiT) whilst the wholdsale price is magnitudes more from 8am and regular hitting $14,000<wh this summer.

        If I could get $14/kwh for the solar output from my primary solar system, I could make a tidy sum from switching the Gen transfer, allowing the primary solar system to still dump its entire output to grid, whilst powering the house & A/C load via a petrol Yamahaha in concert with the #2 solar system +battery system.

        Probably used $5/fuel and make $50 for a couple hours work in the late afternoon. Neighbours might get a bit pissed off though…

        • Hettie

          All those “punctuation” characters make your comment impossible to read.

          • Trent Deverell

            Something went wrong with the web-site..

  • Ray Miller

    Over the weekend I sampled the various state wholesale prices and looked at live generation, it was crystal clear that when renewables were on line the prices were down considerably. The evidence is become more compelling that a number of companies are manipulating prices in the extreme.
    As was pointed out by another RE author the money involved by high prices at peak times is billions of dollars per month Australia wide.
    So when all the energy bills come in and the fixed prices for the coming year are in they can only go up for all. As I’m not contributing anything to peak energy usage I again loose while my neighbours with many kWs of air-con are not charged for the peak energy.
    What if we directed the massive peak money machine into efficiency, a few billion would buy an awful lot of efficiency.

    • brucelee

      Great concept, tax anything over a certain amount (1000/MWh?) at a higher rate, and return it to efficiency and renewable investment

  • DevMac

    Giles,

    Two more for the “unreliable fossil fuel generators” tally:

    Two 500MW units of one of the state’s biggest coal generators – Liddell in the Hunter Valley – had gone out of service earlier in the week due to problems with the boiler tube leaks.

    Two of them, Colongra and Tallawarra, stopped generating in the afternoon peak on Friday

    • Jonathan Prendergast

      It’s hard to believe isn’t it.

      The facts of the energy market compared to the public discussion.

      Public discussions is how renewables are expensive and unreliable. When this is actually more true about coal and gas.

  • Andrew Thaler

    A boiler tube leak would have shut down the unit at Liddell for a week or longer, for it to cool off, dewater, get inside the boiler, scaffold it up to the leak, repair the leak, test, re-water the boiler, fire it up on Diesel and sump-oil (this takes 24hours at least), then slowly crank up the output. etc etc.
    I remain highly suspicious of the ‘boiler tube leak’ story.
    I prefer to suspect that AGL played monkey business with the market, created a high price event, and in partnership with Tomago sold off the 400MW’s or so of power diverted from Tomago and creamed the $14,000/MWhr

    • Greg Hudson

      The recent apparent behaviour of Snowy Hydro possibly gaming the system has been enough for me to kill my purchasing of power from them through one of their retailers (Red Energy). If everyone did this, they might think twice about playing funny buggers with the wholesale price.

  • Malcolm M

    Solar with single-axis tracking was still producing at over 80% of capacity until after 6pm, while the price spikes were all from 3:30 to 6:00 pm. This is according to the Aneroid Energy website for the Moree solar power station. All new large-scale solar in the pipeline include tracking, no doubt to benefit from higher prices in the early evening peak, when output from fixed solar is rapidly declining.

    The Liddell power station is due for closure in 2022, so within 5 years enough new capacity needs to be built to cover its removal from the energy market.

    • Rod

      I know storage is a hot topic but once tracking large scale solar starts eating into the morning and evening peaks there really isn’t much left for FF.

      On an average sunny day here in SA, PV is around 30% for most of the day. When the sun goes down and the wind is low we are at the gas generator’s mercy. Rather than FF base load we need large tracking PV. Put it out West which is about an hour behind Adelaide and you are still getting significant generation until well past the evening peak demand.

      • john.boland

        spot on. pardon my attempt at levity. once at a storage conf a guy was talking about how much storage was needed to take fixed solar into the evening. i said why not just give them an incentive to point west

        • Rod

          Yep, wouldn’t take much. Maybe 5c extra FiT or extra small scale certificates. Extend the solar day by a couple of hours with East and West arrays.
          People might still want batteries but could go smaller/ more affordable.

      • Andrew Thaler

        I’m working on 3 types of storage that doesn’t need chemical batteries.

  • Malcolm M

    Does the last Table include large-scale solar, or only small-scale solar ? Large-scale solar was 160 MW at 5 pm on 10 Feb, and 120 MW at 5 pm on 11 Feb.

    • Andrew Thaler

      most of the large scale solar would be under contract prices and not getting the $14,000 as per my solar farm. It gets 10c on stage one and 6c on stage two plus LGC’s on top.

  • dhm60

    These events show the economic benefit of roof top solar to the state. The prices paid do not. A point that needs to be hammered in the on-going fight to achieve a fair price for solar. Paying a derisory 0-8.2 c/KWh seems a little light-on to carry a state with a an estimated resident population of 7.62 million people through the worst heat wave on record.
    A point could be made by the 350,000 NSW owners of roof top solar by acting like fossil fuel generators – withdrawing supply during the next inevitable heat wave for “maintenance reasons”. Simple as throwing an isolator switch.