Alice Springs: Solar city at centre of a fossil fuel controversy

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Alice Springs has highest solar penetration in Australia, but how much solar can it bear? According to the conservative Northern Territory government, not a panel more. And it says renewable energy causes cables to overload, heat up, “melt, collide and fail.” So, it is investing in a new gas plant.

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alice springs solar

In late January, in the middle of a heatwave, the lights went out in the city of Alice Springs, in the red centre of Australia. The blackout lasted up to 10 hours, and it made people angry.

Like a shorter blackout in South Australia two months earlier, the loss of power was initially blamed on renewables. In South Australia, it was deemed by the anti-renewable lobby to be the fault of too much, or too little wind power.

In Alice Springs, the finger was pointed at its high penetration of solar power, which according to Territory Generation chief executive Tim Duignan amounts to 10.6MW, or around 40 per cent of average annual demand, the highest of any grid in Australia.

In the end, neither wind nor solar was to blame. The blackouts were the fault of failing network equipment and their extended duration was the fault of fossil fuel generators stuffing up on the restart. In both instances, the operators pressed the wrong switch or ignored network requests.

But in Alice Springs, the controversy did not end there. Within a week of the blackout, Territory Generation, the monopoly supplier, announced it would spend $75 million replacing the entire capacity of its ageing Ron Goodin Power Station, with no consultation, no long-term energy plan, and no consideration of renewables and alternative options such as battery storage.

What followed was a debate that highlights a lot that is wrong with the energy policy environment in Australia, and the ingrained prejudices of the incumbents.

The local utility started off  by saying that the local network could not support any increase in solar, despite a federal-government funded report that showed exactly the opposite.

And Dave Tollner, the territory’s treasurer who approved finance for the gas power station, launched into an extraordinary rant in the local newspaper against renewable energy that appears to have been gleaned from a collection of notorious anti-renewable web-sites, or the Murdoch media, or both.

In an interview that the local newspaper declared was full of “facts and figures to date in short supply on the other side of the debate”, Tollner declared his support for coal and gas, and said he didn’t give two hoots if emissions rose.

“If we increase our emissions from power stations fourfold nobody would notice any difference,” he argued, after declaring that coal was “unbeatable” as a power source. Such a shame, the paper suggested, that the Northern Territory doesn’t have any.

Tollner then delivered the sort of assessment of renewable energy that would be laughable were it not so commonly held by conservative politicians at both the state and federal level.

“Then comes the sun, or the wind starts to blow, and suddenly the cables are overloaded, they heat up, melt, collide and fail. Brownouts or blackouts are the result,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Tollner then said that Germany, which he said had increased its renewable energy share to 40 per cent (actually, it is only 33 per cent but it is aiming higher), has one of the most unstable networks in Europe.

Actually, the opposite is true, as this graph below illustrates, grid reliability in Germany is higher than most other countries and that reliability has, in fact, increased with the rise in renewables.

germany grid reliability

Tollner also said Germany relies on imports from nuclear-powered France. Again, the opposite is true, and Germany exports more power to France, usually during peak periods when France’s nuclear capacity falls well short of its own peak demand.

Tollner then claimed that “with present technology a 20 per cent input of renewables is the ‘rule of sum’ that can be handled, with highly skilled technicians keeping an eye on it 24/7.

Perhaps he meant rule of thumb, rather than rule of sum. But yep, that’s what was said a decade ago. But the network operators are quickly changing their tune. South Australia will reach 50 per cent wind and solar this year, and German network providers such as 50 Hertz say their grid can accommodate 70 per cent wind and solar before storage is needed.

Tollner probably didn’t read a report prepared by the local company CAT Projects, funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which said that in Alice Springs, the share of solar could probably rise to 60 per cent, if it was properly managed.

The approach of Tollner and the power utility is infuriating local renewable energy activists.

Glenn Marshall, from Repower Alice Springs, understands that the 45-year-old power gas generation units at Ron Goodin in the heart of Alice Springs need to be moved (they are in the centre of town and are very noisy) and that at least part of that capacity has to be replaced.

But he questions why all 41MW needs to be substituted by that new capacity, and why there is no consideration for spending some of the $75 million in funds on enabling technology such as battery storage.

RAS wants the number of new gas turbines to be installed at Owen Springs to be reduced, and some of the $75 million funding redirected to scaling up local solar generation, and battery storage.

It also wants the territory to commit to a 10-year plan to transition Alice Springs to renewable energy
, and to create a Territory-wide Renewable Energy and Climate Change policy “informed by climate science” and community engagement.

“They (the government) have no energy policy, no climate change policy,” Marshall says. “They have got nothing.”

Marshall says there is an opportunity for Alice Springs to become a leader in battery storage, just as it did with solar.

Uterne Alice Springs

“Alice Springs is a solar city and that is an extremely proud thing for the town. We went from two rooftop systems to 700 at the end of the Solar City program and now have more than 1,100,” he says. The local grid now includes 4.1MW from the Uterne solar power station (pictured above) and nearly 1MW at the local airport.

“There is so much expertise here,” Marshall says. “We should be testing this (battery storage) technology, but there is no indication that they are interested in having a proper look at battery storage.”

Duignan suggested that investing is storage now would lead to a “dramatic” increase in energy cost. That much is debatable, seeing that the current power supply from gas is heavily subsidised by the government.

Indeed, Duignan should possibly take note from the Treasurer and energy minister in Western Australia, Mike Nahan, who arrived in his job with a similar prejudice against renewables, but now sees solar and storage as not just the future, but a solution to the budget-crippling subsidies paid to support the largely fossil-fuel based grid now.

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38 Comments
  1. Zvyozdochka 4 years ago

    Energy dinosaurs everywhere you look.

  2. Mark Roest 4 years ago

    It sounds like you should fight to stall it, in court if necessary, but also politically, for 2 or 3 years until battery prices come down or lower prices are committed by someone who can make it happen, and then do demonstration projects that prove that solar plus storage helps, not hurts the local grid. Also show that financially, the utility can be healthy by going green, and by not taking on debt or trying to gold-plate the rate base for windfall profits.This can apply even with today’s battery prices, and you could do charts that show that growing amounts of storage support growing amounts of solar, over time. That can be good for getting citizens to take a stand. Remember that a gas plant can take longer to permit and build than solar. Make as many facts on the ground as possible, as fast as possible.

  3. DevMac 4 years ago

    I’m being reminded of the “Trolley Problem”:

    “There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?”

    (copied from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trolley_problem

    • Cooma Doug 4 years ago

      The decision is easy. However we need an authority that ebables common sense to rule in such matters. Politics in Australia is all about the removal of wisdom.

    • Pfitzy 4 years ago

      And if the 1 person on the side track is pro-coal? 🙂

    • Ian 4 years ago

      Nice reading, but what’s the connection with Alice Springs’ electricity generation problem?

      • DevMac 4 years ago

        Pfitzy’s response above encapsulates what I mean. Maybe to save the many we have to sacrifice the few. And by sacrifice I’m tending towards the ousting of coal-apologists from their positions of influence as opposed to having them killed by runaway trolleys.
        Specific to this article: David Tollner should be “thrown under a trolley” to continue the metaphor.

  4. nakedChimp 4 years ago

    Can people who lie in official positions be held liable for it?

    • lin 4 years ago

      Not while the mainstream media peddles the same lies and refuses to hold these idiots accountable for their moronic bullshit.

    • MaxG 4 years ago

      Of course, what other than lying are pollies doing?

    • Jason 4 years ago

      If they find themselves on the losing side of a war, and on trial in Nuremberg, yes. Otherwise, I’m not sure.

    • Suburbable 4 years ago

      As we saw with idiotabbott and friends, a politician is not liable for lies or promises or even lying about promises. The only thing that keeps them accountable is the fickleness of mainstream media.

  5. BsrKr11 4 years ago

    This is so unsurprising as to be laughable…. these morons are just out of touch with reality at this stage! There is really nothing kind to be said about idiotic and demonstrably stupid choices being made by fearful old white men…

    • david H 4 years ago

      Unfortunately it goes much much further than “fearful old white men.” You just need to review some of the community submissions made during planning approvals for RE projects. But then how can we expect the public to understand the issues when our leaders spout misinformation about RE.

  6. JohnRD 4 years ago

    Suspect Alice Springs is a logical place for a solar thermal tower with molten salt storage.

    • MaxG 4 years ago

      Here is the word ‘logical’… now where do we find people exhibiting this trade?

  7. Pfitzy 4 years ago

    Always so many people in power ready to come to the defence of coal. Its like they’re making a living off it or something…

    In any case – Alice Springs makes a great argument for Solar Thermal if the right capacity can keep things moving through the night, with wind and battery storage. With about 300 days of sun every year, daytime solar with the wind investment will handle the load.

    • Gary Rowbottom 4 years ago

      I would think so, would possibly be a good candidate for one of the variants that use multiple small towers and small heliostats, along the lines of Vast Solar’s Jemalong plant particularly their 30 MW concept, or even Solastor’s Lake Cargelligo tower with graphite storage, though likely less risky with a more proven system from a more established constructor – there’s plenty that have done 50 MW plants, a few 20 MW – eg could have 2 x Spain’s 20 MW Gemasolar plants – though I suspect a single plant would be a more economic proposition (LCOE basis). Storage is the key though in any case. Solar Reserve who are proposing a 110 MW facility in my home town of Port Augusta would of course be able to design and build a suitable say 50 MW plant too – perhaps incorporating some PV ” inside the fence” too to lower costs. Tollner sounds toxic – dump him at first opportunity.

  8. JohnRD 4 years ago

    One of the key features of solar PV is that it can be switched on and off very quickly. Just the thing you need if there are grid stability issues.

  9. Peter Campbell 4 years ago

    If the claims are/were true, then subsidising battery storage in homes would be a cost effective solution. The batteries would soak up the peaks of generation that supposedly are are causing problems. Then the batteries would avoid the need for a gas plant to provide peaking power in the evenings because demand would be less from the premises with batteries.

    • Cooma Doug 4 years ago

      Peter
      If we move the energy market pricing signals from the HV to the load side of the meter….
      Think about thise market forces and modern technology. What you have said here is true but market profiles today are not supportive of system stability.
      Big money is made be not getting smart.

  10. Coley 4 years ago

    “and said he didn’t give two hoots if emissions rose”
    That one statement should be enough to roast his arse in today’s political climate.

    • MaxG 4 years ago

      No, todays’ political climate, with the LNP at the helm, fully supports this stance.

      • Coley 4 years ago

        It’s worth archiving it to paste it in future discussions with the denier dinosaurs though? It equates to, I don’t give a FF..k about the health of present and future generations and should be quoted as often as possible, 1, to illustrate the mindset of the majority of right wing politicians and 2, because it hasn’t been widely reported, as an illustration of how the Murdoch press tries to suppress reality.

  11. MaxG 4 years ago

    There you have it, loud and clear: the people responsible do not give two hoots about it. How can anyone think there will be change? How can anyone thing Australia will become innovative, if it takes huge efforts just to convince moving ahead with common sense (let alone renewal and innovation).

    • john 4 years ago

      Must admit not meeting guidelines re. innovation.
      More like blinked irrational decision making of the worst kind.

  12. Cooma Doug 4 years ago

    I did a white board talk to group of middle aged green thinkers. We started from nothing and built a power supply for their town.
    We ended up with an islanded 100% renewable energy supply.
    Coal didnt get a mention. The main grid didnt get a run either.
    We started the process by dealing with the various hobby farms who had huge grid connection fees.

    • Pfitzy 4 years ago

      Great stuff Doug – have you got the process and journey documented anywhere? Would be good to get it out there and start putting the wind up a few politicians and executives.

      When I look at this case in Alice Springs, it is no wonder people want to go off-grid. The problem is, for a lot of people it just isn’t an option, and those who CAN’T sail into the sunset (away from the energy companies) are left isolated, in a way.

      I’ve got Reposit installed now on my system, which will hopefully give them more data to plan micro-grids, and me a bit more cost shaved off my bills 😉

  13. Chris Fraser 4 years ago

    PV export is not always a given. Greedy Territory Treasurers aren’t entitled to any of it. Think it over. One device will reduce the so-called ‘problem’ export to zero while batteries behind the meter are being charged. Tollner doesn’t get the stability advantages. The good folk of Alice will want his grid even less than he wants their electrons.

  14. john 4 years ago

    It seems there is a perception problem with Mr. Duignan and Mr. Tollner they really need to get out more.
    Or perhaps just be given some information that is correct.
    This is a classic cost benefit study situation.
    Balance the cost of renewables and storage against new gas powered station.

    Into the study must go the ongoing cost of R & M as well as ongoing manning.

    Put the study together and submit it to the Government as well as making it very public.

  15. Askgerbil Now 4 years ago

    Every cloud has a silver lining…
    Trying to find anything positive in the decision isn’t an easy task but the information on the successful tenderer’s web site is not all bad news.
    Clarke Energy supplied a cogeneration system to Alice Springs Hospital in 2011 that also uses a GE Jenbacher gas reciprocating engine. This generates electricity and uses the waste heat to provide steam and hot water. This allowed the Hospital to reduce the amount of gas it was using to produce the steam and hot water.

    The waste heat from the GE Jenbacher engines can also be used in cogeneration to operate commercial absorption air-conditioning units. If the Territory Government is able to implement this in Alice Springs it could make a substantial reduction in electricity demand, and hence cut the amount of gas that needs to be used.

    The GE Jenbacher engines can also be fuelled by landfill gas, biogas and syngas.
    This provides the option of using a solar thermal tower to convert municipal waste into syngas and use it to power the Jenbacher engines. These options increase the use of renewable energy, reduce the amount of fossil fuel used – potentially to nil – and save on the cost of energy storage.

    Perhaps the most negative aspect is the statement from the Territory Government treasurer Dave Tollner that suggests he wasn’t briefed on the potential environmental and economic benefits of the technology he approved.

  16. onesecond 4 years ago

    Ok, they obviously manufactured a blackout and then lied about the cause and everything else to push a new fossil fuel plant at the expense of Alice Springs citizens.
    And they really get away with that? Does Australia really want to be that kind of a country?
    In Germany in 2015 32,5% of electricity production were renewable, but 37,5% of demand were covered with renewables (the reason being exports) while having the most reliable grid in the world together with Denmark.

  17. Ian 4 years ago

    A previous story related to Kangaroo Island and now Alice Springs have many parallels mainly replacing ageing electricity infrastructure. The decisions of both are coloured by presumably economics and by the attitudes of those in authority. The figures for solar are 10 MW providing 40 % of demand and gas being 43 MW. Either the 40% demand figure is wrong or the gas turbines are under utilised. The cost of new gas is $1700/KWH.( Based on 75/43) What would be the cost of additional solar and current technology battery storage to substitute for the existing gas generation equipment? Alicesolarcity.com.au has a demand graph for electricity. There are 28000 people in AS and 40 000 in the whole district. The summer peak demand is 50 MW and this seems to last most of the daylight hours from 9am to 3 pm. The rest of the time the average appears to be about 25 MW at any point in time.. To cover all power requirements with solar AS would require probably 2 x more than the daytime peak that is 100 MW or more . They have 10MW that is 90 MW more @ $2/W that would cost $180 Million. Storage at $1300/KWH for batteries. Night time demand is on average about 25 MW x 18 hours= 450 MWH 450 000 x 1300 = $585 million.

    Maybe Duignan is not such a FF prick after all.

    • Hugh Butler 4 years ago

      Isn’t the issue operating costs not capital costs?

  18. Phil 4 years ago

    Reason number 17 to go off grid. Described as ……….

    “An obsolete Electricity grid supply with no ability to support renewable power sources”.

    Whether that is true or not due politics or other reasons.

    In cases like this going off grid is becoming just that much more an obvious solution.
    At least the consumer can regain some control over their reliability of supply. And probably costs as well.

  19. Dr. Nick Engerer 4 years ago

    Solar PV is, and will continue to be a major part of the solution to powering Alice Springs. My new project at The ANU will work with Power & Water to quantify distributed solar PV power production in real-time, enabling pairing with storage to provide this remote grid with reliable, renewably sourced power. We’ll remove any uncertainty in solar PV power production, and detractors will clearly see they need a new scapegoat to point their fingers at.

  20. JIm 4 years ago

    Minister Tollner’s portfolio can’t include tourism surely. ‘We don’t care two hoots if emissions rise’ and so forth might impress a minority of ‘commercial tourists’ linked to fossil fuel industry interests, but risks making the idea of holidaying in NT repellent to many who find such selfishness outrageous.

  21. Max Boronovskis 4 years ago

    I have the same sentiment of disbelief at what that guy can get away with spouting, it really is an information war! So what are the best forum/s to counteract that misinformation? Letters to the editor?… To pollies, town hall type meetings?

    The story galvanises me to some action and today I am pleased to write to my local gov urging them to divest of fossil fuel as part of the 350 org. efforts. Their investment review committee looks like recommending a clause to this effect. Hoping for a step in the right direction.

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