Coal power plants in Australia broke down once every three days in 2018

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Survey finds that modern “HELE” coal plants favoured by the Coalition and the coal lobby broke down more often than the ageing black coal fleet.

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Australia’s fossil fuel generators broke down on 135 different occasions in 2018, with coal generators failing once in every three days and new “HELE” technology favoured by the federal Coalition government failing more often than the country’s ageing black coal fleet.

The newly released research from The Australia Institute – a compilation of its Gas and Coal Watch over the past year – highlights the perilous state of the country’s thermal fleet, just as the federal Coalition looks to use taxpayer funds to subsidise yet more plants and additions.

The TAI survey found that gas and coal power plants broke down 135 times in 2018, a rate of once every 2.7 days. “While this could be expected of an aging coal fleet, the new analysis shows that Australia’s newest coal power plants (so-called “HELE” plants) are faring just as poorly,” it says.

(HELE stands for high efficiency, low emissions, but is little more than a marketing term coined by the coal lobby. Emissions are still high and efficiency is still low, so high emissions, low efficiency might be a more accurate description).

The TAI survey found that brown coal generators were twice as likely to break down as black coal plants (on a per gigawatt capacity basis), but the most troubling statistic was the poor performance of the HELE fleet, which proved to be less reliable than the older black coal fleet.

“Our research demonstrates the threat to the reliability of electricity supply in the NEM. As we’ve seen this Summer, extreme heat events are increasing as our already antiquated coal fleet continues to age,” Mark Ogge, a principal advisor at The Australia Institute, said in a statement.

“It is clear Australia’s gas and coal power fleet, some of which pre-dates colour television, failed to deliver ‘reliable fair dinkum’ electricity in 2018.

“Our research showed, however, that it is not just the age of Australia’s coal fleet that is causing it to fail. In fact, per gigawatt capacity it was the new so-called “HELE” coal plants which broke down more often than their ageing black coal counterparts – coal-fired power is simply unreliable in the heat.”

Ogge noted that solar power has consistently stepped up as gas and coal plants failed in the heat. “Extreme heat leads to peak demands but also peak solar energy. If commentators are going to question solar energy reliability ‘when the sun doesn’t shine’ then Australia ought to take advantage of when it does, and when the grid needs it most.

“Last summer, solar significantly reduced and delayed the levels of peak demand by many hours, which is crucial in avoiding electricity shortfalls and keeping prices down.”

The survey results comes as the federal Coalition prepares to move to the next stage of its proposed tender for new investment in what it calls “reliable, 24/7” power generation.

The hurried process – designed to be complete and locked in before the upcoming federal poll, reportedly attracted 66 proposals, including 10 that propose new investments in coal, and one from Vales Point coal power station owner Trevor St Baker for two new HELE coal plants in Victoria at a reported cost of $6 billion.

The request for proposal process – a less formal process than the more commonly used “expressions of interest” – will be followed by a request for more formal applications. The Coalition hopes to have this wrapped up by the middle of next month, so contracts can be written before the caretaker period begins ahead of the upcoming poll.

The Coalition and the coal industry’s focus on “24/7” or what prime minister Scott Morrison dubbed “fair dinkum power” – goes against the real problem identified by the Australian Energy Market Operator and others, which is for reliable, dispatchable supplies during the peaks.

Last week, in Victoria, more than 2.28GW of coal and gas capacity in the state was lost because of repairs, maintenance, plant failures and de-rating in the heat.

AEMO and the CSIRO released a detailed analysis last year which pointed to a combination of wind and solar with either battery storage or pumped hydro storage as clearly the cheapest, cleanest and most efficient option. AEMO also wishes to expand its demand management capacity.

Energy minister Angus Taylor, however, said his focus would be on adding new 24/7 “baseload” power to provide electricity when the “wind don’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”.

In an article written for The Australian, Taylor noted that the strongest interest was in gas, across a number of states. The Australian reported that of the 66 proposals, 26 were in NSW, 17 in Victoria, 15 in South Australia, 12 in Queensland and three each for Tasmania and Western Australia. A further three proposals were considered to be in early development.

The Australian Industry Group says that a government indemnity against future climate action – a likely prerequisite for any financing of new coal plant investment – would likely cost $7 billion.

 

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