Coal units cut out as report warns ‘HELE’ plants “just as unreliable”

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Around 1GW of coal-fired power generation goes missing in Victoria ahead of summer heatwave – and as federal government prepares short-list of proposals for subsidised “reliable” power generation to shore up the national grid.

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Did I ever tell you how beautiful you look in black? Credit: AAP Image
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Around 1GW of coal-fired power generation has dropped out of the mix in Victoria as the state heads into another summer heat-wave – and as the federal government puts together its short-list of proposals for subsidised “reliable” “24/7” power generation to shore up the national grid.

Reports began emerging on Twitter on Tuesday that a generator had been taken offline unexpectedly at AGL Energy’s Loy Yang A coal-fired power station. These were confirmed by the gen-tailer on Wednesday as the result of a tube leak that could take days to fix.

EnergyAustralia’s Yallourn coal-fired power station is also running one generator short, after one of the plant’s four units was taken out of the mix for what is, remarkably, scheduled maintenance.

The timing is poor for market operator AEMO, which – faced with temperatures in the high 30°Cs for the coming few days – is forecasting a ‘Lack of Reserve level 2’ (LOR2) for Thursday afternoon in Victoria and South Australia.

And it’s not great timing for the Morrison government, either, which on Monday reaffirmed its view that new coal plant – or additional coal power capacity squeezed from old plant – was a perfectly suitable contender for its tax-payer funded underwriting mechanism for new “firm” generation.

According to reports – although nothing official, as yet – the short list, whittled down from more than 40 submissions, includes a proposal from coal baron Trevor St Baker to build perhaps two new so-called high efficiency low emissions (or HELE) power plant.

And the AFR reports today that a bid from Alinta Energy to tap the funding for “marginal improvements” to its Loy Yang B coal generator has also been put forward, alongside a proposal for a new gas plant, also from Alinta.

That such fossil fuel-based proposals have been put forward at all – in the age of accelerating climate change and cheap renewables – can be attributed to the Coalition’s unwavering support of coal power and its oft-spouted view that burning coal is the only way to deliver cheap reliable power.

The removal from service of two major coal units – one unexpected, on scheduled – amounting to the loss of nearly 1000MW of grid capacity at a time of great NEM need, however, does not support that view.

Neither does a major new report from The Australia Institute’s Climate & energy Program, which finds that Australia’s newest coal plants, including ‘supercritical’ or HELE generators, break down more often per gigawatt than the older ones.

“Existing supercritical plants experience frequent breakdowns that affect electricity prices and can push grid frequency outside of safe ranges,” the discussion paper – authored by Mark Ogge and Bill Browne – notes.

TAI argues that the government’s interest in HELE plants should be weighed against numbers around performance – particularly considering claims of a mysterious Chinese backer behind St Baker, which is also said to own a “number of existing HELE coal plants.”

TAI’s report seeks to remind those who need reminding that new coal power generation would be neither cheap to build, nor reliable in increasingly renewables dominated and extreme weather vulnerable grid.

In terms of Australia’s mostly older subcritical plants – which account for around 30 per cent of the capacity of the NEM – it notes that these have “enormous issues” with reliability, which were put in the spotlight during the NSW “energy crisis” in June 2018.

At that time, TAI explains, the state’s entirely “subcritical” fleet of coal plants between 27 and 48 years old “failed spectacularly” when almost half went offline during peak demand periods, resulting in five price surges to over $A2,400 per MWh within a few days.

As for the newer plants, the report says that these are just as unreliable, “despite the decidedly low bar set by the antiquated fleet of subcritical coal power plants in the NEM.

“In 2018, these plants have broken down more often than the older subcritical plants,” TAI says.

“Of the 74 breakdowns at black coal power in 2018, 61 have been at subcritical black coal plants and 13 have been at the newer supercritical plants.”

In other words, the report concludes (and illustrates in Figure 2), “state-of-the-art, brand new ‘High Efficiency, Low Emissions’ coal plants burning brown coal would be no more efficient or lower emissions than some of Australia’s oldest subcritical black coal plants – whether or not they are ‘ultra-supercritical’.

“Even ultra-supercritical plants burning black coal (i.e., the most efficient existing coal technology burning the ‘cleaner’ variety of coal) are far closer in efficiency and emissions to other coal plants than they are to natural gas, which is itself a polluting fossil fuel.

“Calling any coal plant ‘High Efficiency, Low Emissions’ is at best inaccurate, and at worst, a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters,” it says.

“Building new coal power plants at this point would displace renewable energy and lock in far higher emissions for decades to come, at a time when Australia is experiencing the devastating impacts of global warming.”

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