After nearly six months into the Basslink outage, torrential autumn rains have finally brought some relief to our current energy situation, water storage levels have increased for the first time and Hydro Tasmania has managed, albeit temporarily, to switch off emergency diesel generators and gas turbines.
As we draw a first, timid sigh of relief we should turn our attention to the lessons we have learned through this crisis, and the unique opportunity it brings to us to rethink and future-proof our energy system.
Focusing first on the lessons, the current crisis has laid bare for us three realities.
The first is that Tasmania needs to expand and diversify its renewable energy generation capacity.
Up until December 20 last year conventional wisdom had it that the total installed capacity in our hydro system, nearly 2,300 MW, was more than sufficient to meet the average State demand of just above 1,200 MW.
The Basslink outage has shown instead how installed ‘nameplate’ turbine capacity is of little comfort when water storages are down to critical levels. In reality, even under normal conditions our hydro system is only able to meet 80% of our annual demand, with the remainder to be met by our wind farms, gas-fired generation and Basslink imports.
The second lesson regards the role, history, and management of Basslink.
Once heralded as the means to export our renewable power to the mainland, Basslink has in reality been more the brown coal lifeline to our electricity system.
Before its failure, only five months short of its tenth anniversary, the balance of Basslink operations has been in fact 3.2 million megawatt-hour of net imports from Victoria.
It is instructive to revisit Hydro Tasmania’s annual reports from this period, and witness how the narrative in regard to Basslink has changed.
At the height of the millennium drought the role of Basslink was promoted as the means “to rebuild our water storages”. After four years of sustained electricity imports through Basslink (peaking with net imports of 2.6 million megawatt-hour in 2008-09), storage levels were rebuilt to a peak of 53.6 per cent full at July 2012.
In the following two years, Basslink becomes the means “to take advantage of the carbon uplift”. Net exports via Basslink peaked at 3.1 million megawatt-hour in 2013-14, while water storage levels dropped to 32.8 per cent full at July 2013, and further down to 28 per cent full at July 2014.
At July 2015 storage levels were only 29.6 per cent full, despite record May inflows and 1.4 million megawatt-hour of net imports via Basslink in 2014-15. Apparently the need to rebuild water storages was more than offset by the pursuit of a new ‘uplift’ by Hydro Tasmania, this time trying to capitalize from the escalation in prices for large-scale generation certificates, due to the uncertainty in the future of the renewable energy target caused by the Abbott government.
The failure of Basslink, perhaps the only truly unpredictable factor at play, has then only exacerbated and brought to light an ongoing energy supply crisis where the key contributing factors have in fact been frequent drought conditions compounded by short-term market opportunism.
And here comes to light the third, and perhaps most sobering reality.
Beyond the emergency plan that was rushed into by the recent circumstances, and the ongoing quest to justify a second interconnector, it appears that our State lacks a vision and long-term strategy for the future of our energy system.
Assuming Basslink can be successfully returned into service, what we face today is the prospect of several years of sustained imports of brown coal electricity from Victoria, just to allow Hydro’s water storages to return within normal operating levels.
This will hurt our economy and compromise our natural competitive advantage in renewable energy.
The risk to our economy should not be taken lightly, the viability of our electricity system is underpinned by the demand from our major industrial users, and the very reason they operate in Tasmania is reliable, competitive, renewable energy supply.
As these facilities are forced to curtail production in the wake of the current crisis, the ongoing viability of maintaining these operations in Tasmania is likely under serious scrutiny in the boardrooms of our major industrials.
Our competitive advantage in renewable energy, now under threat, was already being challenged by serious competition from the mainland.
A race is underway to diversify power supply and integrate wind and solar power into the National Electricity Market (NEM).
Since Basslink operations first began, over 4,000 MW of wind generation capacity, and 5,000 MW of solar capacity have been added to the NEM, and this capacity will need to double in order to meet the 2020 Renewable Energy Target.
Once the national leader in wind power development, Tasmania has all but missed out on these activities, with the 168 MW Musselroe wind farm our only contribution.
Even the Australian Capital Territory, with only a fraction of our land and less favourable renewable energy resources, has fared better than us.
Through legislating an ambitious renewable energy target and the roll out of an innovative auction mechanism, the ACT has attracted significant investment and is reaping the multiple benefits, economic and environmental, of the clean energy revolution.
Increased deployment of renewables on the mainland has changed market conditions across the NEM. This weakens the case for a second interconnector, at least in the medium term, yet there is a clear rationale to unleash now investment in additional renewable generation in our State.
Sourcing power from new on-island wind farms and solar installations to restore our water storages is a far better proposition than importing brown coal power from Victoria.
This strategy brings the added benefit of significant new investment in the State, boost the confidence of our major industrials and lay the foundation for Tasmania to increase its natural competitive advantage in renewable energy.
Beyond power generation, two fronts are rapidly expanding in the clean energy revolution: zero-emission mobility and renewable energy storage.
Once on the fringe of research and development, zero-emission electric vehicle platforms are now a commercial reality. Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs), such as Nissan’s Leaf or Tesla’s Model S, are becoming a common sight on our roads, and will be soon followed by hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) released in the global marketplace such as Toyota’s Mirai (meaning future in Japanese, see image below).
Several manufacturers have joined this trend – including Hyundai, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, Audi, BMW and and Mercedes – which points to an extensive offering available by the end of the decade across both BEV and FCEV platforms.
BEVs store electricity on-board in batteries, and are better suited to to limited range, commuter applications due to battery weight and charging time considerations.
FCEVs generate electricity on-board using hydrogen and fuel cells. The refueling process takes less than 3 minutes for driving ranges up to 700 km, and power capacity to meet the most demanding duty cycles, from large SUVs to Buses and Trucks.
The two technologies are thus complementary, and their adoption combined can provide an alternate solution to diesel- and petrol-powered vehicles across the entire spectrum of road vehicle applications.
When powered by renewable electricity or hydrogen, these technologies can also provide a truly sustainable, carbon-neutral mobility solution.
The benefits for Tasmania are clear, our billion-dollar transport fuel demand could be in the future met by electricity and hydrogen generated locally from our extensive renewable energy resources.
Building additional renewable generation capacity now, beyond just contributing to rebuilding our water storages in the short term, will ensure Tasmania is geared up for the transition to zero-emission mobility.
To accommodate more renewable energy resources, we will need to expand and diversify storage options across our transmission and distribution networks.
Our hydro system is itself an invaluable utility-scale storage mechanism, however its ability to support large quantities of new wind power generation may be limited by geographical and network constraints.
Two key applications are emerging, based on commercially mature technologies, which have limited footprint and can be deployed at virtually any scale and location, battery storage and hydrogen storage electrolysis systems.
Battery storage systems are an effective mechanism to store power over short cycles – daily to weekly – and release it as needed during periods of high demand and/or high power prices, making them a perfect application for storage at the point of use.
In hydrogen storage systems, hydrogen is generated by power and water through the process of electrolysis. While with a lower efficiency overall, hydrogen enables storage over long timeframes, has a much smaller footprint, and offers the flexibility of being re-used for power generation on-site, or used as a transport fuel in FCEVs.
Power-to-Hydrogen facilities such as EnergiePark Mainz in Germany, offer an early example of integration of excess wind power for energy storage and local hydrogen supply. The 6 MW electrolyser facility uses excess power from a nearby 10 MW wind farm to generate renewable hydrogen for industrial users and a network of hydrogen refuelling stations.
Strategic deployment of these facilities along our electricity network will strengthen its ability to accommodate large increases in wind and solar power, and provide a widespread hydrogen supply infrastructure to meet our future transport needs.
Thinking further afield, the expansion of our renewable energy generation capacity could fuel development a new export industry. Work is underway in Japan, and internationally, to develop large-scale hydrogen import supply chains to support widespread adoption of fuel cell electric vehicles and to introduce hydrogen in large-scale power generation.
At a workshop hosted in Hobart by our company H2U in January last year, and more recently at the World Hydrogen Technologies Convention held in Sydney in October 2015, key representatives from Government Agencies, the Development Bank of Japan, and leading industry players have illustrated the significance of hydrogen in Japan’s Strategic Energy Plan, which identifies the need for development of “large-scale supplies of renewable and low-carbon hydrogen overseas” for the 2020-30 timeframe.
A consortium led by Kawasaki Heavy Industry is planning to establish a pilot production plant in the Latrobe Valley producing hydrogen from brown coal for export to Japan in liquefied hydrogen carrier ships. Other consortia are at work, including one led by H2U focused on alternative delivery technologies, and renewable hydrogen supply chains, to be established in locations such as Tasmania.
As we work to restore our hydro assets to their full potential we should not lose sight of on the clean energy revolution at our doorstep.
With the same foresight that went into building the hydro system over the last century we should embark today into a significant program for the expansion and renewal of our renewable energy generation capacity with new wind and solar developments.
This will contribute to rebuilding our water storages, and bring much needed economic activity to the State.
It will also lay the foundation for Tasmania, in a not too distant future, to achieve true energy independency and even become a significant player on a global scale, exporting renewable energy across the Bass Strait and beyond.
Attilio Pigneri is a founder and CEO of The Hydrogen Utility™ H2U, a specialist developer of hydrogen-energy infrastructures for sustainable mobility and renewable energy storage. The Vice-President of the Australian Association for Hydrogen Energy (AAHE), Attilio was the Chairman of the successful 2015 World Hydrogen Technologies Convention (WHTC), held in Sydney in October 2015.
This article was originally published by The Mercury. To read the original version, click here.