Cutting the cord to coal – and other lessons from Tasmania power crisis | RenewEconomy

Cutting the cord to coal – and other lessons from Tasmania power crisis

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Hydro dams restored, diesel gen-sets switched off; Tasmania must now focus on lessons learned, and the opportunity to rethink and future-proof its energy system.

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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.

tasmania diesel

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).

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.36.13 am
Toyota Mirai at Shiba Koen, Source: H2U

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 10.38.37 am

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.

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  1. Rob 4 years ago

    Could Tasmania utilise its coastline by employing wave energy systems? If Tasmania could be sustainably reliant on renewable energy for 100% of its energy it would fit nicely with it’s green brand. It would be great for the “green” tourist dollar.

    • suthnsun 4 years ago

      I’m sure Tas has fantastic wave energies at least on the W coast.(most infrastructure is in the W also)

      • Rob 4 years ago

        Thanks for the article Charles!

      • Rob 4 years ago

        That’s what I thought too!

    • Charles 4 years ago
  2. suthnsun 4 years ago

    I’m with the author only up to the Hydrogen etc. Unfortunately that’s a big part of the plug. Tas needs efficient electric only infrastructure, Hydrogen queers the pitch. Please don’t support coal to Hydrogen initiatives. Electrification can do everything Tas needs, the sooner they commit to the renewable energy supply and fast charging infrastructure the better.

    • Ian 4 years ago

      So with you on this one. Amazing analysis of Tasmania’s situation but dreadful hydrogen solution.

      Why on earth would Tasmania bother with other forms of storage when they have such impressive amounts of hydro? Wind and solar in all their intermittancy can be coupled with hydro’s storage capacity and dispatchability to create an inimitable renewables grid. No need for pumped hydro, just complimentary use of once through hydro when the other renewable sources are silent. Maximising wind and solar could extend the existing hydro storage capacity probably 5 to 10 fold with very little increase in the wholesale price of electricity. More than enough power for aluminium smelting, electric vehicles, hydrogen export ( perish the thought) and a dozen other energy intensive industries.

      Tasmania is unique in this regard, having a ready-made storage facility. Distributed solar should be promoted to the nth degree with unlimited export opportunities to the grid. Once the bass link is restored or baselink2 created and the metal smelters are running at full capacity there will be a large load base. Electric vehicles are also very suited to Tasmania’s small size, no need for range anxiety there. Why not heavily subsidise electric vehicles in Tasmania? It has a small population and needs the electricity load to further develop renewables. Such a massive ‘ trial’ can be justified on so many levels.

      • eddierothmanisatool 4 years ago

        i would have rather read an article written by you guys i think. well said. hydrogen. amazing, so many smart people still spruik this energy vampire.

      • Suburbable 4 years ago

        When you burn hydrogen what do you get? Water…and that can be put back into the rivers to boost the hydro. I call this ‘hydrogeneration’.
        Seriously though, like any alternative to fossil fuels, hydrogen needs to be investigated and developed where appropriate.
        Personally, I think the big drawback with applying hydrogen to Tasmania is that the population is too small at the moment to benefit from building a hydrogen infrastructure.

        • juxx0r 4 years ago

          Or, y’know it could be physics thats the limitation.

          • Suburbable 4 years ago

            Physics is a barrier, not a limit. We learned how to break apart atoms when we were at a level of technology far lower than we are now.

          • juxx0r 4 years ago

            OK, wake me up when the hydrogen fuel cycle gets above 40% efficient.

          • Suburbable 4 years ago

            If you’re asleep now at the most exciting shift in thought this civilization has ever seen, you can stay asleep. We don’t need you.

          • juxx0r 4 years ago

            You’re not getting my help to waste that much energy.

        • Brad Sherman 4 years ago

          Hydrogen is a form of fossil fuel energy if it is produced by gasification of coal. I suspect that it cannot claim to be climate friendly until pure renewable energy is used for its production. I’m guessing the Latrobe Valley operation is based on coal gasification without any CCS. Yes, the elusive CCS. Beneficiary of large government subsisidies in Australia but looking increasingly unlikely to be cost effective.

          If so, I can’t see how a fuel cell vehicle running on coal-derived H2 any better than a standard petroleum-based internal combustion engine.

        • Charles 4 years ago

          Your last sentence applies to anywhere that has an existing electricity grid – so almost any civilised country on the planet.

  3. juxx0r 4 years ago

    Hydrogen, lol!

    • Eb 4 years ago

      The 2020 Olympics will be a showcase for Japanese hydrogen technologies:

      • juxx0r 4 years ago

        They could have a new event called “The Running of the Energy Balance” and hand out medals for participation.

        • Just_Chris 4 years ago

          ok genius, please explain how you get GWh’s of energy to Japan (who import 90%+ of their energy in the form of LNG, coal and uranium currently) from Tasmania without ruining the planet? Whats your best bet wood chips? Coal to hydrogen is not my favored option either, tassie wind to hydrogen seems like not such a bad idea. Yes it takes more energy than digging something out the ground and burning it but that option just isn’t working for me, and before you start, the idea that Japan (or south Korea) have just inadvertently missed a massive source of untapped renewable energy in their country is just laughable.

          • juxx0r 4 years ago

            No medal for you!!!

          • Ian 4 years ago

            They could use huge Zeppelins to get the hydrogen back to Japan, and take the wood chips and whales back with them!

    • Charles 4 years ago

      This article started off well, but took a sharp downward turn as soon as the H-word appeared – and the reason was obvious as soon as the author’s employer details appeared.

  4. Brunel 4 years ago

    How viable is rooftop solar panels in Tas.

    I know Tas is further away from the equator than NSW, but it should still be able to produce solar power.

    • Ian 4 years ago States there is 2110hours of sunshine out of 4383 possible daylight hours or on average 5.46 hrs sunshine a day so a 1KW system would probably produce 2.5 to 3 kWh a day or 365 x 3 = 1000KWH a year at 26c/KWH = $260/kW a year roughly 4 years pay back. What do you think about that? My sums and assumptions may be wrong but you can fine tune them if you like.

      By the way Hobart is 42′ South and Berlin is 52′ North . Hobart is closer to the equator than Berlin! And the Germans’ have no problem with solar.

      • eddierothmanisatool 4 years ago

        most decent models you will find assume 3.5-3.8hrs of sunlight/day in tasmania. in commercial rooftop paybacks can still be under 6 years. in resi its longer, but enormous potential without a doubt its just a threat to the incumbents/monopolies business model so its resisted via regulation and the cosy gbe relationship with govt

        • Ian 4 years ago

          maybe discussions like this can get through their thick skulls that there is no competition between domestic solar and hydro. Solar is produced, albeit cheaply, only for a few hours a day but it frees up the hydro resource to produce more power at other times, perhaps when the wholesale price is higher.

          • eddierothmanisatool 4 years ago

            solar is in direct competition with everything. but certainly it can complement in the application(s) just as you say. the wholesale price should fall in the longer term as all the windfarms sell at a loss ;). this seems to have been case in europe and elsewhere.

      • suthnsun 4 years ago

        A decent system in Tas will produce >1300 kwh per 1000w. The air is generally less hazy than Melbourne so compares well overall.

    • Charles 4 years ago

      Tasmania gets more hours of sunlight a year than Germany, and they certainly have no issues. I’m not sure why people think that Tasmania is in the antarctic region 😛

      There are some issues which make solar different in Tasmania:
      – The peak demand in Tasmania is usually the cold winter mornings, not hot summer days – the generation and demand don’t align;
      – The lower latitude means that the daylight period between winter and summer is larger. So while we get 15 hours of daylight in summer, we also only get about 9 hours in winter. A system which generates 130kWh a week in summer will generally only generate 30kWh a week in winter.

      It does have advantages – since the rest of our generation is hydro, weather which is bad for hydro is good for solar, so they complement each other there.

  5. Just_Chris 4 years ago

    What a fantastic article but it still sounds like you are selling health food. There is no down side to Tasmania repairing the bass link and building a series of massive wind farms. Maybe even building another bass link but please lets make it a one way cable this time. They don’t need hydrogen or electric vehicles they have a massive despatchable power source that will easily cope with the dips in supply of the wind farms, balance their grid and power what ever power hungry industry they want but it needs to be kept topped up by a good strong wind industry. The only thing this strategy would do is drop the mainland whole sale electricity price and probably kill off a couple of coal fired power stations that are just hanging around way past their used by date. IMO Tasmania is basically sitting firmly on the launch pad of the next mining boom. In case no one has noticed companies are looking to relocate their energy hungry industries to somewhere with a lot of cheap renewable energy.

    Tasmania, WAKE UP! Australia doesn’t need apples, it needs a new industry and new revenue.

    • Ian 4 years ago

      Sorry, we do need apples and hops, lots of hops. Would you seriously want to convert Tasmania into a huge smelter?

      • Mike Dill 4 years ago

        Need someplace to go in the morning before hitting the bar after work.

      • Just_Chris 4 years ago

        An electrolyser isn’t a smelter, it takes a relatively small amount of clean water and splits it into hydrogen and oxygen. Similarly a wind turbine is not a coal fired power station. Modern industry needs to fit into the environment and have limited impact but it has to go somewhere. Wind turbines in Tasmania would have almost no detrimental consequences to the environment, the digging up brown coal in the la trobe valley for the next 500 years to power the country would be devastating to large swaths of Victoria. The other thing is where we put the smelter, other heavy industry, is not where we need to make the power. A second bass link could mean the power could go anywhere in the Australian eastern grid.

    • Mike Dill 4 years ago

      Agreed. Now we need to get more wind on the other coast of TAS to support and balance the fluctuations of wind across the state.

    • Suburbable 4 years ago

      New industry, innovation and revenue, yes, but appropriate ones considering our current predicament.

  6. Suburbable 4 years ago

    Is there a need for fuel that can be safely and efficiently transported, as oil and petrol is now?

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