A year on from the February 2017 controversy over power supplies in South Australia, and since the Coalition government brandished a lump of coal in parliament, and how things have changed – both in South Australia and across the country. And not in the way most imagined.
Australia is now like it or not (and most people like it), setting a course for a high renewable grid. The CSIRO says it’s both achievable, and cheaper, and so do the networks. The Australian Energy Market Operator seems to agree.
More importantly than that, investors are voting with their feet – the cost of solar and wind continues to fall, storage is making its presence felt, and all of a sudden the path to a grid that is smarter, cheaper, cleaner and more reliable is made clear. And it’s not via fossil fuels.
Because it’s the anniversary, let’s just remember exactly what happened on February 8, when 90,000 customers lost power for around 40 minutes in the midst of an extended heatwave, because there was not enough supply.
It was an event that should never have happened. AEMO failed to keep an eye on weather forecasts, and found itself 90MW short when a major gas unit (240MW), that could have easily avoided such losses remained switched on, sat idle (the unit’s owner and AEMO blamed the other).
The impact was worsened when the local grid operator flicked the wrong switches and disconnected three times more customers than needed.
The media created a storm of indignation and misinformation. Renewables got the blame, of course, despite the fact that three other gas units failed at the same time, taking away more than 200MW of capacity, leaving a 100MW shortfall. (See AEMO timeline at bottom of story).
A day later Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison proudly and ignorantly held aloft a lump of lacquered coal in parliament, thoughtfully provided and lacquered by one of the Liberal Party’s most prominent financiers, the Minerals Council of Australia.
It was, Morrison insisted, the future. But for all its bluster, only thing the coal industry has achieved since then is an artist’s impression of what a new coal plant might look like in north Queensland.
And for good measure, it got a damming assessment from Australia’s biggest coal generator, AGL, and others, that investing in a new coal generator, or even extending the life of old ones, is economic, social and environmental insanity.
Australia’s coal units have been tripping out ever since – including on February 10 last year, leaving NSW perilously close to a total blackout, and with greater load-shedding than occurred in S.A.; and nearly 20 times over the course of this summer.
The developments on the renewable energy front, on the other hand, have been breath-taking – not just on improvements in technology and plunging costs, but also the changes in thinking by operators, network owners and energy analysts about the workings of the grid.
We should remind ourselves, for a start, that the South Australia grid has operated perfectly well even with half of its supply coming from the much decried “intermittent” renewable resources.
It just needed some decent management that allowed no contingency plan ahead of the state-wide blackout in September 2016, a constant check of weather reports, and a change of attitude, encouraged by the new CEO at AEMO, Audrey Zibelman.
There has also been new systems put in place. AEMO has been more conservative in its running of the South Australia grid, in particular, although it is now beginning to relax the reins.
It is turning to smarter options like demand management, and it is making sure that the operators of the biggest risks of network failures – the tripping of a major coal and gas plant – keep them in the best condition possible.
But it is the new technologies that excite.
The Tesla big battery, for instance, has won over even deepest battery skeptics, including within AEMO.
Its speed, flexibility, and its ability to add competition to the market have been convincing. It is already reshaping the way grid operators and network owners are thinking about the future, and has led to a flurry of further storage projects in South Australia and elsewhere.
That will be crucial.
Because South Australia is not stopping at 50 per cent. Port Augusta is host to two huge wind and solar projects already under construction (Bungala 220MW and Lincoln Gap 212MW), another 150MW of big solar are confirmed (Tailem Bend and Snowtown), and Sanjeev Gupta has plans 1GW of solar and storage around Whyalla.
Then there are the numerous other projects waiting in the pipeline, including Tesla’s proposed 250MW virtual power plant with some 650MWh of battery storage spread across the network in low-income houses.
There are another three confirmed utility-scale battery storage projects – Wattle Point (ready by May), Lincoln Gap and Snowtown – numerous micro-grids like this one at a major produce market, and five different pumped hydro storage projects. Not to mention the world’s biggest solar tower and molten salt storage plant, Aurora, due to begin construction later this year.
It is this emergence of “dispatchable renewables” that will put the final nails in the coffins of coal-fired generators and the bulk of the gas fleet.
Dispatchable renewables have only recently become a “thing”. Wind and solar have been focused on cutting costs, which they have done sop= successfully they are now indisputably the cheapest form of new generation.
The missing link has been how to store them, and how to make them dispatchable. This is not the same as making them “baseload”, because the challenge of the grid is not to meet minimum demand, but maximum demand, and that only occurs for minutes or hours at a time. But they seem up for the challenge.
The key has been two-fold.
One is in the falling costs of storage technology, particularly in batteries, but also in solar thermal technologies.
The other is in recognising the value of the technologies. A well managed battery can’t just walk and talk at the same time, it can do about 20 other tricks. The challenge for (forward thinking) regulators and market operator is to how to recognise that value.
It also explains the renewed interest in a relatively old technology – pumped hydro – which will likely perform some of those tricks (long-term storage and inertia) better than batteries.
The coal industry is stunned. Last June, the MCA attempted to mock battery storage as an idea that would never come. Its report into why a new coal generator was the best option for Australia assumed it would take three years to build a utility-scale battery.
Elon Musk’s Tesla built the world’s biggest lithium-ion utility-scale battery in South Australia in less than 100 days.
The MCA also claimed (page 69 of this report) that solar PV plants take four years to build. Neoen, which also happens to own the Tesla big battery, says the 150MW Coleambally solar farm in western NSW will be complete just two years after “conception”.
Even AEMO was reproducing graphs, like this one below, that suggested the maximum effective capacity for a lithium-ion battery was just 1MW. The graph was five years old, and represented a generational gap in thinking about new technology that still prevailed within the organisation.
The Tesla big battery is 100-times that.
Even Snowy Hydro has been caught short by developments. For mostly its own commercial reasons, it wants to build Snowy 2.0 – a massive 2GW of pumped hydro with 170 hours of storage.
It has hitched a ride of political convenience with prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is anxious to prove that South Australia and Labor are wrong about everything.
But as its own studies show, Snowy 2.0 will probably not be needed until 2040. And if it waits until then for the green light for construction, it will be overtaken by a plethora of smaller, distributed storage proposals, including pumped hydro, battery storage, and even solar thermal.
Snowy Hydro’s consultants justify Snowy 2.0 by claiming that battery storage paired with solar or wind is hideously expensive: between $350/MWh and $700/MWh.
But the real world says otherwise.
Bids for solar and wind and battery storage in the US in January revealed stunning proposals at less than one tenth of the price assumed by Snowy, and Tilt Renewables’ commitment to a solar and storage facility next to the Snowtown wind farm show Snowy’s estimates to be out of the ballpark.
Tilt will not reveal what its estimated cost for solar and storage will be, but suffice to say that it expects that it will be lower than the current wholesale price of electricity in South Australia, around $100/MWh. Otherwise it wouldn’t bother.
“We believe we can make an economic proposition out of it in current market,” CEO Deion Campbell told RenewEconomy this week. “We wouldn’t be bothering if it was not a good option for our shareholders. We are not here to throw money away.”
And that is going to be the case for projects around the country.
Solar and wind are building in dispatchability – at the Hornsdale, Snowtown, Lincoln Gap, Wattle Point, Bulgana and Kennedy wind projects to name a few, and the Genex, Lakeland, and Snowtown solar projects.
And there will be a bunch of others of massive scale to follow, combining wind, solar, battery and sometimes hydro, like Gupta’s plans for Whyalla, DP Energy’s for Port Augusta, and CWP’s for Glen Innes and Townsville
As we mentioned at the start, most of the power losses experienced in the last 18 months could, and probably should, have been avoided. The fossil fuel industry, and their acolytes, saw it as vindication of their ageing technologies.
Happily, the industry has turned to the future and not the past, and there is no looking back.