Kalgoorlie turns to renewables as fossil fuel backup fails after storms

The city of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, the remote mining region that suffered debilitating blackouts late last week after a storm tore down the main transmission lines, says it will now turn to renewables and storage to provide resilience for the local grid.

The whole region went without power last week after the storm tore down the transmission lines and the gas turbines that receive millions of dollars in subsidies each year to provide emergency back up power failed – and not for the first time.

Mayor Glenn Wilson, visibly frustrated by the outages that caused distress in the middle of the heat-wave, brought industry to a halt and caused millions of dollars of perishable goods to be wasted, says the region is now looking to renewables as a better alternative to the current fossil fuel back-ups.

After a meeting with state energy minister Reece Whitby in Kalgoorlie on Saturday, Wilson told a Facebook video that the city was looking at securing its own back-up needs. “We are looking at renewables … in the event that the umbilical cord is cut again,” he said. “The minister has identified that, and we have started those conversations.”

It should come as no surprise. Australia’s elongated electricity network is particularly vulnerable to storms and other natural disasters, and it is widely recognised that the most reliable option for back-up is to create a renewable micro-grid.

This is already occurring in parts of South Australia, and in the NSW mining town of Broken Hill – which has been affected by its own blackouts after the failure of its diesel back-ups – and across Western Australia too, albeit in areas of smaller population.

The W.A. government last year released a landmark Demand Assessment that responded to a wide industry push for renewables and storage to support the decarbonisation of the local grid, and for local manufacturing given the global push for low or zero carbon goods.

That report identified the need for 50 gigawatts or more of new wind and solar to support that switch to renewables, and the electrification of houses, business and industry. But it also looked at creating new renewable energy hubs, or micro-grids, in regions such as the Eastern Goldfields that surround Kalgoorlie and Boulder.

The region is known to have strong wind resources, and good conditions for solar, and many local off-grid miners are keen to tap into cleaner and cheaper renewables by extending the grid and creating a local hub.

But other solutions are also being put forward, such as battery electric freight trains that a new US study says could provide back-up power to local communities and ferry mobile storage into key areas in times of need. See Peter Newman’s story here.

Meanwhile, the failure of the two gas turbines – which are actually fuelled by distillate according to their owner, the state-government owned utility Synergy – has once again highlighted the weakness of the state’s historic reserve e capacity scheme.

The two generators in Kalgoorlie, like others in the South-West Interconnected System, pocket millions of dollars each year in so-called capacity credits, without ever being switched on or generating any power.

These installations have been able to pay back their capital costs, and generate profits, without ever actually been used. That might have been justified if they had been able, when called upon, to actually work. But last week they tripped after just 20 minutes, leaving the whole region without power.

The state government is still looking for an explanation from Synergy and the network operator Western Power. Local press suggested the reason for the failure is that the plants were not able to operate without power in the local grid – which, if true, would be extraordinary and a blight on the local rules, regulations and procedures.






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