The Coalition technology skeptics didn’t waste a moment to jump on to social media on Tuesday afternoon to argue – with not a hint of irony – that an explosion in the turbine hall of one of Queensland’s flagship coal generators was an argument to build yet more coal generators.
The dramatic incident at Callide C and the loss of more than 700MW of capacity at that facility was followed by multiple transmission losses that cut off yet more generation (2.4GW), and resulted in the same amount of load being lost. That “lost load” translates to nearly half a million customers losing power, some for several hours.
LNP Senator Matt Canavan argued that this was a strong argument for yet more coal fired generators, and MP George Christensen, I kid you not, posted a trucked-up picture of an exploding coal plant on his Facebook page and declared: “We need more coal power.”
If a wind farm fails, the Coalition answer is more coal. If a solar farm fails, the Coalition answer is more coal. If a coal plant fails, the Coalition answer is still more coal.
Serious energy analysts are pointing to another solution – battery storage – that just might have delivered what was needed to keep the lights on, despite being ridiculed as being as useful as the Kardashians by the keen social media poster Canavan, and compared to the “big banana” by prime minister Scott Morrison, the man who fondly cradled a lump of coal in parliament and told members “Don’t be afraid.”
The idea that more coal generators could have saved the day in Queensland is absurd. The cascading events that followed the explosion at Callide (1.45pm) and the later tripping (2.06pm) of the other Callide units, multiple transmission lines and other generators (2.4GW to make a total of 3.1GW) occurred in a matter of “milliseconds”, according to a statement from the transmission company Powerlink.
What was required in that case was a technology that could react instantly to try and keep the system secure, allowing time for other slower-moving back-up supplies to be brought into action.
This is what is commonly misunderstood about battery storage. Critics say a big battery would have run out of juice within an hour or two. But that’s to ignore the critical role it could play in its fast response – it could have prevented some of the under frequency load shedding and the desperate measures that local network operator Energex took to try and relieve the inter-connector from NSW, which was running at full capacity and was under threat of being overloaded.
“A big battery in Queensland would have helped here for sure,” Joseph Tadich, a senior engineering manager with Tesla, posted on LinkedIn. Many others agree.
“It does appear that there was not enough spare capacity in the inter-connector to import the required FCAS (frequency control) and/or capacity to displace the lost generation, so it would have been valuable to have more local FCAS in Queensland,” said Dylan McConnell from the Climate and Energy College.
“The amount that would have helped is unclear.”
As we reported on Tuesday, Rystad analyst David Dixon notes that Queensland has the “slowest” fleet in the main grid, with a “ramping rate” capacity even lower than that of South Australia, leaving it prey to such events. A big battery or two would change that equation considerably.
The Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, which has on numerous occasions stepped in to successfully arrest cascading transmission events since coming into operation in late 2017, contributed an instant 60MW to this event, but couldn’t do much more because it is located outside the state and the interconnector was quickly at capacity.
A battery located inside the state would have been able to play a much more important role, and a battery of the size of the 300MW/450MWh Victorian big battery now being built near Geelong by Neoen – for pretty much this very purpose – might have been big enough.
Perhaps, given the scale of losses from Callide, it would need to have been bigger, the sort of scale being contemplated by AGL at Liddell and Loy Yang, and EnergyAustralia at Yallourn, or the 1,000MW with up to two hours storage that might go with the 400MW solar farm Neoen is building in the Western Downs.
How much would such a big battery cost? Well, probably not much more than $420 million cost of the Queensland market price hitting the market cap for around four hours on Tuesday night, not to mention the anticipated price spikes on Wednesday and other days before the situation is properly sorted.
And, like the Victoria big battery, a Queensland big battery – such as the one at the Banana Range wind project, which, just to keep everyone happy, might even be called the Queensland Big Banana Battery (and would be just down the road from Callide) – could be built quickly.
As it is, Queensland does not have an operating big battery right now. See our Big Battery Storage Map of Australia. One project, a 100MW/150MWh installation at Wandoan South, is currently being built by Vena Energy and will be operated by AGL.
Others have been proposed, including at the Kaban renewable energy hub in the north of the state, but a loan for that project agreed by the Northern Australian Infrastructure Facility was vetoed by Canavan’s successor as resources minister, Keith Pitt, because he did not believe battery storage was dispatchable.
The train crash interview on Sky News where Pitt, an electrical engineer, refused to admit that battery storage is dispatchable, should now be seen in a new light. On Tuesday, like his Coalition colleagues, Pitt couldn’t help himself, tweeting … “wind and solar won’t be coming to the rescue tonight”.
Federal energy minister Angus Taylor then joined in, telling Radio 4BC in Queensland on Wednesday morning: “We did have a sneak preview yesterday of what happens if we lose our coal fired generators without appropriate replacement.”
No, what we witnessed was a sneak preview of what happens if we bury our head in the sand and don’t build a modern and flexible grid that features newer, smarter, cleaner, faster, cheaper and more reliable technologies, as the Australian Energy Market Operator has made clear. See: We need grid ready for 100 pct renewables now, not in a few decades: AEMO
A few other points to note about Tuesday’s events in Queensland:
+ Canavan also complained about the low amount of wind and solar immediately after the explosion, but that was because most were cut off by failed transmission lines. It took several hours for AEMO to bring them back on as they managed a system “rebuild”.
+ It will be interesting to see the detailed report from AEMO on the sequence of events. There will be focus on the inverter settings and reactions at some wind and solar farms, particularly those in areas challenged by system strength issues, as there will on the settings and response for the coal generators.
+ The Callide unit affected by the explosion could be out of action for some time, possibly up to a year. It will be at least another week before the other units are returned to service.
“Based on an initial inspection overnight, Unit C4 has experienced major damage and failure of the turbine. It will take some time to fully understand the cause of the failure and the steps that will need to take to repair the unit,” CS Energy CEO Andrew Bills said on Wednesday morning.
“It is too early to confidently provide a date for when the unit will be operational again. But as soon as we know, we will share this information. We are assessing the damage to other three units. This will be our priority today so that we can work out a plan to bring those units back safely.”
+ The federal Coalition’s $600 million Kurri Kurri peaking gas generator would have been all but useless in the immediate aftermath of the Callide explosion, and would have done little to mitigate the huge price spikes that followed, even if it was located in Queensland.
+ There is broad admiration for the work of the Australian Energy Market Operator in preventing a wider blackout. Observers note that is mostly to do with the improved “primary frequency response” implemented over the last 12 months, and much of that credit goes to the work of engineer Kat Summers, who has been advocating for such changes, and highlighting the system’s weaknesses, for years.
“Well done to Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and the whole industry for both safely managing the contingency recovery and the PFR implementation!” Tadich noted in his post.
“Eye-watering energy prices are the market signal for new investment: faster and more flexible generation, more renewables, more interconnectors.” That’s a view shared by AEMO, unfortunately not by the Coalition.
See also our recent video: Video: Batteries and big bananas