Blowing wind

As I write this in the middle of the latest south-eastern Australia heatwave yet another small storm has blown up between federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg and poll-bound South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill over the intermittency of wind power — with the former today labeling the latter “the Neville Chamberlain of energy.”

To quote Frydenberg: “The wind was blowing so little in SA during (last week’s) heatwave it was only producing 6.5 per cent of its capacity, which meant (SA) needed to import a stack of power from Victoria (which) was able to do this not only because of its coal-fired assets but also because of hydro-electric power from the Snowy and ­Tasmania.”

He points to last Thursday when it was still 30 degrees in parts of SA at 10.30pm and available wind capacity had dropped to 117 MW, a tenth of what the farms had provided just after dawn that day. Frydenberg argues (not for the first time) that, because of variability issues, “an over-reliance on wind power is causing (both) reliability issues and price volatility” in South Australia. Weatherill, he accuses, has failed to ensure the State has access to sufficient dispatchable power at peak demand periods.

Back in the latter part of last year, on the other hand, you may recall green power boosters getting exercised about wind accounting for 52 per cent of large-scale generation in SA in September and 45 per cent in October. This followed (although I saw no mainstream media reports providing the context at the time) June being probably the least windy month in south-eastern Australia for a decade.

As it happens, I looked at a snapshot of NEM capacity at 7pm last Friday when the available generation in South Australia was 2,503 megawatts against a State need of 2,816 MW – with supply (apart from the balance attained over the transmission line to Victoria which was under constraint at this time) at 1,842 MW from gas turbines, 212 MW from Weatherill’s controversial diesel generators and 428 MW from wind farms supported by 21 MW of battery storage.

Earlier (at around 4pm that day Adelaide time) the State grid requirement was 2,717 MW and local supply was 2,286 MW – with wind farms contributing 282 MW, again leaving the heavy lifting to gas plant (1,880 MW) supported by 157 MW from the diesel units and the flow over the interconnector. In addition, South Australians were using an estimated 365 MW from their rooftop solar systems.

There have been times in the current heatwave, I gather, when South Australians have been relying on interstate transmission for as much as 31 per cent of supply.

Looking this (Monday) morning, I see that at 8.40am in Adelaide the wind capacity contribution in SA was 270 MW and most of the in-State supply was again from gas (913 MW). By just after 11am the wind share was still only 290 MW against 969 MW from gas with the State needing 1,665 MW from the overall grid system. (At this latter point in Victoria wind power was contributing just 98 MW versus 4,254 MW from brown coal plant, 793 MW from gas turbines and 914 MW from hydro sources.)

The total wind farm capacity in South Australia at present is 1,698 megawatts (compared with 1,516 MW in Victoria and 826 MW in New South Wales.) NEM-wide current wind capacity is 4,360 MW.

Of course the variability of wind power is not (or shouldn’t be) news anywhere. In Germany last week, for example, available wind capacity on Friday was half what it had been on Thursday and in next-door France (where nuclear power was accounting for 91 per cent of needs) it was down 60 per cent.

This is the nature of the beast. Hence all the discussion here about the “national energy guarantee” for the NEM and disputation about the total system cost of an east coast grid with a much higher level of intermittent energy than today as the Greens and Labor desire.

It’s also worth noting en passant that the current cost of power for German householders (beneficiaries of the Energiewende) is reported to be 0.305 euros compared with 0.168 euros in France (and the cost for commercial and industrial consumers is 0.152 euros in Germany versus 0.099 in France).

If you scan the media here (green-boosting sites as well as the mainstream), it is notable that every opportunity is taken to talk up VREs (variable renewable energy) and to badmouth coal generation in particular (the anti-gas diatribes here are mostly limited to campaigning against exploration and production – the bans and moratoriums naturally feeding in to limitations on NEM gas-fired power generation).

A case in point in recent months has been reporting here of the rise of VREs in Britain and the decline of coal power. It is interesting, therefore, to dig in to the data for England, Wales and Scotland (Ireland is a different set-up) for past year. Supply (in terms of actual energy sent out) is widely reported to have been up sharply for wind generation – reaching 49 terawatt hours after a 20 per cent increase in capacity over 2016.

Barely noted at all in the media is the overall picture: the Brits obtained 70 TWh from nuclear power last year (a level hardly changed this century), 31 TWh from biomass (that is mostly burning wood), 134 TWh from gas turbines, 23 TWh from coal and about half that from solar (mainly available in summer).

Green PR boisterously sells the line that “Britain was completely coal free for 613 hours” last year in “Britain’s greenest power year ever”. I’ve seen that in any number of reports. Nowhere have I seen 613 hours rendered as 25 days.

Nor (except in the UK version of The Conversation) have I seen the fact that the low level of coal generation over 2017 masks its continued importance in providing capacity during hours of critical peak demand. During the highest 10 per cent hours of power demand of 2017, coal provided a sixth of Britain’s electricity. When it mattered most (which is the depths of winter there rather than our heatwaves), coal was relied on more than nuclear and more than the combined output from wind, solar and hydro (which was twice that of PVs over 2017).

What all this demonstrates in our debate is that, rather than the non-stop Punch-and-Judy show, we should be focusing on the best possible power mix in terms of reliability, affordability and carbon abatement. This is not going to be achieved by demonizing different technologies (and in the case of nuclear power maintaining an absurd total ban) nor by playing games with numbers.

PS: For all the fuss about South Australia, it is a tiddler in the NEM scheme of things. In the past week, for example, it appears the market required 3.8 terawatt hours of electricity – of which 3.3 TWh (or nearly 87 per cent) was produced in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. This share holds good for 12 months, too.

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