Negative on energy

Tucked inside my new, warm dressing gown, which enables me to get by with a single bar on the heater in my work space, I spent a fair bit of the wintry long weekend pondering our energy language.

Many examples can be paraded of language that is florid, inadequate and sometimes designed to mislead. Needless to say, the happenings in New South Wales power supply last week, have seen “crisis” hustled back in to the media headlines, along with “coal chaos” in some greener outlets despite, in the words of a Melbourne University academic, “nothing going wrong, the lights staying on and the market doing what it is supposed to do”.

The latest fuss comes barely three weeks since the Australian Energy Market Operator, under the headline “Positive energy,” felt able to publish an upbeat media statement that “despite the 2017-18 summer being the second-warmest on record, the NEM did not experience any electricity customer supply interruptions due to insufficient generation.”

However, go negative on energy is a selling proposition (“clickbait” in the jargon) for the media at large and negatives on coal or, for some conservatives, renewables is another constant of what we get to read, see and hear, especially focused on the east coast power market.

Weigh this against a comment from an Origin Energy executive published yesterday to the effect that “the NEM is coping pretty well through a period of significant transition, with reliability of supply still high even as coal plants age and close and as we significantly boost supply from renewable sources like wind and solar.”

So what happened in NSW in what the WattClarity analyst Paul McArdle has described as a “shaky week” and made AEMO comment that these events are “a sobering reminder that, even outside of the traditional summer peak periods, there is still a need to ensure adequate resources are available to manage the system”?

First, weather conditions across the Sydney basin had the community seeking warmth big time, contributing to State capacity demand pushing towards 11,000 megawatts against a June peak demand average for NSW of 10,550 MW. (It always pays to remember, of course, that 60 per cent of the total demand is from commerce, public services and industry but the residential reaction to weather can impact on peaks.)

Second, last week’s higher peaks coincided with both substantial planned outages by large State (coal and gas) plants and some 1,400 MW of unplanned outages. At the depth of supply wrestling, according to WattClarity, there was 2,000 MW less coal capacity available than at the same time the previous week. Despite these hassles, actual output from the coal-fired sector during the “shaky” week was running between 130,000 megawatt hours and 160,000 MWh against a daily State need that was around 200,000 MWh. (This supply, of course, does not include coal- and gas-fired power flowing west from Queensland in to NSW.)

Third, the weather militated against wind and solar power production. The former, according to WattClarity, had been “subdued” for a fortnight and fell away three times by 1,000 MW in the “crisis” week when wholesale prices spiked strongly, especially on Friday. And the many Sydney basin rooftop PV arrays weren’t much use in heavily overcast conditions.

Fourth, the Tomago smelter in the Hunter Valley had to take a potline offline for 45 minutes one day and two of them for an hour each two days later, demand response leapt on in the media, not least because the owners are vocally unhappy about needing to interrupt their operations.

There is much more detail than this to what made last week “shaky” in the NEM’s largest regional market – but, for my purposes here, one other thing that the situation threw up was that transmission between NEM regions is yet another issue in strong need of attention as the “transition” is pursued.

WattClarity’s McArdle, summing up, made a worthwhile point, I think: “The NEM is a very complex, integrated piece of machinery.  What follows from this (though less often acknowledged) is that when there is a ‘failure’ (or something that was too close to ‘failure’ for comfort last week in NSW), it’s highly likely that there will multiple factors contributing to the predicament. Even a cursory analysis reveals that there were challenges last week with coal, gas, wind, solar, hydro, interconnection capability, demand forecasting and so on.”

All this said, I do take issue with AEMO claiming in a media statement about the situation that “Australia does not have the energy reserves it once had to lean on in times of need.” Western Australia and Queensland, between them accounting for some 3.3 million of about 10.4 million national residential and business customers, might justifiably ask why they are also thrown in to a stew made by South Australia, Victoria and NSW?

One thing more: Thanks to the latest quarterly report, and its immediate predecessor, from Graeme Bethune’s EnergyQuest advisory firm, it’s possible now to look at the NEM generation performance for the six warm (and sometimes really hot) months of 2017-18 – this being the first such period of modern times without Hazelwood. What emerges is a picture of 91,105 gigawatt hours of power production (not including estimates for rooftop solar electricity) led by 73,571 GWh of coal-fired supply (80.7 per cent), of which 17,525 GWh was brown coal output in Victoria, as well as 10,298 GWh from gas, 5,883 GWh from hydro, 6,002 GWh from wind and 331 GWh from solar farms. The additional rooftop PV output is calculated at 4,266 GWh. The grid’s fossil fuel contribution for these six months was 92 per cent. The VRE contribution (wind and solar farms) was 6.9 per cent. I wonder how many casual readers of the media in the community would come even close to these latter two numbers? Of course, the deep green members know and seeth about them, but the community at large……?

The new EnergyQuarterly report also includes rolling 12-month data for the SWIS (WA’s version of the NEM) that shows, when rooftop solar is excluded, a fall in supply for the year to March 2018 over the same period in 2016-17 – down to 16,340 GWh (excluding solar PVs) from 18,312 GWh. The make-up for the latest 12 months was 8,092 GWh black coal, 6,705 GWh gas, 1,429 GWh wind plus 77 GWh oil and 36 GWh from large solar. The use of rooftop PV rose to 1,269 GWh, up from 1,000 GWh in the previous period.

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