THE Energy DEBATE
GETTING BACK TO BASICS, AND CLOSER TO REALITY… ON Energy!
In concert with the climate debate, and often mixed into the same turgid stew, is debate about energy security (and the term “security” is often used in conjunction with – or interchangeably with – “reliability”, along with other nefarious terms such as dependable,economicaland sustainable).
I often feel sure that some speakers simply don’t know the difference between one term and another, that the various terms are used purely for the purpose of grandstanding, or that different terms are used to deliberately confuse or mislead the public.
Once again, it’s time for some healthy scepticism, and some critical analysis:
We are talking about an essential service which we rightly expect to be delivered reliably, economically and continuously, and to the requisite quality standards. We also rightly expect that, as far as is reasonably possible, this essential service should be immune to almost any other risk or threat.
Given our now absolute dependence on electricity, we are right to hold – and to demand – that these expectations are fully met. It’s almost as necessary as having air to breath, water to drink and food to eat.
Remember that, when our electricity system was a State-owned entity, these rights were legislated, along with the critical targets associated with electricity supply – frequency, voltage and etcetera.
What the general public largely don’t understand is what “Energy Security” entails, and how this state is first created and then sustained.
Very few people understand the concepts of frequency (Hz), voltage (V), current (I), watts (W – real power), reactive power (Volt-Amps Reactive, or Vars), or of power factor (pf). And we don’t really expect the general public to even be aware of perhaps one or two of these, much less than to really understand any of them (either singularly, or in combination).
Even fewer understand the relationship between these essential and variable elements of our electricity supply, and almost none appreciate the very real limitations – and detrimental impacts – of solar and wind generators in these areas.
What is certainly not known, much less than understood, are the important differences between asynchronousand synchronouspower generation.
People don’t know that solar and wind power generators, because of their variable and unreliable outputs, are necessarily asynchronouspower generators.
Conversely, our conventional primary sources of base-load power generation are synchronous(coal, oil, diesel, biomass, gas-fuelled and nuclear power plants, or geothermal and hydro power plants).
The critical factors in our power distribution network, and the factors which are vital to the proper functioning of our technologies (including our devices, appliances and industrial machinery), are the tight control of frequency, voltage, current, watts, reactive power and power factor – much less than some of the other equally important factors such as phase rotation andphase angle.
And this control must be sustained on a 24/7 basis – and within very tight margins – together with the capacity to respond very quickly to any changes in demand (and particularly whenever there is a sizeable and perhaps rapid change).
Because they are asynchronous generators with intermittent and variable outputs, renewable power generation sources such as solar and wind cannot control these critical factors, and nor can they respond to fluctuations in power demand within the network.
They can’t even begin to generate unless there is firstly a synchronous source of power from the electricity grid.
Why do the proponents of solar and wind power – whether lobby groups, politicians, bureaucrats, the media or teachers – only ever talk of voltage or watts, and carefully avoid telling people the whole story, the true facts, the reality of our electricity supply?
We can only assume that their omissions are deliberate… and that this is wilfully dishonest and misleading, and that they grossly underestimate the human capacity for knowledge, understanding and rational thought.
Some might argue that the general public shouldn’t be expected to know the detail of the nitty-gritty associated with their power supply. Well, that’s fine, if you want people to be and act like mushrooms.
But, if you expect people to understand and support your case, and to participate in any constructive debate, then they absolutely need to be at least adequately informed.
To have and enjoy energy security, we first need solid and dependable sources of electrical power, and we then need solid, dependable and highly-responsive control of the network.
In order to control the network and quickly meet changes in demand, a synchronous generator must itself be larger than the network – it must have “inertia” which is stronger than any opposing electrical forces exerted by the network (a simple law of physics).
And the network must also have “spinning reserve” which is capable of responding quickly to changes in demand. This is provided by ‘active’ generators which have the capacity and ability to respond very quickly to any demand changes.
These are the primary functions of a base-load generator and, in reality, they are a shared role between several large and near-equally-sized synchronous base-load generators.
The inertia of a generator is a function of its heavy rotating mass and, hence, this is the key characteristic of generators which are driven by large steam turbines, or by large quantities of water in hydro turbines.
Naturally, it takes a long time to first generate sufficient steam, and then to carefully and adequately heat the metal of steam pipework and a large steam turbine, before it can be used to generate electrical power, with this process sometimes taking many hours or days.
In a hydro power plant, it takes time to gently begin and regulate the flow of vast and powerful volumes of water, and this limits the responsiveness of a hydro power plant to sometimes rapid changes in an electrical system.
Further, and much like their primary role in maintaining the stability of a network within very tight parameters, steam-driven base-load power stations must also operate within a very tight band around their maximum continuous rating (MCR). Any deviation outside these operating parameters will negatively affect efficiency, emissions, wear and maintenance costs – in other words, it will cost much more to produce less energy.
Accordingly, it is detrimental for such power plants to be forced to operate at less than MCR, in order to accommodate variable and unreliable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, but this is what the present despatch priorities impose (known as “dispatch preferencing”, or similar terms).
Gas Turbines (GT’s), on the other hand, are designed for quick starts and shutdowns (they’re a stationary jet engine, after all), and necessarily use light-weight metals in their construction. Accordingly, they have a relatively light rotating mass, and are limited in their capacity to stabilise or control a network. Large diesel or gas-fuelled reciprocating engines are much the same.
In many jurisdictions, an added present impediment to the “availability” of GT-based power plants are the contractual difficulties and costs of sourcing gas (such as minimum term, and take-it-or-leave-it, fixed volume contracts), and the need to “bid in” to the electricity market (at least two days before delivering electricity to the network), not to mention the lead-time required to adequately prepare the plant for operation.
It is impossible for such plants to start immediately, or within even hours of an unexpected call to action. It’s never a question of simply “flicking a switch” or just “turning them on”, as politicians and the media often describe the process.
Before we even consider the need to have a stabilising force in control of a network, is the need to have large generators which are capable of energising (starting) the network in the first place, and particularly in the event of a “black start” (after a network has been tripped and de-energised).
Clearly, and as has recently been demonstrated in South Australia for instance, renewable energy sources cannot provide energy security, and certainly cannot be a viable substitute for base-load power generation.
I am very confident that, had the SA Government retained its last two coal-fuelled power plants – the last closed down only months before the late 2016 state-wide black-out – a total black-out could have been avoided (or at least confined to the section of the network which was directly affected by the destructive storms which effectively closed down the wind and solar generators, tripped the main interstate transmission link due to sudden overload, and brought down some transmission towers).
Since this example, and still in Australia, we have seen the closure of a large coal-fuelled power plant in the State of Victoria. This has resulted in an immediate rise in power prices, and there are now fears for the security of not just that State’s energy supply, but also for the entire Australian East Coast grid supply.
And the problems are going to snowball, with the planned retirement of more coal-fired base-load generators, as they reach the end of their “viable” lives. This is another point for rigorous examination, but at another time.
More recently, and in New South Wales, a spate of scheduled and unscheduled outages at five of the State’s six largest coal-fired base load power stations resulted in the loss of about 5000 MW of base load supply – on the same day – and consequently jeopardised the State and East Coast networks.
It was telling that more than 1000 MW of expected power supply from solar and wind generators did not eventuate (due to heavy cloud cover, rain and a lack of wind on the day).
The resultant wholesale electricity price-spike forced a major Aluminium smelter to shut down, as continued production would have been unviable at those extreme prices (even though the peak price is capped at $14,000 MW/Hr – a gross figure, considering the peaks of $100 MW/Hr, which we would sometimes see not so long ago).
High and rising power prices, or the total loss of power supply, has a direct and detrimental impact on manufacturing industries, large and small, and affects most businesses in other sectors (including butchers, bakers, and others).
Factors such as these have already seen the demise of many industries, with the consequent loss of employment and severe harm to local and regional economies and, ultimately, to the National economy.
Why are ideologically-driven State governments aiding and abetting the closure of existing power generation assets, without first having a viable alternative source of base load power? It simply shouldn’t be happening.
Part of the problem here can be directly associated with the corporatisation and privatisation of once state-owned power generation and transmission assets – a policy which has been eagerly grasped by some governments, all too keen to convert public assets into quick cash for short-term gain.
State-owned power generation and transmission entities once existed with a clear and firm mandate, not only to maintain and operate existing assets to high standards of availability, reliability and safety – and that electricity supplies to consumers would also be maintained to very tight standards – but that they would also plan and commission new generating capacity to meet future demand.
Ah, remember those days, not so long ago, when there was just one State electricity authority in each state, with just one head office (and electricity “marketing” departments simply did not exist). More importantly, they were lead and managed only by senior engineers (not the now common plethora of non-engineering professions – accountants, lawyers, career executives from other completely unrelated sectors, and other candidates of dubious quality).
Arguably, and in stark contrast to the era of corporatised or privatised power generation, the mandate of State-owned power generation assets worked very well for decades (and we continue to enjoy the good sense and benefits of that era – albeit in a now rapidly diminishing form).
The primary objective of private business entities is to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible and, having achieved that goal, to then simply walk away and pursue fresh pastures which support the same business model.
Of course, this paradigm does not accommodate activities such as routine plant maintenance or plant replacement, which are essential to long-term planning and plant life-cycles. Just run the plant into the ground, bank the early profits, then walk away when that revenue source has been exhausted, or the plant has expired. It’s a bit like the mining industry.
In their defence, investors in power generation assets are also deterred by issues associated with uncertain and ever-changing government priorities and policies (or the glaring lack thereof) – for both climate and energy. The private power generation sector does not have a reliable basis upon which to make long-term funding commitments to new power generation or transmission assets.
The South Australia debacle also highlighted the folly of relying on the supply of base-load power generation (coal-fuelled), via long-distance transmission lines from interstate sources. Transmission networks are susceptible to extreme weather events (and to malicious acts), and the source of supply itself is also susceptible to closer regional issues (ranging from availability, to local demand, price, contracts, politics and industrial action).
Clearly, the insecurity of the SA power network was fundamentally the fault of an over-reliance on renewable energy sources, and an ill-conceived reliance on interstate sources for base-load power supply and grid stability, using long-distance overland transmission lines.
It is beyond belief that the SA State Government sought to shift the blame for the State’s predicament on to the interconnected grid operator (AEMO), and the Federal Government, for their own misguided and blind failure to assure continuity of supply to the State!
At one point, the SA Government complained that the AEMO failed to quickly “switch on” the available gas-fuelled generators in time to bolster the State’s electricity supplies… Yes, all that’s needed to start a power station is to just “flick a switch” – how easy is that!
These issues were solely the product of an ideologically zealous government (proud puppets of the Green lobby), which, despite the growing list of abject failures in the State, continues to boast of having the highest level of renewable energy supply in Australia (now 40%, and still with a target of at least 50%).
They refuse to admit that their energy security is totally reliant on coal-fuelled base-load power supply from interstate generators, and demand that others have the sole responsibility for assuring this supply.
Yet, we still have a noisy cohort of other zealots in the public arena who demand the total closure of our existing base load power generators, and their total replacement with solar and wind power generators!
The situation in SA is similar to that which exists in Denmark – a country which has long been lauded by the Green lobby as a “World leader” in renewable energy power generation – where the reality is that the bulk of the country’s base load power is supplied from coal-fuelled power plants in Sweden and Germany, and at a very high price.
[Visit the north-eastern coast of Denmark, look across the Øresund Sound to the coast of Sweden, and you can see and count them – all in operation. Or visit the east coast town of Flensburg in southern Denmark, now the northern region of Germany known as Schleswig-Holstein, and glance down the beautiful and picturesque harbour to a large and very modern coal-fired power plant in operation – yes, it is in operation, but only a knowing eye can tell].
The stark reality for the Danish people – just like SA – is felt in excessively high taxes and power costs, which are imposed to subsidise large-scale renewable energy development, and are further exacerbated by the high cost of importing coal-fuelled power from other countries or states. Like SA, Denmark effectively does not enjoy energy security, much less than affordable energy supply.
An added burden for Denmark is its commitment to alternative and so-called “renewable” energy developments which are focussed on biomass – growing and burning crops solely to generate energy – and effectively sacrificing limited fertile soil resources for this purpose. This is valuable arable land which should be committed to food production – people need food, more than they need electricity.
Of course, the costs and consequences of farming and growing these crops, together with harvesting and transporting the produce to the power plant, are not mentioned. Nor are the waste products or consequences: Ash and dust requiring removal and disposal, or the consumption of vast quantities of Oxygen in the combustion process. And how many biofuel crops can be grown before the soil is bereft of nutrients to support any form of growth?
Beyond this, what is the realcost of also covering large tracts of arable land with solar panels? Does anyone factor in the lost-opportunity cost associated with conversion of farmland in this manner? Oh, they can (and do), import food, but at what cost?
There are other countries which are also favourites of the Green lobby – such as Germany, in particular – and these also provide great opportunities for rigorous scrutiny. The reality is very different to the claims made and pictures painted in the media and in Greens propaganda.
What does the Green lobby have to say about German taxpayers being obligated to pay billions to subsidise renewable energy generators which are shut down to preserve grid security, or to import woodchip supplies from Canada for biomass-fuelled power generation?
Back in Australia, and in response to the threat to near-future energy security, the Federal Government has proposed a massive investment in “future power generation projects”, such as augmentation of the Snowy River hydro scheme with new pumped-storage hydro power plants, and building a new “high-efficiency, low-emissions” (HELE), supercritical “clean coal” power plant in North Queensland.
This all sounds very grand, and they might be wonderful “Nation building” initiatives to be paraded for political gain. But, the need is now, and proposals with 10 or 20-year timelines are not the required solution to a rapidly emerging reality.
The only available solution to Australia’s near-term energy security, in the short term, is to properly maintain existing power generation and transmission assets, and to bring mothballed coal and gas-fuelled power plants back into service.
This can be achieved in a relatively short time-frame, and with minimal investment in comparison to so-called “Nation building” proposals. At the same time, we need to be building new base load power plants – they’re long overdue.
On top of this, Australia also urgently needs to change electricity market pricing policies to accurately reflect the true cost of renewable energy sources, to change despatch preferencing which presently favours renewable energy at great cost to conventional base-load sources, and to establish a “capacity cost” return for base-load contingency scheduling.
It also needs to apply the “capacity cost” to recover the true cost of unreliable and intermittent renewable energy sources, with a levy on those sources, and to assure domestic gas supplies (especially for power generation, and not on the present 12-month, fixed volume, take-it-or-leave-it contract terms).
Instead of the favoured, warm and fuzzy expression “Renewable Energy”, we should insist on using the term “Intermittent Power”, because this is a far more truthful and practical expression of what we’re really talking about in the realWorld.
Most importantly, ill-conceived follies such as renewable energy targets, credits, certificates, carbon taxes, grants, funding programmes and tax concessions for renewable energy development all need to be stopped. These are the greatest shams ever perpetrated by governments and corporations on an unsuspecting and defenceless public. It is an indefensible crime.
In both the present and the longer-term, a policy based on the principle of a rational mix of power generation sources desperately needs to be adopted. This also needs to include small-scale distributed nuclear power generation, for the longer-term. This policy also needs to include an exit from the greatest sham of all, the Paris Climate Agreement.
The manufacturing industry and consumer groups have long lobbied governments to establish a “Domestic Reserve” policy which would have assured the continuity of an economical supply of gas, but their pleas have been fobbed-off by politicians (no doubt due to heavy pressure applied by the energy resources sector itself).
Now, everyone – lead by Government – is claiming that we are in crisis! Unfortunately, it’s a situation where hindsight is not helpful, either for the present or the future.
We have a crisis of leadership (or the lack of competent leadership), and, until that is resolved, we can only expect to lurch from one derivative crisis to another.
Take the latest “news” from Australia: Record-breaking LNG exports in the North and West, a looming domestic gas crisis in the East, and a major energy corporation proposing to import LNG in the south!
Add in the irresponsible and short-sighted planned closure of base load power plants, the ideologically-driven mandates for rapid expansion of intermittent (so-called renewable) power generation, and a burgeoning mass of bureaucratic instrumentalities to meddle in the whole affair…
And it’s very telling that a recent multi-billion dollar naval contract ,awarded by the Federal Government to South Australia, makes provision for the installation of diesel-fuelled ‘Stand-by’ power plant! Diesel fuel… when we don’t even have an adequate ‘reserve’ of petroleum fuels in this country?
It’s breathtaking, unbelievable, unconscionable, stupendous, unwarranted, unwanted, unacceptable and avoidable madness. But we need much more than merely a good rant.
Beyond the focus on the power generation industry, and the present debate on energy security, one of the most disappointing observations is that misinformation is widespread.
Despite the obvious issues – and the real evidence – we still have a large section of the population who steadfastly (and blindly) maintain that a carbon tax is essential, and that renewable energy (read “Intermittent”) sources are the only viablesolution. Too many people, and powerful lobby groups, prefer to remain blind to the reality, and to claim that an intermittent supply is ‘viable’ is clearly a gross contradiction.
As I noted at the beginning, the reach of the Green lobby knows no bounds, and it has become insidious.
On top of this, we now also have a largely privatised power generation and transmission industry (which will continue to thumb its collective noses at Governments and the community), and a large and very influential renewable energy industry which is eager to keep its strong grasp on the public purse.
We also have governments which are ideologically opposed to gas exploration and extraction (for purely ideological and political reasons), and a gas exploration and extraction industry which is adamant that its viability is contingent on a “free market” (read “gas exports are all that matters”), which is not constrained by either government intervention or by a Domestic Reservepolicy.
Do any of these people understand, much less than acknowledge, that these crises never needed to arise, and that they should never have arisen?
We – the World – desperately need to engage in an honest and balanced debate concerning our energy future, or be doomed to a new “Dark Age”. We don’t have an “energy crisis”, but we do have a “leadership” and a “policy” crisis!
People need to be well-informed, and healthily sceptical, in order to participate in and contribute to the debate in a meaningful and constructive way.
Let’s make the most of our Forum, and lead the way.
[The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and are not necessarily shared by the Forum].
Note: This is the second of three parts (so far), of a conversation canvassing the Climate, Energyand Policydebates.
If you would like to join the conversation, please use the “Contact the Forum” option below. Sensible and meaningful contributions are welcome – whether affirmative or critical – and will be published as an addendum to the featured article (using only the author’s first name, of course).