South Australia’s love affair with an electricity network that pretends to be renewable, but would collapse without coal from Victoria continues, writes Geoff Russell.
It hit 42 degrees in Adelaide on Sunday with winds from an even hotter inland. Fires once more killed wildlife, destroyed property and threatened people and their animals.
Adelaide’s flying fox fans, myself included, were also concerned for the colony in the heart of the city. A crew of volunteers patrolled all day, spraying the occasional overheated animal, rescuing a few in distress, but there was, thankfully, no repeat of the 2019 heat wave disaster where they died in their thousands.
South Australia’s electricity grid was stressed but survived. Thanks largely to power imported from Victoria and the burning of a considerable quantity of diesel.
After the state-wide blackout of 2016, the Government bought a couple of massive diesel generators to keep the lights on in the event of another failure. They cost about half of the $550 million spent to try and avoid a repeat system crash. But then in 2019, the Australian Financial Review headlined a “windfall” for the state as diesel-powered electricity from these generators delivered a couple of million dollars back to the Government.
I’m not sure how recouping a couple of million on an investment of over $200 million classifies as a windfall, but who am I to question the AFR’s choice of words?
The generators have since been leased to a couple of renewable energy companies wanting backup for their systems. The companies claim that the 25-year lease of fossil fuelled generators will help them expand their renewable portfolio and get us towards 100 percent renewable electricity. Again, words are being used in extraordinary ways.
Regardless of who owns them, the generators kept the lights on in Adelaide last Sunday, providing over 10 percent of our electricity for tiny, but essential, periods.
As I’ve pointed out previously, during heatwaves in South Australia, it tends also to be windless. Either that, or there’s hot northerly winds that fan fires, as well as wind turbines. Typically, the maximum electricity demand corresponds incredibly well with the minimum output from our windfarms. Here’s the graph for last week. It would be a beautiful relationship if its implications weren’t so serious:
But doesn’t the maximum demand align nicely with solar power output? Don’t solar panels fill the holes perfectly? How often have I read this?
It isn’t true. It’s the kind of sloppy statement that is close enough for people who aren’t concerned with building reliable power supplies; supplies that work all the time; not 23×7 or 23.7×7, but a full 24×7.
In the past, engineers designing power systems thought long and hard about dealing with worst case scenarios. The renewable revolution has been driven by non-engineers and politicians thinking instead about the best case. “Wow! SA got 100 percent of its energy from solar power for 500 milliseconds today… the renewable revolution is now unstoppable [followed by excitement emojis, of course]”.
This isn’t glass-half-full thinking but glass-is-overflowing shallow optimism.
How did the SA electricity system cope with the horrors of that inverse correlation between wind and demand in a system increasingly dominated by wind farms? Victorian coal, coupled by a significant squirt of diesel.
Here’s what our electricity supply looked like for the week.
Take a minute to actually read the graph; I’ll still be here when you get back. The grey bars need a little explanation. They each cover a 3-hour period around the peak demand on each day; 1.5 hours before and 1.5 hours afterwards. The biggest bar (on Sunday, the 24th) has a number 35.9; meaning that you’d need 35.9 Hornsdale batteries (at 194 MWh) to cover the electricity shortfall during that three-hour period.
You might have noticed the little squirt of diesel – it’s the cyan-coloured line along the bottom… it’s mostly zero, but hit a maximum of 307 megawatts on Sunday; about double the power of our so-called big battery.
The Hornsdale Li-Ion battery has been upgraded since it was first installed, and now delivers a “world record” output of 150 megawatts for an hour and 20 minutes. But both the diesel and the battery paled into comparison against our large suck on the nipple of Victorian coal power to keep our air-cons running.
How many “world record” batteries would we have needed fully charged at the start of the week to get us through till the end? Meaning to fully cover the gap between what wind and solar were giving us? Just over 700.
And a quick reminder, we have one. Not 700. And it cost about $161 million to construct.
Lastly, what happens if we double our wind and solar electricity production? Meaning we spend another 10 years doing what we’ve spent the past decade doing. And what if we also install 6 gigawatt hours of battery capacity? That’s another 30 world record batteries. Would that have succeeded in getting us through last week?
No. Here’s the graph.
We still come up short.
Do I need to walk you through it? The bottom line is the bottom line… we will be short some 34 giga-watt hours in this single week, in a city of just one million people. This is despite a huge renewable output; way too much even for our massive postulated battery system. Some 23% of the electricity that is generated is simply thrown away.
Trying to build reliable systems with unreliable components is always difficult, but when your components are wind and sunshine, it’s a fool’s errand. What we should have spent the last decade doing was laying the groundwork for the only energy system which we know works at scale to build clean robust reliable power systems; nuclear power.
This seemed obvious to me and many others a decade ago, and every year makes it more obvious. But some people seem impervious to dead-ends other than those they have physically hit. So the wind-solar-battery bandwagon continues on its short-sighted environmentally destructive path towards that dead end. A path, of course, which has our miners of lithium, cobalt, nickel and rare earths salivating with opportunities to dig up more stuff to make more disposable energy systems.
Our throwaway society loves cheap solar panels, which are coupled with consumer grade throwaway electronics, toxic backing sheets and chemical and mining intensive batteries.
In contrast, the design life of a modern nuclear reactor is about 80 years; with some (Thorcon) designed to last much longer.
How many wind farms and solar panels are designed like that? They have decided that ‘cheap wins’, because nobody actually cares about the long-term impacts of opting for cheap over robust.
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