So we have renewables with storage backed up by gas, but can we do better?
Connect to Interstate
We currently have two electricity interconnectors to Victoria (Heywood and Murraylands) and these were a major part of the breakdown in electrical supply that saw the state blacked out. Downed power lines caused severe voltage glitches, forcing shut down of wind farms creating an overload on the interconnectors and shutting them down. You could blame the storm, wind farm shutoff settings, interconnector software, state or federal governments or AEMO, with each probably having a share of the blame.
AEMO controls the system for the entire eastern states as they are all interconnected. SA, Tasmania and northern Queensland all sit at the end of the line and have each suffered from interconnector shutdown problems. The more interconnectors, the more secure our power supply will be from total shutdown.
Interconnectors rely on power being available in other states to backup our power loss. If other states have no excess power at the time, then they will do very little. Victorian coal fired power stations are being shut down with no plan to rebuild any and the same applies to NSW. More electricity has been flowing to Victoria from SA than vice versa in recent times.
NSW has been experiencing load shedding over the summer months as old coal powered stations are becoming unreliable. Luckily the Federal government has a plan to build a very large scale pumped hydro scheme in the Snowy Mountains to help Victoria and NSW with their electricity reliability. Until this is built SA is more likely to be the power supplier across any interconnectors.
Which begs the question, shouldn’t the federal government be building the interconnector from NSW to SA when and if NSW has excess power, as part of the Snowy Mountain reliability scheme. It would then be storing solar rather than coal power. Another question is whether a more distributed SA power supply with battery backup provides the same level of security as a NSW interconnector?
A new NSW interconnector will cost somewhere between $200-500 million depending on size and should be part of our national grid system.
Let’s forget about the hassles with renewables and fossil fuels and just go nuclear. We have a letter to the editor calling for nuclear power being published on a regular basis, but is it something we should consider?
The simple answer is no. It is too expensive and too environmentally risky.
There are some obvious upsides including less GHG and being able to use our own uranium resource, but as with carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the bad outweighs the good.
First up, we don’t have the expertise and would need to import it in the form of manufacturer, waste disposal and monitoring. It would take an extraordinary effort to get public approval, acceptable sites close to cities, safety approvals and waste management. My guess is that this would take at least twenty years to get the approvals and build a suitable power plant.
If we look at the US, a similar country to ourselves but with a lot more nuclear expertise, they have not built a new nuclear plant for decades. In recent times construction commenced for four new reactors with only one completed to date at an existing plant. Westinghouse has declared bankruptcy, part way through building two new reactors and the fourth build has been abandoned.
The latest clean, green and safe breeder reactors that everyone talks about are just too expensive to build. If the US can’t manage it, we have little chance. Small modular reactors have been proposed, but are unlikely to solve any of the problems. It is highly unlikely that a modular system will be cheaper or safer. Modular systems are in the design stage and we would be crazy to be the test case. China has built a modular system in the South China Sea based on Russian submarine technology with serious safety concerns including radiation leakage. I guess when they are finished with them, they can just be dumped at sea like Russian nuclear submarines!
The other issue is nuclear fusion. Look up my previous blogs if you want to know more, but essentially fission produces energy by a chain reaction that converts heavy unstable elements into more stable elements. Fusion creates heavier elements from very light elements to produce even more energy (as occurs in the sun). We have fusion bombs but have not been able to create a stable fusion reactor, until recently.
Over the next twenty years, while we might build a fission reactor, we may find that fusion has taken over. A number of Elon Musk type entrepreneurs are investing heavily in the process and are hoping for a commercial product in that time frame. Australia is currently working with China to build a fusion reactor.
Fusion reactors typically use an isotope of hydrogen called Tritium as their fuel and this can be extracted from the hydrogen in water. With the dollars spent on research, I cannot believe that generated electricity will be cheap, and there is still likely to be a quantity of nuclear waste requiring monitoring and disposal.
As a scientist / technologist I suggest that Australia should be involved more heavily in the research and that we should start the process of identifying a site(s) for a nuclear power plant. By the time we have the sites identified and approved we might be ready to build a fusion reactor.
Our power is often described as the most expensive power in the world, but is that even partially true? A major flaw in this argument is the way our power is marketed. Alinta, for example advertise a retail rate of 42c per kWh, with a 28% pay on time discount (was 32%) or about 30c or about 23c US. In the US the price is around . In the US the price is 8-17c (Wikipedia) excluding poles and wires and in Denmark it is US 33c. We also have a daily supply charge in Australia. So which rate do we compare? At the higher rate we are somewhere near the top but at the discounted rate we are somewhere in the middle.
Problem number two is, what do we include in retail power costs? Some countries, US included have a substantial part, if not all of their poles and wires costs paid separately by taxes and do not include these in their stated electricity costs.
Australia is a sparsely populated country and our poles and wires are going to be more expensive than most, so we are always behind the 8 ball. So is privatisation the issue. Probably in part, although governments always seem to do things at a higher cost. While in Queensland recently I was amazed to read an article where Josh Frydenburg complained that Queensland had the highest electricity prices in the country, because their electricity is state owned!
As far as I can calculate we are in the middle of the pack as far as average wholesale price goes, with each state at about 8c / kWh or 6c US with wind and solar at the lower end (when they are directly producing). The problem arises when they are not producing. Spot gas prices and interconnector prices send costs rocketing, not that we pay them, but the company we buy the electricity from has to. We do pay for it all in our bills, by paying around 30 c / kWh, which includes wholesale price, spot prices, poles and wires and retail.
The best way to cheaper electricity is to have contracted gas prices (no spot price), which means we need to guarantee a certain amount of gas usage. We also need to ensure we have the best possible import / export price ratio for our interconnectors and that we see the benefits.
We need as much competition as possible, and in particular for emergency supplies. We should consider having poles and wires and their maintenance as a government cost and not part of our power prices. We need to be connected to a grid for security of supply and public energy use. Having disconnected individual batteries in households would be a disaster.
Can we do 75% renewables? Certainly not for all our energy requirements, but it is possible for electricity. It will incur the problem of contracting baseline gas and will require substantial storage, hopefully not lithium ion batteries. It may just be what 1414 Degrees needs.
What do our political parties have planned for energy? Can we believe them? Is coal cheaper than wind? How do we reduce the retail price?