The time has come to face the fact that the transition to renewable green energy has gone as far as it can go with existing storage technology.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, the Federal Government is planning to legislate for a more ambition RE target and the push to get rid of coal dominates the public debate.
Several times a year there are periods with next to no wind across the whole of South Eastern Australia, the National Energy Market (NEM).
These “wind droughts” can be described as icebergs in the path of the RE Titanic.
Who knows about wind droughts?
Very few people pay close attention to the wind apart from cyclists, sailors and spin bowlers. For many years dedicated wind-watchers have been trying to sound a warning about the “icebergs” but the captain and passengers on the RE Titanic remain blissfully unaware.
This is a very strange situation. Obviously the supply of wind is critical for wind power in the way that the water supply is fundamental for irrigation but the windpower industry has apparently been built without bothering about wind droughts. Billions of dollars have been spent on wind and solar facilities that deliver no power on windless night
We developed a false sense of security because nobody had to worry about the wind supply or even think about it when we had enough conventional (mostly coal) power to provide energy security. However over the last two decades eleven coal power stations have closed in SE Australia. Some of the 19 remaining are near the end of their working lives and one of them has started to phase out (Liddell, in NSW.)
AT THE TIPPING POINT
We have reached a critical tipping point. If we lose any more fossil power capacity then at times of peak demand some input from the wind and sun will be necessary. Previously it did not matter whether the sun shone or the wind blew because the wind and solar plants were just expensive ornaments attached to the grid.
As plans proceed to get rid of coal, then every wind drought will threaten the power supply and prolonged wind droughts will be catastrophic.
The recent convulsions and price explosions in the system will become chronic.
No power-intensive industry will be viable unless the coal plants are kept on line in good running order for the foreseeable future.
If the coal capacity is not maintained, then more gas will have to be burned at crippling cost.
The official response is to accelerate the rollout of windmills and solar panels but these make no contribution to the grid on windless nights. Building more capacity does not help, any more than having a big petrol tanks in a car helps when it is empty.
All of this this would appear to be stating the bleeding obvious but it apparently eluded the masterminds of the electricity system that we have today.
After Hazelwood closed in 2017 the Market Operator warned that we were running with inadequate space capacity. As Liddell started to phase out, unscheduled outages produced the predictable result.
Completely windless nights hardly ever happen but there are frequent and prolonged periods with critically low levels of wind across the whole of the SE Australia.
This has been well-known for many years among the veteran windwatchers like “Tony from Oz” (Anthony Lang) and Paul Miskelly.
Tony monitored all forms of power generation and his first tentative comments on a blog in 2008 became a series that continues up to the present, including a daily wind report. This monumental body of work is practically invisible apart from references on Jo Nova’s blog and the output of the Energy Realists of Australia.
In 2012 Paul Miskelly published a landmark study of windpower generation in the NEM in the journal Energy and Environment. Looking at the output from all the registered windfarms over a 12-month period showed found numerous periods when there was next to no wind across the sub-continent.
He warned that this would happen whenever high pressure meteorological systems lingered for periods up to several days.
In recent years Paul McArdle of WattClarity and the independent analyst Mike O’Ceirin have charted the wind records from the AEMO since 2010. Mike O’Ceirin’s interactive site.
Tony from Oz is a veteran wind watcher. He provides very helpful daily and weekly summaries of the power situation.
The installed capacity and the average generation (29% of installed capacity) have grown steadily but the output at the lowest points of wind supply stuck near the bottom of the chart. (When you multiply a very small number by five or ten you still get a very small number.) This means that it is not feasible to overbuild the wind capacity to compensate for wind droughts.
Three strategies are proposed to fill the gaps during low-wind periods. Call them the “holy trinity.”
(1) More transmission lines to carry spare power in parts of the NEM to areas that are short, (2) batteries and (3) pumped hydro storage.
Transmission lines are obviously no help during NEM-wide wind droughts because there is no spare wind power anywhere.
The capacity of the so-called “big batteries” is negligible compared with the amount of power consumed in the grid. Moore’s law (exponentially increasing capacity) does not apply to energy storage.
Pumped hydro is not a contender at the scale required because the major Snowy2.0 scheme will only be a partial replacement for a single coal power station. Moreover it comes with a massive financial and environmental cost. There is the problem of finding a dozen more sites for similar schemes.
Everyone needs to become wind-literate to understand the cause of the green power problem, the icebergs that threaten the RE Titanic.
This can easily be achieved by glancing regularly at the “NemWatch widget” ideally for discussion at breakfast and dinnertime. Search for the widget on your phone or computer.
Observe at a glance the amount of power that is being generated in each state, with colour codes to indicate the sources – black coal, brown coal, red for gas and green for wind.
See how often there is very little green!
RE enthusiasts will call “foul, focussing on the gaps in the supply is cherry-picking!”
Not so. This is due diligence, like looking for the defective rungs in a ladder before you use it, finding the defective part in the aero-engine that could crash the plane.
The failure of supply during wind droughts is not a bug in the RE system, it is a feature.
It will persist for a decade or three until some new form of storage is available or nuclear power is installed and the RE facilities will be stranded assets.