Gas and solar: Still uneasy bedfellows


The current upheaval in the Territory’s electricity business – mostly government owned through the Power Water Corporation (PWC) and Territory Generation (TGen) – clearly has some of its roots in the drawn-out and largely inconclusive pursuit of getting 50% of the power we consume from renewable sources (RE50% in the jargon) by 2030.
Although this was a plank in the Labor platform for the 2016 election, more than three years later it clearly remains a mystery how to feed growing amounts of solar power into the grid without having the kind of massive blackout we had in October this year.
There are significant delays with getting up to speed the $75m worth of 10 gas-powered generators at Owen Springs, south of the town.
As of 2017-18 (the most recent figures available) the generation in Alice Springs was Owen Springs (77MW), the ageing yet still very useful Ron Goodin power station in the town (43MW) and the Uterne plant (4MW).
Yet a fluctuation in the output of the tiny Uterne plant (pictured above during its official opening) and rooftop solar initiated the October 13 “system black”, catching the operators with their pants down: The condemnatory 13 point finding by the Utilities Commission, with its technical advisor Entura, requested by the government, and leading to the sacking of the two electricity CEOs on December 9, starts like this:-
“The initiating event for the system black was the sudden unforeseen (by those managing the system) reduction of solar generation from Uterne solar farm and from rooftop solar installations, which resulted in a discernible increase in load on dispatched synchronous generation.
“If the automatic generator control (AGC), [the new] Jenbacher generators [in Owen Springs], battery energy storage system (BESS) and under frequency load shedding (UFLS) had functioned as expected, then the initiating event would not have led to a system black.”
Jenbacher generator.
This is not a good omen for the advent of more willing private solar power producers, including the airports in Alice Springs and Darwin.
Airport Development Group (ADG) have negotiated a $150m loan from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) for storage and energy infrastructure and to boost operational capacity at Darwin, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek Airports.
The Power Water Corporation’s Amelia Farmilo on February 2, 2018 wrote to NT Utilities Commissioner Patrick Walsh, about the airports’ intentions. That’s a year and a half after the election – surely facilities and knowledge of integrating solar should have been in place by then.
The Commission reports that ADG “is seeking to operate solar photovoltaic facilities at multiple locations in the NT, consisting of a mix of existing ground mounted round-mounted, solar arrays and rooftop installations, and planned additional ground-mounted solar arrays.
“The facilities are (or will be) located within the land boundaries of Darwin, Alice Springs and Tennant Creek airports.”
However off airport locations and opportunities will also be considered, says an ADG spokeswoman.
“The Commission has approved a generation licence be issued to ADG for existing solar generation facilities … subject to the Airport Development Group’s updating its access agreement with Power and Water Corporation.”
And that agreement, it appears, is still under discussion, well over three years after the Gunner Government made its RE50% pledges. The ADG spokeswoman says the approval is conditional.
Meanwhile PWC’s System Control is seeking to define the “Generator Performance Standards in light of foreseeable increasing applications for (and connection of) renewable generation sources in all three electricity networks (Darwin-Katherine, Tennant Creek, Alice Springs)”.
In cleartext that means they are still trying to get a handle on making fossil fuel generators live with solar ones, achieving “system security and reliability … incorporated into a regulatory instrument, yet to be determined”.
The commission’s report is a tale of ups and downs:–
• Annual energy consumption from the grid in 2017-18 is down by 1.4% compared to 2016-17 and down by 2.3% compared to 2015-16.
• Annual energy consumption from the grid is initially forecast to decline due to declining population projections.
It then increases in 2020-21 by 20% due to a “large industrial facility” connecting to the grid. That is a novel name for the US military base Pine Gap.
This is followed by a gradual decline again due to population reductions and rooftop photovoltaic.
“Minimum system demand from the grid, under the RE50% scenario, is forecast to become negative in 2029-30, meaning surplus generation would need to be absorbed or stored in some way, or “output constrained”.
This seems to be a bizarre proposition: Are they saying that we should be holding back from using more than 50% solar power? And use fossil fuel just because the policy is 50%? Or would mothballing tens of millions of near-new gas engines as stranded assets be a really bad look?
Predicts the commission: “Under both the base and RE50% scenarios unserved energy above the commission’s target of 0.002 per cent is forecast across multiple years, primarily as a result of high demands and high levels of planned outage rates.”
“Unserved energy” is a term for when your lights go out. “It is a reliability assessment, a planning tool, used by the commission in its report to advise the government and industry to facilitate planning and investment decisions,” according to the commission.
“The reliability outlook in Alice Springs improves once new generators [put in by Adam Giles, remember?] at Owen Springs become operational, but is then influenced by the timing and magnitude of this power plant’s planned outages.
“High unserved energy levels are expected in 2020-21, 2023‑25 and 2026-27, primarily due to planned maintenance work on Owen Springs units during summer.
“In 2018-19 there are high unserved energy levels relative to other years, due to a heavier reliance on the older and less reliable Ron Goodin units (the commissioning of Owen Springs new generators and subsequent retirement of the Ron Goodin units has been delayed) and planned maintenance outages of Owen Springs units 1 to 3.”
Keep that genset handy!


  1. Stumbled across this article yesterday on The Conversation published a few months ago, reporting on US research into this problem.
    The proposed solution is counterintuitive, to “overprovide” renewable energy infrastructure (solar and wind), with excess energy into the system essentially “discarded”.
    While this project was confined to the state of Minnesota, asked if this model is specific to the US situation or can be applied elsewhere such as Australia, the reply was that it is universal.
    Maybe some food for thought for our circumstances in the Centre.

  2. Certainly, diversifying renewable power sources (wind, solar, tidal, thermal, hydro etc) is a key element to bringing down the barriers of “base load”.
    Australia is fortunate in that our large geographical size means that Australia always has a multitude of weather patterns at any one time (with perhaps a bias towards hot and dry!)
    By over producing power across a broad range of producers spread across our large continent we are able to do away with the need for expensive storage and polluting base load.
    The wind is always blowing somewhere in the big country!

  3. I suggest the problem is not the aim of 50% renewable, but the clinging to the 50% gas.
    The technology is available to handle the renewables, it just needs the commitment and money from the government which is in the position of trying to cope with the Giles Government’s stupid purchase of the new gas generators.

  4. If SA can handle greater than 50% why can’t the NT?
    Sort it out and stop making excuses.
    Electrifying transport is one good way to soak up any excess generation.

  5. The technology is not currently available.
    Renewables cannot provide baseload.
    The necessary battery technology is not in sight. Advances have been made but nowhere near what an industrialised economy requires.
    And all serious “renewable” operations need to be paired to an existing gas / coal / hydro powered system / grid to work (when sun / wind falls off).
    In terms of energy and pollutant emissions input (for build) and pollutant emissions output (for operations) / efficiency and level of power produced, there is nothing comparable to nuclear.
    And nuclear – like gas and coal – can do baseload.
    Maths / science / atmospheric chemistry beats hopey-change every day.

  6. PoliticoNT: The whole point here is that fluctuating renewable resources when spread across a geographically vast area and are of various types and have surplus capacity will negate the need for existing high carbon base load technology.
    When it is windy in Newcastle it may not be windy in Perth, but if Newcastle could supply Perth during these times than all is well.
    Would require massive investment into the grid and renewable capacity though.
    Maths, science and atmospheric chemistry are not the issue here. Economics is.

  7. When one enters University a competent Professor will always remind students to “Test Everything”.
    What do the public know about the subsidised funding holding together the renewable systems such as wind, and solar? Not a lot.
    You are paying through the nose for electricity in a country that once held the lowest unit price of electricity in the world.
    I believe in a sustainable renewable and clean energy future which I feel will come in time. However, every time ideological politics tries to force through their agenda the economy shrinks as does the security of your job.
    It’s a Macro effect and these decisions can be seen now as the Northern Territory is bankrupt, we are borrowing to stay afloat.
    Time for research and ambit claims on renewable to be tested and the public be made aware.
    Knowledge is power and your job depends on being aware, these issues are sometimes above our elected representative so do the research yourself and then come to an informed decision on renewable in 2019.
    Not a conclusive argument in its present form, in my opinion.

  8. Interested Darwin Observer – I acknowledge what you’ve written. I could have been clearer.
    I’m not opposed to energy being generated by wind or solar but the energy, (or my opposites might say) “environmental” cost of building sufficient renewable generating capacity is so great as to negate any positive impact of reducing pollutant emissions. (Pollutants being the problem, not carbon, which is a building block of life.)
    Nor can wind and solar provide the baseload supply our modern, industrialised society requires. It doesn’t matter where renewable generation is located, it still can’t guarantee baseload. Potentially – in 40 to 50 years going on current technological advances we may have the battery infrastructure that may be able to support renewables deliver baseload – but again – the energy / pollutant cost of manufacturing the batteries will cancel out any pollution reduction that might be assumed.
    New generation low-emission coal fired power stations are efficient at producing energy. Gas is similar. Nuclear is the best.
    Renewables are not efficient and within a comparative framework represent a greater impact on the environment.
    They’re also hideously expensive.
    So maths, science and chemistry still stands. As for economics – correct – but it’s government regulation that has been buggering the economics of power supply behind a shroud of enviro-blabber and subsidies.

  9. Are we going to have a debate that the Power and Water did not see the hot summer coming and their machinery was not in place?
    Why are there always excuses for failure?

  10. Solar will never provide baseload until we work out a way of storing the energy.
    There are promising developments in hydrogen storage which could replace batteries (and power vehicles) if it became viable.
    Meanwhile, solar can provide a lot of very cheap, low ecological footprint power which could save a lot of gas fuel for the generator in daytime, as well as reducing wear.
    The critical thing is that the grid infrastructure is up to the task of coping with the ebbs and flows, and the ramping up and down of gas.
    The head in the sand approach by the federal government and a lot of the power utilities has meant that we are unfortunately unprepared for something that has clearly been on the way for a long time.
    While a coal fired power source takes six hours to power up and down, a gas turbine can do it in 20 minutes. The mega-batteries, contrary to what most people think, are not there to store power for long term use, but just to bridge the 20 minutes while the gas turbine starts up. Similarly the gas turbine can be used to bridge the time that the coal generator takes to start up.
    People always criticise solar for lack of baseload, while forgetting the huge advantage – it needs no fuel, once installed the power is essentially free.
    There is a lot of misinformation going around about how various renewables use more resources to manufacture and install than they produce in their lifetime. This is simply untrue.
    The power companies are leading the charge to solar, not for any low-carbon reasons, but simply because the prices have been plummeting so fast it’s now, in conjunction with backup gas and coal, the cheapest option for daytime baseload.


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