Edge of darkness: will flooding in Qld cause load shedding at power stations?

Floods and Coal Supply to Queensland Power Stations
Yes – coal supply is being affected by the floods at least to Stanwell and Gladstone Power Stations, and Stanwell has decreased its output to extend the life of its coal stockpile. But the question is whether or not this will lead to load shedding, because of insufficient power plant available to provide for the demand? Probably not, as there is a huge margin of reserve capacity in Queensland. At present the total capacity is 10,000MW if all power stations are operational but typical demand is 6,000 to 7,000MW. Record peak demand in January 2010 was just over 8,800MW. So there is a lot of spare capacity most of the time to either lose or reduce output at power stations affected by floods or other events.  As well, there are coal stockpiles at the mines and rail lines to Stanwell and Gladstone are expected to be back working by next week.

NB. You can check the current demand in Queensland on the national electricity market website www.aemo.com.au/ and click on electricity data.

So should coal stockpile size be increased in future because of global warming causing more extreme weather events? Stockpile size is based on risk analysis regarding the likelihood of events such as floods, derailments and industrial action. There is no rule of thumb as to stockpile size. But the climate change science tells us that more extreme events will happen and more frequently. We are seeing strong evidence of this around the world. So yes re-evaluation of both stockpiles and access routes to move the coal will no doubt be discussed by industry and a Government keen to limit economic impacts of climate change on the coal and electricity industries, and the community. But there are a range of factors that could combine to reduce available capacity and potentially cause load shedding this summer.

Firstly already coal availability is constrained with about 25 percent of coal mines not producing and 60 percent working at reduced output. Secondly, this is an  unprecedented La Nina wet season and it is expected to continue to mid year. The Bureau of Meteorology predicts 5 to 7 cyclones this summer in the Coral Sea, up from an average of 4. One long-range forecaster is predicting up to 9 cyclones.  So far we have seen 3 cyclones in the Coral Sea. So it is unlikely that we have seen the last of the big wet. Thirdly, already there are coal handling problems due to the big wet that restrict coal supply. This is because the higher the ash content of the coal (lower quality coal), the muddier it becomes and this causes clogging of conveyors etc. So even if the coal mine is not full of water and is right beside the power station, the coal conveyors may be breaking down more often. Fourthly, there are the normal outages of plant due to component failure such as boiler tubes cracking. Finally, energy content of the coal is reduced as the burning of the coal has to drive off the higher moisture content of the coal. Usually moisture content would probably be 20% or less by mass? So the power stations will be operating a little less efficiently, and have to burn more coal for the same amount of delivered energy.

Queensland Floods – Is Mother Nature retaliating and Who pays?
It seems to have escaped the media’s attention that the coal industry and coal fired power generators are being disrupted by extreme weather events that the science of global warming predicts will happen, and that the coal industry has strongly contributed too. Is this Mother Nature’s revenge or the GAIA principle of Earth as a complex self-regulating system? And while science cannot attribute this specific event to global warming, we can be pretty sure that there is a strong probability that burning more coal, the biggest cause of increasing atmospheric CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use, is contributing.

The question now is “who will pay for this bail out, reported in the Australian Financial Review as maybe up to $20 billion?” There are two industries who have contributed to the carnage and that need to be held accountable.

The coal industry has received and continues to receive enormous subsidies across Australia. This is one of the industries that has lobbied hard and effectively to stop, delay or water down any action of global warming. The Queensland Government is currently spending in excess of $15 billion on port and rail upgrades to support this industry. According the May 2010 issue of The Monthly, the State earned $11.4 billion in royalties from coals exports over the past decade.

As well, millions of dollars have been spent and are on offer to help develop the oxymoron of “clean coal”.  To date, little has been achieved. The failure of the Zero Gen carbon capture and storage (CCS) project is testament to that. This project alone received $100 million of tax payers’ money. Nationally, estimates by researchers at University of Technology in Sydney show that the fossil fuel industry received about $10 billion annual in government subsidies in 2005/06.

So here is an industry, living off massive tax payer subsidies, with a history of irresponsible interference on global warming action that will now be looking to tax payers to pay for infrastructure repairs. As well, it is asking the State Government to waive environmental requirements regarding effluent discharge to rivers so it can get back to work on further changes to the climate.

The other industry in question is the land / property developers in Queensland who have been allowed to continue massive development of the water frontage in the “River City”.  What influence has this industry had on government policy allowing development to continue along the river flood plains after 1974? I would suggest that, like the coal industry, they have fought tooth and nail (or funded Party coffers) to maintain access to land in flood prone areas.  And the State Government and Local Governments have put little effort into policy to limit development in these areas.  Residents and owners of the exclusive MIRVAC multi-unit development at Tennyson Reach are reported in The Australian (18 January, 2011) as follows: “Several said they were assured before buying that the ground level would not flood unless the Brisbane River reached a mark of 8.4m, well above the 4.46m at which it peaked last Thursday….”.

So what share of responsibility and costs should these two industries bear for the current flood crisis?

Other Issues

Zero Gen Project
The recent announcement by the State Government to terminate the Zero Gen carbon capture and storage (CCS) project in central Queensland was because the projected generation costs are too high. As well, there was still significant uncertainty in finding suitable, large CO2 underground storage sites near the project site. Zero Gen was to be 530Megawatt Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power generation plant with the capture and storage of at least two million tonnes each year of its carbon dioxide emissions. The marginal generation cost was estimated to be in excess of 20 c/kWh (kWh is the abbreviation for kilowatt.hour, the common unit of measurement of electrical energy in our homes). This generation cost estimate is in line with international estimates. It is even more expensive to capture and store CO2 at all the existing coal power stations, which urgently needs to be done to properly address global warming. And if CCS was retrofitted to existing power stations, the electrical power output of these stations would be reduced by about 30 percent, which is a huge penalty.

By comparison, current coal fired power stations in Australia currently have a generation cost, excluding environmental and social costs, of about 4c/kWh. That increases to about 8 to 12c/kWh when some external costs are included, but excluding CCS costs.

Solar and Wind Systems – a Lower Risk that CCS.
According to a 2007 report by CSIRO to the Department of Mines and Energy, the current generation cost from solar thermal electric (STE) systems is around the 16 – 20c/kWh. Projected costs should reduce substantially as the technology is scalable and can be mass produced. This technology is well proven and generates steam by concentrating solar energy. If storage is added to allow extended generation up to 24hours per day, the cost is a little higher again. The industry is currently undergoing rapid expansion internationally. Costs are falling, just as they have consistently with the photovoltaic’s (PV or solar electricity) industry. The CSIRO report also estimated that wind power could provide 20 percent of Queensland’s electricity at a cost of less than 10c/kWh, about the same as coal with some external costs included. This industry is already well proven and just needs the right policy / legislative framework, network connection infrastructure and planning approvals to blossom. So the power industry and the finance industry should be starting to see that STE, PV and wind industries are a lower risk and cost than CCS. But the coal industry lobby is very powerful and already the State Government is planning more tax payers’ money to be wasted on CCS rather than renewable energy technologies like STE, PV or wind power.

Re-Structuring Again
The Queensland Government is about to restructure the government owned power generations again from 3 to 2 corporations. It is rationalized that this will make them more competitive against privately owned generators like AGL and Origin who are vertically integrated as both are generators and retailers. The disaggregated, corporatized ( and privatized in some states) model was guaranteed to bring cheaper and a better, more reliable service.  It has done none of these things.  One reason for this is that energy efficiency, the cheapest way to provide more power by saving current wasteful practices, was largely  ignored in the scramble to corporatize and privatize.

This is so ironic given that in the early 1990’s, the electricity industry in Queensland was vertically integrated under the Queensland Electricity Commission. This organization had just implemented the States first Demand Side Management study at that time, the results of which would have promoted energy efficiency more strongly. However, energy efficiency largely went by the wayside as the electricity industry was dismantled, restructured and privatized nation-wide. For energy efficiency to work, you need centralized planning like the Californian Energy Commission that oversees and regulates energy supply and efficiency. California’s per capita energy demand leveled off in the 1990s due to successful energy management programs that saved the State $billions.

Meanwhile, energy efficiency was ignored by Government policy makers as witnessed by the failure of both State and Federal Government to set targets for energy efficiency. They are only now considering it, 20 years later. With rapidly increasing electricity demand and spirally electricity costs, demand management is now back in vogue with the electricity distributors  in Queensland (Emerge and Ergon) being required to report to the State Government on demand side management initiatives each year. This is why we are seeing TV advertisements by Energex pleading for us to reduce demand in peak times.

But this will simply not be enough as implementing energy efficiency is complex and requires policy and measures along all parts of the energy supply and end-use chain, not just the distributors.  This includes policy to encourage or direct upgrades to more efficient technology, behavioral change and avoid using electricity for some applications. For example it makes enormous environmental, economic and social sense to switch to solar energy with gas backup for lots of low and medium grade heating applications such as water heating or food processing. We have had the technology to do this for the past 30 years.  As well, it requires detailed energy audits being undertake in every home and business to identify wasted energy and implement cost effective measures. Cuba changed its lighting requirements from inefficient incandescent to high efficient compact fluoros virtually over-night, saving hundreds of Megawatts of power generation capacity, while we have taken 15 years to progressively phase out these Neanderthal lights.

Trevor Berrill
Sustainable Energy Systems Consultant & Educator
Solaris Solar Powered Home

See also Edge of Darkness: damned walls, roads and gaps

3 thoughts on “Edge of darkness: will flooding in Qld cause load shedding at power stations?

  1. Mr. Solar Power says:

    It is rather ironic and with all the red tape, progress gets hindered. Taxes, well, that is part of life but there are some incentives that are okay. We just have to surge forward and do the best we can, and hope that the government support gets better.

  2. The Queensland foldos have had one good outcome; damage to the sugarcane crops means there’ll be less sugar in the world this year! Sugar bad!

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