Electricity has become a jigsaw in Australia and coal isn’t best to fill the missing pieces

When the early closure of Victoria’s second-biggest coal-fired power station was revealed recently, something the energy minister stated was less than total.

Yallourn, in the Latrobe Valley, offers up to 20 per cent of Victoria’s power. It has been running for 47 years. Since late 2017 a minimum of among its 4 systems has broken down 50 times. Its labor force doubles for 3 to 4 months most years to handle the breakdowns. It pumps out 3 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions.

On Wednesday, Energy Australia offered 7 years notification of its intent to close it in mid-2028, 4 years previously than formerly revealed, a possibility for which regulators had been preparing.

In what may have been a rhetorical thrive, Energy Minister Angus Taylor cautioned of “price spikes every night when the sun goes down“.

Then he drew attention to what had actually taken place when 2 other coal-fired power stations shut down — Victoria’s Hazelwood and South Australia’s Northern (South Australia’s last-remaining coal-fired generator).

He stated “wholesale prices skyrocketed by 85 per cent“.

And there he ended up, without going on to information what actually mattered. South Australia and Victoria now have the lowest wholesale power in the National Electricity Market — that’s right, the most affordable.

Coal-fired plants, specifically brown-coal-fired plants such as Yallourn, are not able to rapidly increase.(

ABC Gippsland: Jarrod Whittaker


Coal-fired plants close, then rates fall

Before Northern closed, South Australia had Australia’s highest rate.

Five years after the closure of Northern in 2016, and 4 years after the closure of Hazelwood in 2017, South Australia and Victoria have wholesale rates one-third lower than those in NSW and two-fifths lower than those in Queensland.

Something took place after the closure (mostly as a outcome of the closure) that required rates down.

South Australia ended up being a renewables powerhouse.

The Australian National University’s Hugh Saddler explains that renewable-sourced power — wind and grid solar — now represents 62 percent of power provided to the South Australian grid, and sometimes for all of it.

Much of it is produced near Port Augusta, where the Northern and Playford coal-fired power stations utilized to be, since that’s where the transmission lines start.

Being even more affordable than the power produced by the old brown-coal-fired power stations, there is at times a lot it that it sends out rates negative, implying generators earn money to switch off in order to prevent putting more power into the system than users can get.

It’s among the factors coal-fired plants are closing: they are tough to switch off. They are simply as tough to turn on, and quite hard to show up.

artists depiction of the Port Augusta wind farm, multiple turbines from a distance
After the closure of its last coal fired power plant, South Australia ended up being a renewable resource powerhouse.(

Supplied: Tadgh Cullen (DP Energy)


Coal can’t react rapidly

There are times (like when the wind does not blow and there’s very little sun, such as last Friday in South Australia) when rates can get extremely high.

But coal-fired plants, specifically brown-coal-fired plants such as Victoria’s Hazelwood and Yallourn and Victoria’s 2 staying huge plants, Loy Yang A and B, are not able to rapidly increase to make the most of them.

Although “dispatchable” in the technical significance of the term utilized by the minister, coal-fired stations can’t fill spaces rapidly.

Batteries can react immediately to a loss of power from other sources (although not for long), hydro can react in 30 to 70 seconds, gas peaking plants can react within minutes.

But coal can hardly move. As with nuclear power, coal-fired power requirements to be either on (in which case it can just gradually increase) or off, in which case turning it on from a standing start would be way too sluggish.

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Electricity rates are on the method down.

What was a function is now a bug

That’s why coal-fired generators run 24-7, to offer so-called base-load, due to the fact that they can’t actually do anything else.

Brown coal generators are the least dispatchable. Brown coal has to do with 60 per cent water. To make it spark and keep boiling off the water takes continual ultra-high temperature levels. Units at Yallourn have to keep burning coal at high output (nevertheless low or unfavorable the rates) or switch off.

In the days when the other sources of power might be switched on and off at will, this wasn’t a lot of a issue.

Hydro or gas might be switched on in the early morning when we switched on our lights and heating units and factories came down to company, and coal-fired power might be gradually increase.

At night, when there was less need for coal-fired power, some might be produced by using low-cost off-peak water heating.

But those days are gone. Nationwide, wind and solar consisting of roof solar products 20 per cent of our requirements. It switches on and off at will.

Wind typically blows highly in the evening. What was a function of coal — its capability to offer consistent power instead of fill spaces — has become a bug.

Gas and batteries can fill spaces coal can’t

It’s as if our power system has become a jigsaw with the unmovable pieces supplied by the wind and the sun. It’s our task to fill in the spaces.

To some level, as the Prime Minister states, gas will be a shift fuel, able to fill spaces in a manner in which coal cannot. But gas has become costly, and batteries are being set up all over.

Energy Australia strategies to change its Yallourn power station with Australia’s first four-hour utility-scale battery with a capability of 350 megawatts, more than any battery operating in the world today. South Australia is preparing an even larger one, up to 900 megawatts.

Australia’s Future Fund and AGL Energy are investing $2.7 billion in wind farms in NSW and Queensland which will fill spaces in a various method — their output peaks at various times to wind farms in South Australia and Victoria.

Filling the spaces will not be simple, and had we not decreased this roadway there may still have actually been a function for coal, however the even more we decrease it the less coal can assist.

As low-cost as coal-fired power is, it is being displaced of the system by sources of power that are more affordable and more dispatchable. We can’t reverse.

Peter Martin is going to fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. This post initially appeared on The Conversation.

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