Sleepwalking into an energy crisis

NSW is at grave risk of electricity supply shortages and sleepwalking into an energy crisis if it and the nation doesn’t wake up soon.


Although successive La Niñas have eased demand, the delay of many renewable and storage projects across the State and Country could plunge households into a bleak future.

3 May 2023



THE closure of the Liddell Power Station last Friday and with the closure of Eraring Power Station in two years will leave a massive gap in the energy supply chain.


A decade of climate and energy policy instability under the former Coalition government has not helped the current predicament but has the penny really finally dropped for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. Last week the Prime Minister endorsed gas as a crucial transition fuel on the pathway to net zero emissions because it produces 50 per cent less carbon when burned. What the Anthony Albanese has failed to understand, or recognise, is that converting aging coal-fired power stations to gas will not solve the problem, it will only maintain the status quo.


According to Dominic Zaal, Director of the Australian Solar Thermal Research Institute, [as reported last week by the Grapevine – [In the shadow of a lethal time bomb] “Burning gas may produce fifty per cent less carbon but inevitable leaking pipes to transport the gas will keep CO2 levels the same as burning coal.”


It’s remarkable that most Australians are unaware of the huge risk we are facing in not having a dependable electricity supply. Eventually, they will notice it in their power bills or, perhaps worse, if power rationing is required. And don’t think rationing won’t occur! For those of you who lived in the Sydney suburbs in the early ‘seventies’, rationing of electricity, and no supply for extended periods during the day, was a reality.


Solar panels on the roof and a home battery certainly help to ease the energy problem but there is one drawback – rental properties and unit dwellers may not have access to this technology. And if the grid goes down, so does your grid-connect home solar inverter – no power to your house. However, it could be argued that your home battery system will switch on to backup mode and keep supplying the house – but for how long? Solar panels will only charge the battery during the day if the house is still connected to a ‘live’ electricity grid.


It could also be argued by our politicians that Australia’s main electricity grid will probably avoid major supply shortages next summer but risks escalate in later years as ageing coal plants exit potentially faster than new renewables and storage projects come on line.


The projections are contained in the recently released Australian Energy Market Operator’s updated Electricity Statement of Opportunities report.


Despite all the political pontificating, more serious action needs to be taken by governments and the private sector to maintain reliable and affordable energy.


Yet on the same day that the Liddell Power Station closed, Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest opened up “a new green future”.


The Squadron Energy project was formally ushered onto the grid on Friday morning at around about the same time as Australia’s largest coal plant, the Liddell power station, was formally ushered off it, in the NSW Upper Hunter Region.


“We’re not predicting global warming, we’re not predicting climate change – you’re in it! You’re standing in it…,” Forrest said.


“So, when we cut that ribbon to open this near quarter-of-a-gigawatt renewable, zero harm, climate neutral power station we want to put another nick in the fossil fuel sector.”


And what about the former Liddell power plant site? AGL Energy has gained NSW state planning approval for its proposed Liddell big battery, which it says will be sized at up to 500MW and up to four hours of storage, or a total of two gigawatt hours.


The $763 million battery will be located adjacent to the former coal yards area and also next to a new solar array planned for the site. But the battery will only provide power to sixty thousand homes in peak period and still isn’t a long solution to solving the energy problem. Nor is the Waratah Super Battery, is a project designed to provide reserve transmission capacity and stability, rather than additional electricity storage capacity.


“Batteries alone won’t cut it,” said Dominic Zaal. “They’re good for short-duration storage, ranging from mere minutes to an hour or two. But you’d need an awful lot of them, at enormous cost, to cover 8-12 hours. Solar thermal becomes cost-effective for long-duration storage at scale, and brings other benefits too.”

The CSIRO Solar Thermal Tower and heliostat reflectors at Newcastle.

But what is the answer for sustainable, inexpensive and reliable 24/7 green energy? As reported by the Grapevine last Wednesday - solar thermal power [heliostat], which is a renewal, non-polluting, form of energy and a technology for harnessing solar energy to generate thermal energy for use in industry, and in the residential and commercial sectors, and providing endless amounts of energy, free of charge with no CO2 emissions during operation.


The technology for this type of power generation is already here and has been embraced by California and Seville in Spain, so why aren’t our governments looking toward a more reliable and sustainable energy future?


Dominic Zaal, from the Australian Solar Thermal Research Institute said that Solar thermal technology has the potential to provide both long-duration storage and industrial heat, yet it has been largely overlooked in the Australian context.


“The cost of building a solar thermal power station is far less than building a coal-fired power station, and would provide abundant and inexpensive electricity,” he said.


“Australia has more sunshine than any other country in the world,” Mr Zaal said, “so, why aren’t we powering the country with a sensible approach to renewable energy.”


The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) identified storage of four to 12 hours’ duration as “the most pressing utility-scale need in the next decade”. That’s what’s required “to manage stronger daily variations in solar and wind output, and to meet consumer demand, also during more extreme days, as coal capacity declines”.


“Most people know about lithium-ion battery (chemical) storage and pumped hydro (mechanical) storage,” said Dominic Zaal.


“However, thermal energy storage is not well understood or recognised. This is partly due to perceived costs and engineering challenges. However, as concentrated solar thermal plants are built all over the world - 30 are being developed in China alone – the knowledge base is growing.”


So, how does solar thermal power generation [heliostats] work? Heliostats are sun-tracking mirrors that concentrate sunlight by focusing it onto a target, generating temperatures of hundreds of degrees. In a heliostat field, a central receiver system or 'power tower' is used to harness the heat of the sun.


Rather than letting the heat of the sun radiate onto the ground, each heliostat magnifies solar radiation by focussing the reflected energy into a small focal point on the tower. A large number of focused heliostats produces a tremendous amount of heat. This solar energy is then used to generate hot and pressurised 'supercritical' steam, at the highest temperatures in the world, outside of fossil fuel sources, which super-heats a transfer fluid that is circulated in a receiver and used to produce steam.  The steam is then converted into mechanical energy in a turbine, which powers a generator to produce electricity.


Solar thermal power systems also have a thermal energy storage system component that allows the solar collector system to heat an energy storage system during the day, and the heat from the storage system is used to produce electricity in the evening or during cloudy weather.


And where does Australia fit into solar thermal technology?


The CSIRO Energy Centre in Newcastle contains the only high-temperature solar thermal research facility of its type in Australia, home to the largest high-concentration solar array in the Southern Hemisphere - so, the technology is no stranger to our governments’.


The Newcastle pilot facility has two solar fields and has been used to:


  • 'supercharge' natural gas (SolarGas)


  • store energy, so that solar power can be used when it's cloudy or after dark


  • generate electricity from the sun and air in a solar air turbine at 800 ºC


  • combine solar power with state-of-the-art turbines to create steam up to 590 ºC


“Concentrated solar thermal is also a synchronous technology because it uses a traditional spinning turbine (identical to those used in coal-fired power plants),” Mr Zaal said.


“This creates much-needed system-strength and frequency services to the grid. In essence, when coal fired power stations close, concentrated solar thermal is a technology that could continue to provide essential system services.


“We need to start building long-duration energy storage systems now, so we have secure and reliable power when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. We also need to replace fossil fuels used to create industrial process heat.”


This then begs the question: why aren’t we transitioning to solar thermal power to provide abundant green energy for the future?


Our governments can’t deny that the technology works - the cost of new solar thermal power plants is cheaper than coal-fired or gas power stations, and it is more reliable than wind generation and battery storage.


We have already dipped our toes in the water, and the Australian Solar Thermal Research Institute, which is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, an eight-year, has embarked on an $87 million international research collaboration to deliver cost reductions and dispatchability improvements, as well as position Australia in concentrating solar thermal (CST) power.


It’s time to put our politician’ on notice, both state and federal, and ask them what they are doing to ensure our sustainable energy future uses a technology that’s staring them in the face.

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