Ever since I started this blog, I have been trying to get a good bead on wind power in South Australia and what it is actually doing for us. I should restate my position on renewable energy that I published in my very first post, just as context for this one. My position is unchanged.
It is the introduction of nuclear power that is the focus of Decarbonise SA’s work, for some pretty simple reasons. Firstly, in South Australia it’s the missing component of a strategy that would actually get the job done (remember, I’m talking about zero emissions. I’m not interested in deep cuts or improvements). Secondly, while renewable technology and energy efficiency both need better support and deeper penetration, they also both have a lot of friends already. Energy efficiency is supported by legislation (like the Energy Efficiency Opportunities Act, mandatory standards for new houses, Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) and star ratings for appliances to name but a few), and organisations, governmental and otherwise. Renewables have support from government organisations like Renewables SA, other actions groups, major legislated support from the national Renewable Energy Target (RET), deep subsidies for solar PV and a strong corporate presence. So the potential of this blog to improve the cause of either energy efficiency or renewables is minimal. To be perfectly clear, do not mistake the focus on nuclear power as an attack on, or belittling of, the role of either energy efficiency or renewables. That is not the case. But I do insist on being decidedly realistic about the potential of either to solve the problem in the absence of nuclear power.
So I was never setting out to be an expert on wind. However it’s a natural consequence of what I have been writing about that people want to know my position on wind power in more detail. Just this week, the great read that is Lenz Blog drew on the positive example of wind power in South Australia, with direct reference to my apparent silence on what it sees as a good news story for decarbonisation.
Fair enough. The subject of wind power in South Australia seems to arouse quite a bit of passion, including on some recent DSA comments threads. It lends itself easily to supposition in the absence of clear and detailed information.
I have been guilty of the above, not by design but rather by doing my best with an incomplete picture. The National Greenhouse Accounts for 2010 compare emissions from different sectors, state by state, with 1990 levels. For South Australia, this showed a 40% increase in emissions from electricity generation, despite having installed over half the wind power in the nation, starting in 2003. My conclusion? This is not a good story- wind as a central pillar of the energy strategy does not seem to be bringing our emissions down much, and in fact seems to be having its arse kicked by growth.
But in an interaction with subscriber Andrew Dickson, it was clear that we did not actually know the story in enough detail i.e. What were emission levels in 2002, just prior to the commencement of wind generation??? The National Greenhouse Accounts were not helping. Here’s what I asked Andrew:
If you could help me I have tried to find the figure for SA emissions from electricity generation only in 2003 to see the impact. I can get a figure for stationary energy overall from the National Greenhouse Accounts site but that’s no good. Hopefully the 2003 figure will be higher than 9.1 million tCO2-e so that we can see some positive impact from the 1,000 MW of wind installed since then. Do you have it/ can you find it?
Andrew came back with some useful references that provided more clarity but not exactly what I wanted. Well, in researching my posts about the debate between Monbiot and Greenpeace, I finally tracked down the document that I knew must have existed somewhere. It’s the 2011 South Australian Supply and Demand Outlook from the Australian Energy Market Operator. This document provides both the raw numbers and some important discussion of the role of wind in South Australia’s energy system.
In this post I will be reviewing this document and a few other references with a particular focus on the wind element, and commenting on the relevance for Decarbonise SA. For the most part, the data should be fairly indisputable, but I will naturally make my own consideration of the implications. I’m well aware that many of my readers are more technically versed than I am. I look forward to reading about what I got wrong, or what else I need to consider.
I was already drafting this post when, on 31st August, the South Australian Government announced the construction of an enormous new wind farm for the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, and an undersea high voltage direct current cable to get the power back to Adelaide. The new farm is slated as 600 MW. Given we have about 1,150 MW installed so far, this is a massive additional commitment of wind. Being something of a zero-carbon technology agnostic, I’m not specifically perturbed by this. In fact, the result should be further decarbonisation which is right up my alley. However, the slated price tag of $1.3 bn in the relatively small economy of South Australia is serious, serious bucks to have earmarked, apparently without much consideration of alternatives, to one energy source. It’s the sort of sum where an open and transparent examination of what could be achieved using small nuclear reactors (or other zero-carbon technology while we are at it) would have been perfectly relevant. SA is clearly well in love with wind. Might we be taking it a bit far without being critical enough?
I’ll run the discussion in three parts:
- The Basics: Vital statistics on SA wind
- The Good: What the wind power has achieved that is positive from DSA’s point of view
- The Hard: Not the bad, you will note, but the hard. What is hard about including wind in our energy system, especially as our penetration moves beyond 20%?
Hopefully this post gives DSA a clearer and more robust foundation for commenting on the role of wind in our goal of 100% decarbonised electricity.
- Installed wind power is now 1,150 MW, highest in Australia by a long shot, and 51% of the national installed capacity at April 2011 (Government of South Australia)
- AEMO states
According to the World Wind Energy Association’s data (http://www.wwindea.org/home/index.php) this puts South Australia second behind Denmark in terms of penetration and the per capita figure of 0.702 kW per person is now higher than any major country in the world
- We get this from 14 wind farms around the state, some of the details of which can be found in the licences .
- You can locate them on the interactive energy map .
- The largest individual farm at the moment is Lake Bonney at about 280 MW. I wrote about my impressions after a recent visit to the south east of the state
- Maximum half-hourly output is 978 MW
We have a growing proportion of electricity consumption coming from zero carbon sources, now 21% from wind (solar chimes in another 1%)
That’s a good thing. If only the global, or even national profile was looking as good as that.
South Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation have fallen. From a high of just under 10 million tCO2-e in 2005/06, emissions have retreated to a whisker above 8 million tCO2-e in 2010/11. So just about a 20% drop in emissions to match the generation from the wind. This is good. Very good in fact and entirely consistent with Decarbonise SA’s mission. Again, if only the nation and world were performing similarly.
The wind generation system does not “balance”. Despite the reasonable geographic distribution of the wind farms, it is demonstrably not the case that “if it is not blowing somewhere, it will be blowing somewhere else”. The weather systems that govern this are too large. It is either blowing everywhere or nowhere.
Wind generation is a very poor match for peak demand periods. At the summer peak, which was a new record for SA on 31st July 2011, the 1,150 MW of wind provided just 60 MW of power i.e. the wind was not blowing. Over the course of the heatwave, the wind supplied a more impressive maximum of 873 MW. However the supply profile for the wind in this period is consistently inverse to the demand profile.
AEMO comments that “the output of the wind farms increases due to local winds created by heating and cooling of the land mass at sunrise and sunset”. So it’s still providing clean electricity, which is all good. But clearly, from the point of view of efficient and effective management of a network, this high level of penetration poses some real problems. Not the least of which is that it needs back-up; we can’t close other things down. The owners of those other generators still need to make a return whether they run or not, so this adds to the overall cost of our system. Sure enough, we are continuing to bring on line new peaking gas plants in South Australia, and closing nothing.
It’s getting harder to add more. South Australia galloped to 20+% of electricity consumption from wind in less than 10 years, a serious achievement. But now it’s starting to get harder, and not because the resource is running out.
AEMO comments that “the significant growth of wind generation over recent years, and the variability of wind over a short period of time, means that transmission network and power system management is becoming more challenging… while variability is relatively small as a pecentage of total installed capacity, as installed capacity increases, the magnitude of that variability becomes more difficult to manage”. That makes sense. Our consumption is a reasonable approximation of a sine wave, and it’s easiest to provide for it from sources that can be readily dispatched. The figure above shows the rather more messy generation profile of wind. It is generated on the whim of nature, with reasonable and improving techniques to forecast it, but often that whim seems to coincide with when we don’t want the power. So note that AEMO is not saying it’s impossible, they are not saying “stop”. But they are flagging more challenging times ahead if we want to keep going beyond 20%.
To keep things sweet, it would appear that network augmentation is required between Victoria and South Australia. To make these wind farms worthwhile they need to be able to sell their electricity somewhere. Clearly there are already times when they cannot sell it in SA, and the AEMO report does refer to periods when the wind farms are instructed to constrain generation. AEMO comment as follows:
In 2010, AEMO and Electranet undertook a Joint Feasibility Study to examine a range of issues relating to network augmentation options between Victoria and South Australia. The study examined the existing interconnectors and the potential to develop a larger link to the eastern states. The results of this initial analysis were sufficiently positive that further work on assessing the feasibility of an augmentation of the Heywood interconnector is now likely to commence in 2011.
For some observers, that all belongs under “THE GOOD”, but I rather think of it as hard. I acknowledge the benefits of enhanced interconnection. But the object is decarbonisation, not spending money on networks. This need for augmentation to keep accommodating wind will add costs to the process, whether they get directly tagged to the wind developments or not.
The other augmentation issue that AEMO does not really raise is that of connecting the new wind farms themselves to the South Australian network in the first place. Logically, the first sites to have been exploited in SA will be those that offered both a good wind resource and reasonably low cost connection to the network. It seems the latter is far scarcer than the former. For example, the new proposed $1.3 bn wind farm will require an undersea high voltage direct current cable from the Yorke Peninsula to get the power back to where it is needed in Adelaide. The media releases only mention the cost of the farm itself. I suspect the cable will not be cheap, but I have no reported costs for it. Being a political matter, I expect we will be drip fed this over time, but an American example is $600m for 65 miles. That gives me about $5.8m per km of cable. It could add up.
You can see the even more extensive plans for hooking up south Australia’s Eyre Peninsula here, a pet project for the state known as Green Grid, with the goal of unlocking even more wind generation. It’s all possible no doubt, but it’s all costly too; an unavoidable expense when the energy is far from where you want it.
I think it is telling that having reached 20% from wind at breakneck speed, the revised target from the State Government for renewable energy is not 40%, but rather 33%. Every extra % gets harder from here.
The fossil plants are still chugging away. Between 2005/06 and 2010/11, the reduction in our GHG emissions was mainly the result of reduced imports from Victoria. Our domestically generated emissions actually nudged slightly higher over this time frame.
So far as I know, no-one actually seriously contends that wind is the answer to that problem; it is not baseload, it is intermittent. So whether we meet the 33% target or not, wind power is going to need to give way to something else to finish the job of decarbonisation. The figure below shows the capacity factors of our scheduled generators, and you can see that most of our dirtiest are chugging along at very high levels.
If you hate nuclear, the zero carbon options for South Australia seem to be solar, wave, geothermal or biomass. In the case of at least the first three, there is plenty of available resource within the boundaries of the state. AEMO provides a chart of costs against GHG emissions for most of these technologies, alongside costs of the existing fossil generation technologies.
According to them, the only renewable options that would deliver baseload-suitable capacity factor is enhanced geothermal and biomass. The former is finding the going very, very tough as I discussed in a recent post. The latter looks to be much lower cost, and I understand there are some plans for it, but not at the scale of replacing our coal and gas. According to AEMO the solar options don’t look to be contenders on either price or capacity factor. They give quite detailed discussion on the status of these energy sources in the appendices. I recommend reading this. In a goal of rapid decarbonisation, they gave me little comfort.
The observant among you will have noted that yet again, an Australian organisation of potential influence has prevented us from learning anything about nuclear power by excluding it from the above chart of generation technologies. Using our imaginations, it sits right down on the bottom line because it is zero-carbon. The peer reviewed paper published in Energy by Nicholson, Berger and Brook provides a median LCOE price of US$54 per MWh (established, not first of a kind), taken across eight studies. So it’s to the left of the biomass. Hang on a second… that makes it the cheapest zero-carbon option. Wow, who knew?
So where do I land on the subject of wind power in this state? Well, South Australia has benefited from and exploited the following charateristics:
- An excellent wind resource
- Low population densities, which have kept opposition to a minimum
- The creation of a supportive investment environment
- The existence of a national scheme (the 20% Renewable Energy Target) to provide the necessary financial pull for investment in wind
As a result, in super-quick time we have moved to over 20% zero carbon electricity in the state. This is good. Other regions can look to this example and see that a significant portion of the needs of a developed region may be able to be met with wind, and it can give a rapid start to decarbonisation. Even just the rest of Australia taking note would be good (though the resource is less favourable up the eastern seaboard where most of Australia lives).
To keep going from here will mean overcoming network infrastructure and management challenges that have not mattered too much so far: providing the means to sell the excess power interstate and the means to connect the resource from more remote parts of South Australia. These are costs we have so far been able to avoid, but we can’t avoid them for much longer.
From my point of view, if we press on, we press on. Wind power is quite the darling in this state, and my being stroppy about it is not going to change that. But we will start needing to commit larger and larger sums to support its continued uptake. I believe we need more and more consideration and transparency of whether that is the best place in our energy system to spend the money chasing the outcome we ostensibly want (cutting greenhouse gas emissions).
Ultimately though it should be self-limiting. The intermittency, combined with the fact that the wind seems to blow either everywhere or nowhere at once, means that wind just cannot get the whole job done. We will need to turn to other options. Let’s be smart and look at all of them. Decarbonise SA will continue building awareness of the one we seem determined to studiously ignore.