Alice Springs: Solar city at centre of a fossil fuel controversy

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In late January, in the middle of a heatwave, the lights went out in the city of Alice Springs, in the red centre of Australia. The blackout lasted up to 10 hours, and it made people angry.

Like a shorter blackout in South Australia two months earlier, the loss of power was initially blamed on renewables. In South Australia, it was deemed by the anti-renewable lobby to be the fault of too much, or too little wind power.

In Alice Springs, the finger was pointed at its high penetration of solar power, which according to Territory Generation chief executive Tim Duignan amounts to 10.6MW, or around 40 per cent of average annual demand, the highest of any grid in Australia.

In the end, neither wind nor solar was to blame. The blackouts were the fault of failing network equipment and their extended duration was the fault of fossil fuel generators stuffing up on the restart. In both instances, the operators pressed the wrong switch or ignored network requests.

But in Alice Springs, the controversy did not end there. Within a week of the blackout, Territory Generation, the monopoly supplier, announced it would spend $75 million replacing the entire capacity of its ageing Ron Goodin Power Station, with no consultation, no long-term energy plan, and no consideration of renewables and alternative options such as battery storage.

What followed was a debate that highlights a lot that is wrong with the energy policy environment in Australia, and the ingrained prejudices of the incumbents.

The local utility started off by saying that the local network could not support any increase in solar, despite a federal-government funded report that showed exactly the opposite.

And Dave Tollner, the territory’s treasurer who approved finance for the gas power station, launched into an extraordinary rant in the local newspaper against renewable energy that appears to have been gleaned from a collection of notorious anti-renewable web-sites, or the Murdoch media, or both.

In an interview that the local newspaper declared was full of “facts and figures to date in short supply on the other side of the debate”, Tollner declared his support for coal and gas, and said he didn’t give two hoots if emissions rose.

“If we increase our emissions from power stations fourfold nobody would notice any difference,” he argued, after declaring that coal was “unbeatable” as a power source. Such a shame, the paper suggested, that the Northern Territory doesn’t have any.

Tollner then delivered the sort of assessment of renewable energy that would be laughable were it not so commonly held by conservative politicians at both the state and federal level.

“Then comes the sun, or the wind starts to blow, and suddenly the cables are overloaded, they heat up, melt, collide and fail. Brownouts or blackouts are the result,” the paper quoted him as saying.

Tollner then said that Germany, which he said had increased its renewable energy share to 40 per cent (actually, it is only 33 per cent but it is aiming higher), has one of the most unstable networks in Europe.

Actually, the opposite is true, as this graph below illustrates, grid reliability in Germany is higher than most other countries and that reliability has, in fact, increased with the rise in renewables.

Tollner also said Germany relies on imports from nuclear-powered France. Again, the opposite is true, and Germany exports more power to France, usually during peak periods when France’s nuclear capacity falls well short of its own peak demand.

Tollner then claimed that “with present technology a 20 per cent input of renewables is the ‘rule of sum’ that can be handled, with highly skilled technicians keeping an eye on it 24/7.

Perhaps he meant rule of thumb, rather than rule of sum. But yep, that’s what was said a decade ago. But the network operators are quickly changing their tune. South Australia will reach 50 per cent wind and solar this year, and German network providers such as 50 Hertz say their grid can accommodate 70 per cent wind and solar before storage is needed.

Tollner probably didn’t read a report prepared by the local company CAT Projects, funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which said that in Alice Springs, the share of solar could probably rise to 60 per cent, if it was properly managed.

The approach of Tollner and the power utility is infuriating local renewable energy activists.

Glenn Marshall, from Repower Alice Springs, understands that the 45-year-old power gas generation units at Ron Goodin in the heart of Alice Springs need to be moved (they are in the centre of town and are very noisy) and that at least part of that capacity has to be replaced.

But he questions why all 41MW needs to be substituted by that new capacity, and why there is no consideration for spending some of the $75 million in funds on enabling technology such as battery storage.

Repower Alice Springs wants the number of new gas turbines to be installed at Owen Springs to be reduced, and some of the $75 million funding redirected to scaling up local solar generation, and battery storage.

It also wants the territory to commit to a 10-year plan to transition Alice Springs to renewable energy

, and to create a Territory-wide Renewable Energy and Climate Change policy “informed by climate science” and community engagement.

“They (the government) have no energy policy, no climate change policy,” Marshall says. “They have got nothing.”

Marshall says there is an opportunity for Alice Springs to become a leader in battery storage, just as it did with solar.

“Alice Springs is a solar city and that is an extremely proud thing for the town. We went from two rooftop systems to 700 at the end of the Solar City program and now have more than 1,100,” he says. The local grid now includes 4.1MW from the Uterne solar power station (pictured above) and nearly 1MW at the local airport.

“There is so much expertise here,” Marshall says. “We should be testing this (battery storage) technology, but there is no indication that they are interested in having a proper look at battery storage.”

Duignan suggested that investing is storage now would lead to a “dramatic” increase in energy cost. That much is debatable, seeing that the current power supply from gas is heavily subsidised by the government.

Indeed, Duignan should possibly take note from the Treasurer and energy minister in Western Australia, Mike Nahan, who arrived in his job with a similar prejudice against renewables, but now sees solar and storage as not just the future, but a solution to the budget-crippling subsidies paid to support the largely fossil-fuel based grid now.

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy. It is re-published with permission.