Australian Natural Disasters
General Sir John Monash built Victoria’s electricity system; Energy Minister Frydenberg will destroy it.
When the aptly named Monash Forum (a group of 30 Liberal and National MPs) formed a few months ago, all hell broke loose in Canberra.
Armed with common sense and compassion, this group is out to restore Australia’s once wholly reliable and comfortably affordable power supply. In doing so, they raised the ire of renewables, rent seekers, and eco-zealots alike.
Eco-zealots trotted out a couple of Monash’s disgruntled descendants, who claimed (based on no particular evidence) that their highly decorated ancestor would have promoted windmills and solar panels as if he was heading up the Clean Energy Council.
Monash’s life story suggests otherwise, but we won’t go into that here. Just two things.
One. Monash’s life paints a picture of a Country once driven by real endeavour, common sense and compassion; rather than sanctimonious drivel.
Two. Another engineer, Paul Miskelly, takes a reasonable stab at what John Monash would have made of the massively subsidised, intermittent, unreliable wind and solar power disaster, in this open letter to Josh Frydenberg.
Dear Mr Frydenberg,
I have followed with interest your recent comments on Sir John Monash, and the “Monash Forum”.
As well as being Australia’s greatest soldier, Sir John was also a professional engineer, and arguably, Australia’s greatest engineer. Also, and as is yours, his was an Australian Jewish background, so understandably you admire him, and would, I expect, identify strongly with him.
I see that you are quoted in an article, in which you mention Sir John, in the Sydney Morning Herald of 8 April 2018 last, see, this for example.
You were having a shot at the so-called “Monash Forum”, presumably because that group chose to use his name to promote its message that coal-fired electricity generation needs to be brought back into the mix.
I see that you are also quoted there as saying that, “Monash was an engineering and scientific genius“. You said, further, that, “He had a great deal of intellectual curiosity and I think he would look at the current energy market and see the opportunities in new technologies.”
He most certainly was an engineering and scientific genius. And, yes, he most certainly would have looked very carefully at the newest technologies, but perhaps more carefully and a lot more circumspectly than might the non-engineer such as yourself. He was, consistently, absolutely ruthless in his application of the utmost precision in the use of his engineering skills.
We may presume that he would have gone back to first principles to gain for himself a fundamental understanding of these “new technologies” before he came to any conclusions as to their usefulness. Whether or not he would then have chosen to utilise them would be a decision he would have made only after such a careful examination.
In conducting such an examination, he would have brought all his undoubted engineering expertise to bear. We know that in everything that he did in this regard, he did in the most meticulous and detailed fashion. However, unlike Sir John, you are not an engineer.
Indeed, your Wikipedia entry makes no mention that you might possess any formal qualifications whatsoever that might hint of anything approaching scientific, let alone, engineering literacy. So, I wonder how well you might be qualified to speak for Sir John Monash’s views regarding these “new technologies”?
Unlike you, Mr Frydenberg, I am a professional electrical engineer. You might be interested, had Sir John been alive today, in what I suggest might have been the process of the development of his views of the present state of our electricity system.
But, before doing that, let me remind you of some pertinent facts.
You, as the present Minister for Energy, and before you, other incumbents in this portfolio, Greg Hunt, and before him, Ian Macfarlane, have collectively presided over the largest and fastest electricity price rises in Australia’s history. What an absolutely stunning achievement. You cannot walk away from it: Australia now has among the highest electricity prices in the world, the world’s highest being those in South Australia. In so doing, your government’s policy has completely destroyed Australia’s international competitiveness, a truly astonishing achievement given that this country is blessed with an abundance of coal, gas, uranium, and just about every other conceivable natural resource.
You, and these other gentlemen, collectively, have managed this astonishing achievement by the invention, and the continued implementation, of the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, the MRET, a means to deliver by stealth a set of astonishingly lucrative subsidies to those few who are in a position to collect it by their building of so-called “renewable” electricity generation facilities. This subsidy scheme has resulted in that fortunate few becoming extremely wealthy, at an enormous disadvantage to the rest of the population, without, I might add, by the delivery of any tangible benefit whatsoever.
As a professional engineer, able to discover aspects of technologies unavailable to the non-engineer, Sir John Monash could never have allowed the delivery of such an achievement as yours, simply because he would have realised that to do so would have been completely and utterly against his principles.
If you remember, as a military commander, his first concern was for the welfare of his troops, then, after war’s end, back home in Australia, his prime endeavour was to deliver the cheapest, most reliable, and the most comprehensively available electricity supply, and importantly, that it was available to all.
Let me suggest how Sir John, should he have been alive now, might have gone about any evaluation of the various energy technologies now available.
We may safely presume, given that he rebuilt the Victorian electricity system virtually from scratch, that he had a thoroughgoing understanding of the operation of an electricity grid. In particular, he would have been more than familiar with the fundamental requirement that power supply must match power demand second-by-second.
As a first step then, I suggest that he would have looked at these new technologies’ ability to meet this fundamentally important supply-demand balance, by looking at the actual operational performance of these technologies. As an example of the type of methodology that Sir John might have adopted, I suggest that you read a scholarly paper that I wrote, (Miskelly, 2012). In that paper, I described an analysis that examined one year’s real operational data from the then set of AEMO-registered wind farms connected to the Eastern Australian electricity grid.
The results of that analysis might surprise you.
The total output of that set of wind farms, spread right across the Eastern Australian grid was extremely variable, highly erratic and intermittent, plunging to near-zero on 109 occasions throughout the particular calendar year, 2010, of the study.
The cause of this behaviour was not, as many might believe, due to there being gaps in the geographic coverage of the wind farms, but was entirely due to the prevailing meteorology. Very large high-pressure systems routinely and regularly cross southern Australia bringing spells of calm weather right across Eastern Australia during those times. During calm weather there is no wind to drive the wind farms.
These findings have a number of very important consequences:
Whether 10 or 10,000 wind farms were to be built in this region, the highly erratic behaviour would remain, the concern being that the more wind farms were built, the greater would be the difficulty in managing the excursions, hence the greater would be the impact on grid controllability, grid operational reliability, and hence the very security of the electricity supply.
Because of the depth of the power excursions in wind farm output, the wind farm fleet would need to be continually backed up to 100 percent of installed wind farm capacity by fully dispatchable, conventional, therefore in Australia with its ban on nuclear power, fossil-fuelled, generation. This finding is essentially saying that there would need to be two power systems in parallel, or, conversely, that no existing fossil-fuelled power plant could be shut down, even as the installed capacity of the wind farm fleet grew.
As a result, entirely on the basis of these findings, in the conclusions to that paper I cautioned that no further expansion to the wind farm fleet be undertaken, because, as a result of the massive increase in the magnitude of the wind power fluctuations resulting from these excursions, there would be a much increased risk of frequent, unpredictable, widespread blackouts. This caution, it seems, went unheeded.
To determine whether or not these findings, published as they were as long ago as 2012, are yet relevant, given that there are now so many more wind farms scattered across the Eastern Australian grid, we need to look at more recent data. After all, with the much larger group of wind farms now present, it might indeed be the case that, contrary to my paper’s earlier findings, much greater smoothing of the output has since been obtained. Let’s have a look at more recent data. The chart shows the variation in wind’s total output for the month of April 2018, that is, the month just gone:
You will note that, as per my paper’s findings, there has been no discernible reduction in the volatility of wind generation output, at least as far as this one month is concerned. You will note that there are quite a few dips towards zero output. For the sake of exactness, it might be useful to know that in the chart above, the two lowest total wind farm output figures are:
7 MW at 15:53:40 on 19 April, and,
3 MW between the times of: 10:41:12 and 10:41:16 on ANZAC Day.
The latter was not some sort of misguided salute to the memory to Sir John and his beloved ANZACs, it was simply due to the occurrence of the widespread calm weather that was a feature of ANZAC Day this year. Note that this minimum output is from a total installed wind turbine capacity of 4917 MW.
The best that can be said about this performance is that it is utterly pathetic.
Note that, looking at the right hand side of the peak in the above chart, the maximum swing in output is from some 3500 MW down to 250 MW, say 3250 MW. Need I remind you that the necessary backup required that two large coal-fired power stations had to ramp up very quickly indeed.
The chart above is available here. : https://anero.id/energy/wind-energy/2018/april .
(Click the “MW” button as you see at the top right of the chart above on the web page there to get the chart to display the power output in MW. Lest you might think that this is a “one-off” month, feel free to examine the charts for other months – the site provides data as far back as early 2014. Selection of other periods is done by simple substitution of the year and month in the link above.)
There is no need to analyse in detail the performance of solar PV installations because we know that their output dives steeply to zero every night, for the entire night, simply because their power source, the sun, has the inconvenient habit of disappearing every night. So, in regard to volatility, solar PV is even worse than wind energy.
What would Sir John Monash have done, once he had discovered the profound limitations of these technologies? He might have taken note of such as my paper, or, more likely, would have independently reached the same conclusions as a result of his own research.
Sir John would have very quickly realised that no form of highly intermittent, highly variable, totally unpredictable, source of electricity, such as these technologies are, would be at all compatible with the stringent balancing requirements of the electricity grid. He would, conversely, have embraced nuclear power, precisely because that form of electricity generation is a direct drop-in CO2-emissions-free replacement for his coal-fired power stations. So much for the Monash family’s quote (reproduced below) that Sir John would have been a proponent for these “green energy technologies”.
My paper did not address the other “show-stopper” to the connection of intermittent renewables to the grid, that of their complete failure to provide synchronous inertia, a concept of operation so often totally misunderstood by non-engineers, but an operating condition that is absolutely essential to grid operational controllability and hence power security and reliability. In grid systems powered by conventional synchronous machines, this valuable property of synchronous inertia is available at no cost, because it is an inherent property of rotating machines.
We are told by their proponents that wind turbines and solar PV systems can provide “synthetic inertia” to overcome the problem, but of course, only if additional subsidies are made available to their owners to encourage them to operate various of the wind and solar generators in this way. Such additional subsidy would result in yet further increases in electricity prices!
There is quite a good description of synchronous inertia, and why it is an inherent and valuable property of synchronous machines, surprisingly, at
Sir John would most certainly have honed in on this profound inadequacy. He would, seemingly unlike yourself and your Ministerial predecessors, have realised it well before any proposals were allowed to proceed to incorporate non-synchronous generation into the generation mix, and would have rejected the huge cost of so-called “synthetic inertia” vs the no cost built-in that is part of conventional plant.
In stark contrast to what would have been Sir John’s trademark rigorous and methodical approach, your entire renewables policy development and implementation process smacks very much of “making it up on the run”. A proper engineering approach would have avoided this totally unnecessary outcome.
Here is how you went about your approach:
Some 20 years ago, certain academics came up with the, totally unsubstantiated, idea that “the wind is always blowing somewhere”. Therefore, they said, by spreading a fleet of wind farms over a large enough area, (how large “large enough” might be was deliberately left vague), any variations in individual output would be smoothed sufficiently that the fleet could directly replace “the baddies”, the coal-fired power stations. Policymakers eagerly swallowed the notion, and quickly implemented a “wind replaces coal” policy. As the chart above shows, this idea turned out to be pure nonsense. Not only that, but the extent of the variations proved dangerous to grid stability.
No problem, said the policymakers, we can balance the variations with fast-acting gas-fired power stations. They failed to factor in the much higher price, and shortage, of gas, and also the little matter of the lack of inertia. As a result, electricity prices soared, and continue to soar. And, the grid is in chaos.
No matter, said the policymakers, we’ll use batteries for storage to tide over the intermittency. Batteries, paid for by the taxpayer and the electricity consumer. Prices will continue to soar even higher, because policymakers continue to fail to appreciate that the enormous size of the battery requirement is unaffordable. We have a classic case of band-aid on band-aid being applied, in a desperate attempt to cover the policy failures, and each band-aid failing to address the root cause. And meanwhile the price of electricity continues to spiral out of control, ever upwards.
Sir John would have thoroughly assessed and tested each of these various assumptions before going ahead with any policy implementation. Why didn’t you do the same? You didn’t, and the result, quite simply, is chaos. What would Sir John have recommended to sort out this?
Here is a suggested blueprint, based on my assessment as described above, to address the mess that your government’s non-engineer policymakers have created.
Immediately repeal the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000, the legislation that put in place the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) subsidy scheme, thus abolishing immediately the subsidy scheme that is the cause of the skyrocketing increases in the price of electricity. In abolishing the subsidies, there is to be no “grandfathering” whatsoever.
Require all owners of wind and solar PV farms to provide full backup facilities, and provision of inertia, at their own expense, on the upstream side of the grid connection point.
Repeal those portions of the relevant legislation that ban nuclear power in Australia. This legislation is to be seen for what it is: it is both a restrictive trade practice and an example of anti-competitive behaviour. Nuclear generation is the only technology that both delivers real CO2-emissions reductions and is a direct plug-in replacement for conventional power stations.
Restart Hazelwood immediately. It is not to be shut down until an equivalent replacement power station, of whatever fuel type, is up and running.
Build a new coal-fired power station at Port Augusta of the same capacity as the shut down and vandalised Playford and Northern power stations. That the northern parts of South Australia are now completely dependent on power stations in Adelaide and Victoria via an interconnector and therefore located some hundreds of kilometres away is a national scandal.
Ensure that, similarly, the Liddell power station in New South Wales remains running indefinitely. If necessary, acquire it, from its current owner and maintain it in fully operational condition until a replacement is up and running.
Develop a thorough and meticulous procedure that will provide accurate estimates of the CO2 emissions resulting both from the building of each and every wind and solar farm, and that resulting from the necessary 100 percent backup required from fossil-fuelled power stations.
With regards to the last recommendation, you may not be aware that each and every one of these developments is a major civil works project.
Vast amounts of materials are used in their construction, materials such as concrete, steel, precious metals and alloys whose base materials have to be extracted by mining, milling, refining and fabrication, all of which results in CO2 emissions.
Wind farms, in particular, require the construction of an extensive, and solidly built, road network. The road network within a 100 MW average-output wind farm requires the extraction of hundreds of thousands of tonnes rock, its crushing into gravel, its spreading and tamping into a firm road base. All of this results in the emission of not-insignificant quantities of CO2. That CO2 debt, incurred even before the wind or solar PV “farm” is operational, plus that resulting from the ongoing backup requirement must be deducted from any claimed CO2 emissions “savings”.
Regarding the Monash Forum, I did enjoy the quote from the Monash family lambasting that group for ‘using the Monash name to push for “horse-and-buggy era” energy policies’ (See, for example: https://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/josh-frydenberg-renews-push-for-sale-of-liddellpower-station/news-story/8bda2e5467a5e1e6da4fb974cbc5d154 .)
The further comment, presumably an endorsement of your policies, that: ‘The family said it was “discourteous” for the group to use the name without permission, especially as their ancestor would have been “a proponent” of green energy technologies such as wind and solar power.’, ought now be seen as being completely at odds with what an engineer of Sir John’s calibre would have discovered about those “green energy technologies”.
The family’s endorsement of your policies is not only totally misguided, not only a step back to well beyond the “horse-and-buggy” era, but it is an endorsement of a step back, quite literally, to the Dark Ages.
You might also pass on to them that Sir John would also, had he been alive today, be fully aware that it truly is a step back to the Dark Ages, and he would most certainly not, once examined with his legendary thoroughness, have been any sort of “proponent” of these particular “green energy technologies”.
Minister, unless you adopt the blueprint above, then quite literally you will take Australia back to the Dark Ages. Unless you discard your obsession with intermittent renewables and restore sanity to the generation mix by the immediate implementation of the blueprint described above, electricity prices will continue their insane, upward spiral, and more ominously, an ongoing crisis of power shortages, and worse, the spectre of frequent, unpredictable, blackouts (the Dark Ages), is inevitable.
Mr. Miskelly says;
I have no connection whatsoever with the so-called “Monash Forum”, nor the coal industry. My scholarly paper (Miskelly, 2012) was prepared and submitted for publication entirely at my own expense. I received no remuneration either in cash or in kind for the very considerable work that went into the preparation of that paper.
My interest in wind and solar PV energy arose as a result of the wanton, deliberate, destruction of my family’s small vineyard/winery business by a wind farm proponent wishing to site his wind farm development on properties neighbouring our small vineyard. The resulting huge and direct impact on my family’s financial position prompted me to take a more than passing interest in the “greater good” that supposedly results from the deployment of wind energy technology. What I discovered is as described above: that to follow the path of intermittent renewables is both dangerous-to-grid-operational-security and a totally futile way to seek to reduce CO2 emissions.
Miskelly P 2012 Wind Farms in Eastern Australia – Recent Lessons. Energy and Environment 23, Issue 8, 1233-1259. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1260/0958-305X.23.8.1233