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Ageing coal-fired power plants can’t take the heat

Ageing coal-fired power plants can’t take the heat

Victoria’s ageing coal-fired power plants had 14 equipment failures in six weeks as the state grappled with surging demand in intense summer heat.

The Australian Energy Market Operator has urged Victorian and South Australian power generators to dial up supply ahead of ­expected temperatures close to 40C across the two states on Thursday and Friday.

But energy experts say it may not be enough to stave off outages in the two states because coal-fired generators were becoming less reliable in heat, as they deal with demand from a growing population and more intermittent energy supply.

Australian Institute principal adviser Mark Ogge said coal and gas-fired generators throughout the southeast had 25 major breakdowns since monitoring started in mid-December.

Turbines at Victoria’s Loy Yang A broke down eight times, while a turbine at Loy Yang B had an outage on Thursday. Yallourn W turbines broke down five times, including an incident late on Sunday where a turbine tripped and an unsuccessful attempt was made to start it at 1:15am.

Breakdowns could increase in frequency as extreme weather ­becomes more prevalent, Mr Ogge said, and existing generators pick up the shortfall left by the closure of the Hazelwood station.

“Heatwaves are getting more frequent and the system is having great difficulty coping because the plants were not designed for it,” Mr Ogge said. “Heatwaves ... make coal and gas power plants less efficient and more likely to break down. Their age and size ­accentuates these vulnerabilities.”

Mr Ogge is calling for investment in technology that is better suited to the Australian climate and emissions-reduction aims, such as solar thermal power that is being built in Port Augusta in South Australia. He said the closure of Hazelwood in Victoria last March could be playing a role in the outages, but that didn’t mean new coal-fired power plants should be built in its place.

“Taking capacity offline does put more pressure on the rest of the fleet, and so you have to build more capacity, but the key is you want to build capacity designed for these conditions. Coal is a 19th century technology,” he said.

Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood said the age of the coal-fired generators and uncertainty from the government was acting as a handbrake for investment and upgrades and outages could increase.

But he was adamant that the country needed a diverse energy mix and for coal-fired power plants to be replaced — when they are closed — with an energy source of a similar profile.

“Renewables mean the complexity of what we’re dealing with in energy markets is far greater than it used to be — demand is spikier, you have bigger peaks and troughs to deal with — and so we need better tools, forecasting mechanism and technology to deal with it,” he said.

“The issue we have to address is we have a more intermittent supply and so it’s not a question of replacing coal or not, but ensuring that whatever we put in its place has similar characteristics.”

The Australian

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