Complementarity, not competition. How RenewEconomy missed the point about batteries

We need to excise the outright bias from our energy dialogue, not promote it. 

Ben Heard, for Bright New World

Late last year, there was a remarkable response to an article published to RenewEconomy, which provided details of the response of the grid scale battery in South Australia to correcting the frequency dip caused by the loss of a unit of coal generation in the neighbouring NEM region of Victoria.

Tesla battery SA.jpeg

The level of interest is understandable. A tangible demonstration of this frequency control is of interest when so few such facilities are operating.  What the article also showed (and RenewEconomy curiously chose to mock rather than highlight) was an amazing complementarity of technologies. The problem (loss of frequency) was solved by both the newest participant and one of the oldest, together, more effectively than it would have been otherwise. No, a crisis was not imminent and no, the battery could not have done it all (and the coal plant actually could have). Nonetheless the cooperation, intended or not, was elegant. This complementarity strikes me as good news. Those designing Australia’s policy should be looking for complementarity.

RenewEconomy instead went with teetotal metaphors of the old-west:

Gladstone injected more than Tesla did back into the grid, and took the frequency back up to its normal levels of 50Hz, but by then Tesla had already put its gun back in its holster and had wandered into the bar for a glass of milk.

This is no more-or-less accurate than suggesting the battery realised it had run out of ammo, and ran from the corral before the fight was over. In my opinion, it's equally silly. Each metaphorical effort betrays a bias that we should be excising from our energy discussions, rather than promoting.

So, the giddy triumphalist flavour of what was, in point of fact, an informative article is dangerously missing the point. It is another analysis applauding what was an emergency intervention (the battery) to correct a destabilisation that was wrought though an accelerated uptake of a-synchronous renewable generation. Wind and solar uptake displaced the underlying stability of the system and outpaced our response. It’s a fix to a problem that was only very recently created. That problem (declining frequency control) was, until very recently, scarcely even acknowledged as relevant in the renewable energy discussion.

It’s worth a quick recap of the journey from the point of view of Bright New World and previously the blog Decarbonise SA, and some of the main sources of data.

In a paper published in 2015 with co-authors Corey Bradshaw and Barry Brook, we identified the risk posed by loss of ancillary services like frequency control:

Another reliability issue is the provision of necessary ancillary services to the network to ensure systems stability and power quality, such as frequency-control capability and reactive support (Australian Energy Market Operator Ltd & Electranet, 2014). These services are provided by ‘synchronous’ generators, typically traditional coal and gas generation or hydro (in some states), where electricity is generated through turbines spinning in synch at close to 50 Hz…as shown, increased wind participation displaces traditional (non-hydro) synchronous generators from the market. The associated ancillary services reduce or disappear (Australian Energy Market Operator Ltd & Electranet, 2014)…Proposed solutions to mitigate this risk include payments for minimum synchronous generation to remain online, development of a new market in ancillary services, network augmentation and even curtailing supply from wind and photovoltaics (Australian Energy Market Operator Ltd & Electranet, 2014). This again points to system costs that are not represented by technology-specific metrics such as capital cost or levelised cost of electricity of the renewable generator. Such costs would spread nation-wide were other states to follow South Australia’s lead, with each new addition of variable renewable energy eroding the buffer of reliability on which the overall system depends and increasing their implicit operating subsidy. 

[Aside: the Australian Energy Market Operator was sending this information in unmistakable terms in a series of reports called The South Australian Electricity Report. We were not soothsayers, we were just reading with open minds. End aside.]

Approximately one year later, as South Australian electricity was entering dire straights, Decarbonise SA reflected on this paper (with a self-explanatory title) The unfolding energy crisis in South Australia was foreseeable…and foreseen .

As the discussion continued, I published Ancilliary wha? Ancilliary services, a piece which sought to highlight the overlooked value of part of the grid that no one cared about…until it went missing. In this piece I described ancillary services as

‘all the important ingredients in running a reliable electricity system that you don’t know about…Like most necessary support services, we acknowledge their necessity when they start to go away'. 

In terms of the potential for novel solutions, I wrote (highlights added):

we are going to get better at using variable renewables and some of the novel ancillary service solutions may come to fruition…But to maintain that Australia, or anyone, is going to get the fossil fuels out of the electricity supply without fission technologies is, quite evidently, highly uncertain at best and at worst? It’s hopelessly ideologically rigid or perhaps just incredibly rent-seeking and greedy on the part of the renewables industry. We need much smarter policies to reflect what we actually need in the market place…No one gave a damn about ancillary services until they started to go away. Now that their absence and future availability is being noticed, hopefully we will better-appreciate just what we need to climb the mountain of decarbonisation.

As these pieces were published, we experienced push-back against the suggestion that ancillary services were even going to be a real issue at all, and insistence that using more renewable generation could not possibly be to blame if things were going wrong.

That is a good place to step out of history and into the present. Late last year, the newly formed Electricity Security Board published its inaugural Health of the NEM report. The report is sobering from front to back. Firstly, from the executive summary (emphases added):

This development (uptake of renewable generation) is positive for emissions reduction but there has been insufficient recognition that when sun and wind are not available the power system must have dispatchable power… This change in mix is a challenge for system security because the different generators have different characteristics. The rules of physics dictate various technical features that are needed for system security - like frequency control, inertia, and voltage parameters. Coal, gas and hydro generation have spinning generators, motors and other devices that are synchronised to the frequency of the power system. This synchronous generation provides for system security almost as a by-product. Wind and solar powered generators do not provide these features easily though work is going on to see how non synchronous resources and inverter technology can contribute. At present as the proportion of non-synchronous generation rises, the security of the power system is becoming more at risk.

As incredibly straightforward as the above may sound, many researchers, analysts and published authors, including me, have found themselves in baffling debates on the above points with proponents of 100% renewable energy. We have heard arguments, variously, that the variability of the sun and wind is a non-issue; that the ‘reliability’ discussion is some kind of corporate plot; that ‘inertia’ is just so-last-century; or even that wind and solar photovoltaics actually are synchronous generators (meaning I, and literally every scratchable source, am (is) wrong).

It is my fervent hope that these words from the Electricity Security Board will finally move Australia’s electricity discussion beyond the excruciatingly obvious. It would be great to achieve a situation where commentators stop treating matters of system engineering as proxy expressions of political allegiance.

Now, thanks to the battery, we probably can move ahead. Now that something the 100% renewable commentators like is providing a little of the service, we can be sure the service, the need, and its essential role is real, not just a corporate plot[1].

The Health of the NEM report found the need for efficient prices and affordability is at present CRITICAL (the highest rating). So, too, is the health of Emissions Reduction Policy; Reliability of Supply; and System Security Health. The Board assures readers that interventions are underway to address these matters. That’s good, but overlooks a crucial point.

On global standards, from a greenhouse gas emissions perspective Australian electricity is utterly filthy. It is among the worst of the worst. The problems we have experienced, the challenges we now need to address…this is not the mopping-up required after the job is done. The job has barely started. We ought to be more embarrassed than we are. To have created such a mess of electricity while barely even cleaning it is truly shameful.

That’s why the triumphalism of RenewEconomy is dangerous. The extension of the underlying narrative is that we can, without fear, gut the country of synchronous generation. Never fear, the batteries are here. That’s troubling for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s unproven. The huge interest in this event shows it: there is little operational experience, globally, in these novel solutions. Just extrapolating from A to B, and damn the consequences, is foolhardy.

Secondly, it risks becoming a proxy for the desired end, which should be decarbonisation of energy, with reliability and affordability maintained. That end has nothing, axiomatically, to do with batteries. Just check and follow the green. Every time, you will find hydro and nuclear power – boring old synchronous generation, with that nifty, normally unrecognised ‘by-product’ of frequency control.

So are grid batteries useful? Evidently, they can be and that’s good news.

Do we need them to decarbonise? No. We evidently don’t.

If NuScale Power (or any of several other developers) can sell something small, flexible, reliable, affordable, clean and synchronous...shouldn't we at least be taking a serious look at it?

If NuScale Power (or any of several other developers) can sell something small, flexible, reliable, affordable, clean and synchronous...shouldn't we at least be taking a serious look at it?

Holding those competing ideas one’s head without discomfort ought now be a prerequisite for talking sensibly about Australia’s energy policy. Because if we confuse means for ends, and we treat the mere act of rapid renewable installation as the goal, we could end up in a very expensive mess. We could end up with a grid that is nothing like as clean and reliable as it needs to be to really tackle the reality of climate change. Nuclear technologies remain arbitrarily prohibited in Australia. That prohibition is used as an excuse to avoid fulsome, impartial investigation. Until that changes, we are all deluding ourselves if we think we are taking serious action to build a clean new energy system for the coming century.

[1] well…a corporation was involved, but Tesla gets a special pass of course.


Ben Heard2 Comments