Paying Australia’s coal-fired power stations to stay open longer is bad for consumers and the planet


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Daniel J Cass, University of Sydney; Joel Gilmore, Griffith University, and Tim Nelson, Griffith UniversityAustralian governments are busy designing the nation’s transition to a clean energy future. Unfortunately, in a misguided effort to ensure electricity supplies remain affordable and reliable, governments are considering a move that would effectively pay Australia’s old, polluting coal-fired power stations to stay open longer.

The measure is one of several options proposed by the Energy Security Board (ESB), the chief energy advisor to Australian governments on electricity market reform. The board on Friday released a vision to redesign the National Electricity Market as it transitions to clean energy.

The key challenges of the transition are ensuring it is smooth (without blackouts) and affordable, as coal and gas generators close and are replaced by renewable energy.

The redesign has been two years in the making. The ESB has done a very good job of identifying key issues, and most of its recommendations are sound. But its option to change the way electricity generators and retailers strike contracts for electricity, if adopted, would be highly counterproductive – bad both for consumers and for climate action.

Electricity lines at sunset
One proposed reform to Australia’s electricity market would be bad for consumers and climate action.
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The energy market dilemma

The National Electricity Market (NEM) covers every Australian jurisdiction except Western Australia and the Northern Territory. It comprises electricity generators, transmission and distribution networks, electricity retailers, customers and a financial market where electricity is traded.

Electricity generators in the NEM comprise older, polluting technology such as gas- and coal-fired power, and newer, clean forms of generation such as wind and solar. Renewable energy, which makes up about 23% of our electricity mix, is now cheaper than energy from coal and gas.

Wind and solar energy is “variable” – only produced when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Technology such as battery storage is needed to smooth out renewable energy supplies and make it “dispatchable”, meaning it can be delivered on demand.

Some say coal generators, which supply dispatchable electricity, are the best way to ensure reliable and affordable electricity. But Australia’s coal-fired power stations, some of which are more than 40 years old, are becoming more prone to breakdowns – and so less reliable and more expensive – as they age. This has led to some closing suddenly.

Without a clear national approach to emissions targets, there’s a risk these sudden closures will occur again.




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Wind farm near coast
Wind and solar energy is variable.
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So what’s proposed?

To address reliability concerns, the ESB has proposed an option known as the “physical retailer reliability obligation”.

In a nutshell, the change would require electricity retailers to negotiate contracts for a certain amount of “dispatchable” electricity from specific generators for times of the year when reliability is a concern, such as the peak weeks of summer when lots of people use air conditioning.

Currently, the Australian Energy Market Operator has reserve electricity measures it can deploy when market supply falls short.

But under the new obligation, all retailers would also have to enter contracts for dispatchable supply. This would likely require buying electricity from the coal generators that dominate the market. This provides a revenue source enabling these coal plants to remain open even when cheaper renewable energy makes them unprofitable.

The ESB says without the change, the closure of coal generators will be unpredictable or “disorderly”, creating price shocks and reliability risks.

hand turns off light switch in bedroom
The ESWB says the recommendation would address concerns over electricity reliability.
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A big risk

Even the ESB concedes the recommendation comes with considerable risks. In particular, the board says it may:

  • impose increased barriers to retail competition and product innovation
  • lead to possible overcompensation of existing coal and gas generators.

In short, the policy could potentially lock in increasingly unreliable, ageing coal assets, stall new investment in new renewable energy storage such as batteries and pumped hydro and increase market concentration.

It could also push up electricity prices. Electricity retailers are likely to pass on the cost of these new electricity contracts to consumers, no matter how much energy that household or business actually used.

The existing market already encourages generators to provide reliable supply – and applies strong penalties if they don’t. And in fact, the NEM experiences reliability issues for an average of just one minute per year. It would appear little could be added to the existing market design to make generators more reliable than they are.

Finally, the market is dominated by three large “gentailers” – AGL, Energy Australia and Origin – which own both generators and the retail companies that sell electricity. The proposed change would disadvantage smaller electricity retailers, which in many cases would be forced to buy electricity from generators owned by their competitors.

Australia’s gentailers are heavily invested in coal power stations. The proposed change would further concentrate their market power while propping up coal.




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warning sign on fence
The proposed change brings a raft of risks to the electricity market.
Kelly Barnes/AAP

What governments should do

If coal-fired power stations are protected from competition, it will deter investment in cleaner alternatives. The recommendation, if adopted, would delay decarbonisation and put Australia further at odds with our international peers on climate policy.

The federal and state governments must work together to develop a plan for electricity that facilitates clean energy investment while controlling costs for consumers.

The plan should be coordinated across the states. Without this, we risk creating a sharper shock later, when climate diplomacy requires the planned retirement of coal plants. Other nations have acknowledged the likely demise of coal, and it’s time Australia caught up.




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The Conversation


Daniel J Cass, Research Affiliate, Sydney Business School, University of Sydney; Joel Gilmore, Associate Professor, Griffith University, and Tim Nelson, Associate Professor of Economics, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Batteries made with sulfur could be cheaper, greener and hold more energy


Mahdokht Shaibani, Monash University

Lithium-ion batteries have changed the world. Without the ability to store meaningful amounts of energy in a rechargeable, portable format we would have no smartphones or other personal electronic devices. The pioneers of the technology were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

But as society moves away from fossil fuels, we will need more radical new technologies for storing energy to support renewable electricity generation, electric vehicles and other needs.




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One such technology could be lithium-sulfur batteries: they store considerably more energy than their lithium-ion cousins – in theory as much as six times the energy for a given weight. What’s more, they can be made from cheap materials that are readily available around the world.

Until now, lithium-sulfur batteries have been impractical. Their chemistry allows them to store so much energy that the battery physically breaks apart under the stress.

However, my colleagues and I have engineered a new design for these batteries which allows them to be charged and discharged hundreds of times without breaking down. We hope to have a commercial product ready in the next 2–4 years.

What’s so good about sulfur?

Lithium-ion batteries require minerals such as rare earths, nickel and cobalt to produce their positive electrodes. Supply of these metals is limited, prices are rising, and their mining often has great social and environmental costs.

Industry insiders have even predicted serious shortages of these key materials in the near future, possibly as early as 2022.

In contrast, sulfur is relatively common and cheap. Sulfur is the 16th most abundant element on Earth, and miners produce around 70 million tonnes of it each year. This makes it an ideal ingredient for batteries if we want them to be widely used.

What’s more, lithium-sulfur batteries rely on a different kind of chemical reaction which means their ability to store energy (known as “specific capacity”) is much greater than that of lithium-ion batteries.

The prototype lithium-sulfur battery shows the technology works, but a commercial product is still years away.
Mahdokht Shaibani, Author provided

Great capacity brings great stress

A person faced with a demanding job may feel stress if the demands exceed their ability to cope, resulting in a drop in productivity or performance. In much the same way, a battery electrode asked to store a lot of energy may be subjected to increased stress.

In a lithium-sulfur battery, energy is stored when positively charged lithium ions are absorbed by an electrode made of sulfur particles in a carbon matrix held together with a polymer binder. The high storage capacity means that the electrode swells up to almost double its size when fully charged.

The cycle of swelling and shrinking as the battery charges and discharges leads to a progressive loss of cohesion of particles and permanent distortion of the carbon matrix and the polymer binder.

The carbon matrix is a vital component of the battery that delivers electrons to the insulating sulfur, and the polymer glues the sulfur and carbon together. When they are distorted, the paths for electrons to move across the electrode (effectively the electrical wiring) are destroyed and the battery’s performance decays very quickly.

Giving particles some space to breathe

A CT scan of one of the sulfur electrodes shows the open structure that allows particles to expand as they charge.
Mahdokht Shaibani, Author provided

The conventional way of producing batteries creates a continuous dense network of binder across the bulk of the electrode, which doesn’t leave much free space for movement.

The conventional method works for lithium-ion batteries, but for sulfur we have had to develop a new technique.

To make sure our batteries would be easy and cheap to manufacture, we used the same material as a binder but processed it a little differently. The result is a web-like network of binder that holds particles together but also leaves plenty of space for material to expand.

These expansion-tolerant electrodes can efficiently accommodate cycling stresses, allowing the sulfur particles to live up to their full energy storage capacity.




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When will we see working sulfur batteries?

My colleagues Mainak Majumder and Matthew Hill have long histories of translating lab-scale discoveries to practical industry applications, and our multidisciplinary team contains expertise from materials synthesis and functionalization, to design and prototyping, to device implementation in power grids and electric vehicles.

The other key ingredient in these batteries is of course lithium. Given that Australia is a leading global producer, we think it is a natural fit to make the batteries herea.

We hope to have a commercial product ready in the next 2–4 years. We are working with industry partners to scale up the breakthrough, and looking toward developing a manufacturing line for commercial-level production.The Conversation

Mahdokht Shaibani, Research Fellow, Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The ‘Waterfall Tour 2010’


The ‘Waterfall Tour 2010’ is the name of the latest holiday/trip that I’m currently on. It’s not as well organised as my previous holiday around the state which came with a Google Map, Blog updates and photos, etc. However, this one will end up being fairly well represented. Already I have some content on the web and more will follow tonight – more photos and videos. I doubt that I will get everything ‘up to the minute’ as I did last time, as I expect most to be done in the aftermath of the actual trip.

I only decided this morning that I would go on this trip and then left half an hour later – forming the route of the trip as I went along. It is now fairly well formed in my head – I think.

When I finally get everything together, there should be content on Flickr (photos), YouTube (videos), Google Maps (map of the route), Blog posts on Kevin’s Walk on the Wild Side (my wilderness and travel Blog) and Kevin’s Daily (a Blog on which I post either a photo, video, link or quote each day), as well as content on my website at kevinswilderness.com . For Facebook and Twitter followers, you would already be getting updates from both Flickr and YouTube I think, as these sites are getting the photos and videos fairly quickly after they are ready. However, video preparation may take me a little longer now as well – I have a bit to edit and piece together.

Anyhow, as it comes together and is ready to share you can catch it all here on the Wild Side Blog and/or updates on progress in both Facebook and Twitter.

To keep you interested (perhaps), tomorrow I am probably going to see something like 4 or 5 waterfalls, if not more. I saw two today and 1 yesterday.