Coal Will Cause Blackouts Because It's The 'Weakest Link' In Australian Power Grid, Expert Says

Fingers should be pointed at "coal-fired clunkers" during any blackouts this summer, an energy expert has said, with calls for the federal government to do more to ensure a reliable power supply.

Opponents of expanding renewable energy options are fond of quipping that coal and gas are essential because they can provide power "when the sun isn't shining and the wind isn't blowing".

However, Australia's ageing coal-fired power stations could actually be the root problem of blackouts in Victoria this summer, the Climate Council has warned.

Two coal stations, Loy Yang and Mortlake, are at risk of being offline for parts of the summer period.

"A large share of Victoria’s electricity is supplied by coal-fired clunkers. They broke down last summer, they’re broken down now, and they could break down again this summer,” said Tim Baxter, the Climate Council’s senior researcher in climate solutions.

Baxter spoke on the back of a report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released on Thurday, which warned that NSW and Victoria could be in for power disruptions and widespread blackouts affecting millions of people during the peak summer period -- when Australians are running air conditioning and fans to battle the heat.

The reliability of Australia's power grid is under the spotlight. Photo: AAP

The AEMO 'Electricity Statement of Opportunities' outlined that huge blackouts could be on the cards due to a shortfall in power available, thanks to coal and gas plants being offline.

However, Baxter said this represented an opportunity and incentive for governments -- at both the state and federal levels -- to invest in a more decentralised system of smaller renewable power sources.

Such an approach, he told 10 daily, would have the advantage that the wider grid could endure a few suppliers going offline without huge shortfalls in supply.

In January, AEMO directed rolling blackouts in some areas across Victoria to ensure the entire grid stayed up.

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"Blackouts don't happen because of things we can see months in advance, it's because of things that you can't respond to. We had blackouts in Victoria last year from the unpredictable tripping of an old coal power station, and now we've got two big supply units out at the moment which might not be back in time for summer," Baxter said.

"The idea of the AEMO report is to say that, if we do nothing, this is what the risk is. It can be seen as a trigger for AEMO to intervene and start using these powers... that's why its a 'statement of opportunities', because it’s an opportunity to get involved."

The Liddell power station, in NSW's Hunter region, is due to close in 2023. Photo: AAP

Baxter said the market operator had the ability to approach large energy suppliers and users -- such as coal plants or smelters, respectively -- and ask them to either temper their usage of power or to increase their supply, such as by delaying maintenance work which would take their plant offline.

But he said the statement also represented an opportunity to re-evaluate how Australia's entire power system operated, and for a fundamental rethink on how we assess which sources are deemed "reliable".

The AEMO report warned that Australia's "ageing coal fleet" could lead to "an uncontrollable, but increasingly likely, high-impact" occurrence which will greatly affect power supply.

Baxter said that by investing heavily in a greater number of smaller renewable sources, such as solar panels on rooftops, it could negate the risk of one specific event having a massive impact on wider supply.

Solar panels are seen on the roof of The Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Photo: Getty

An AEMO and CSIRO report in 2018 found that "solar and wind generation technologies are currently the lowest-cost ways to generate electricity for Australia, compared to any other new-build technology."

"Solar comes in at really handy times. On hot days, solar is going gangbusters on producing electricity. Having a greater diversity of suppliers which are newer is good, because if one goes out, it’s less of a problem," Baxter said.

"In Victoria, we’re very anchored to these old and unreliable stations. If one trips, we’re really scrabbling to catch up."

He said there was not one specific type of renewable energy which should take precedence over others in planning for a future power grid, saying a diverse array of decentralised would have the greatest success.

Under such a framework, for instance, on a cloudy day when solar panels are less effective, energy will still be able to be produced by wind, hydro, or other green options.

Rooftop solar panels are important for a future reliable power grid, Baxter said. Photo: Getty

"Two big things are battery storage and pumped hydro, and that stuff is coming online," Baxter said.

"There's a big argument for a decentralised grid, and while it has advantages and disadvantages, there's a big argument for why we need to move away from coal-fired stations. They're older, and will be more expensive to fix over time."

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He said coal stations were "breaking down constantly", and that those older plants simply function worse during very hot days. 

However, Baxter also noted that such a shake-up of the electricity market would require significant cooperation between federal and state governments, including an integrated climate and energy policy from Canberra -- which he said hasn't been forthcoming under this Coalition administration.

The Snowy Hydro 2.0 scheme is meant to deliver more humped hydro power for Australia. Photo: AAP

Energy minister Angus Taylor said on Thursday that the government was working to keep existing power supplies like Liddell online, and noted the Snowy Hydro 2.0 scheme, but did not detail how renewables could factor into the mix.

"While AGL’s decision to extend the life of the Liddell Power Station until at least April 2023 will alleviate supply risks in the short term, more generation and transmission investment is needed to keep the lights on longer term," he said.

"AEMO’s warning confirms why the Government remains focussed on the key challenge of ensuring enough reliable and affordable generation remains in the electricity system. "

"Through the Underwriting New Generation Investment program, we will deliver new, reliable generation into the market, putting downward pressure on prices and ensuring the security of the grid."