Main image: Loy Yang A is the most breakdown-prone power station in the country.CREDIT:SIMON O’DWYER
Victoria’s brown coal-fired power stations are the most unreliable in the country, breaking down far more often than power plants in the rest of Australia and putting the stability of the state’s energy supply at risk.
New data reveals that in the past 18 months, the Loy Yang A power station in the Latrobe Valley has suffered more outages than any other power plant in the National Energy Market, followed closely by nearby Yallourn.
Energy market analysts said the relative unreliability of those two stations had been exposed by the sudden closure of Hazelwood in 2017, which stripped most of Victoria’s spare capacity out of the grid.
But they also pointed to a rush of wind and solar projects due to connect to the grid in the next two years that will replace the capacity that was lost when Hazelwood was shuttered.
Loy Yang A has experienced an outage 29 times since the start of last year, including a breakdown of one of its four units on May 18 that is expected to take seven months to repair.
Yallourn W has had 26 unit outages in that time. Queensland’s Gladstone plant was the third-worst performer with 18 outages.
Combined, Loy Yang A and Yallourn W provide more than half of Victoria’s electricity. Faults and planned outages at both of those stations in January led to load shedding that affected more than 200,000 customers.
By comparison, Australia’s biggest power station, the black coal-powered Eraring plant in NSW, has had a unit breakdown just eight times in the past 18 months, while Liddell, which is run down and due to close in 2022, has had 13 outages.
The data was compiled by the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank that has been monitoring outages at all of the nation’s coal and gas plants since December 2017.
Sixty-four of 183 breakdowns in that time were in Victoria.
Richie Merzian, the institute’s climate and energy program director, said Victoria’s brown coal-fired power plants were already struggling to provide consistently reliable energy to the state and predicted their performance would deteriorate with age, hotter weather and increasing demand.
“Across the national grid, Victoria’s ageing coal-fired power stations are the most likely to fail and Victorians felt this firsthand in January this year when many were forced into blackout,” Mr Merzian said.
Coal remains Victoria’s biggest source of power by far. In the past year, Victoria’s three brown coal-fired power plants generated 72 per cent of the state’s energy. Wind, the second largest source, generated 9.5 per cent, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator.
But Victoria’s energy market is about to go through a renewables surge as a number of large-scale wind and solar projects come online in the next two years.
In total, 2834 megawatts of new wind power and 1072 megawatts of solar is scheduled to enter the grid between 2018 and 2020, according to analysis by Green Energy Markets.
Tristan Edis, a director at Green Energy Markets, said the influx of renewables into the Victorian grid would help to lower energy prices but would not necessarily push coal out of the market.
There has been speculation Yallourn, which was built in the 1970s, will wind up before its scheduled closure date of 2032, but Mr Edis said the fact its brown coal is cheap to mine and burn, in a time of high energy prices, could keep it operating.
“Yallourn has much lower operating costs than NSW black coal,” he said. “Yallourn’s operating cost is $14 a megawatt hour; Vales Point [in NSW] is $29 per megawatt hour.”
Danny Price, an expert in energy economics and director of Frontier Economics, said the higher number of outages in Victoria compared with other states did not mean the state’s coal-powered plants were becoming less reliable.
“They are getting older and you would expect them to become more unreliable and I think they will become more unreliable, but at the moment there is no evidence to suggest that,” Mr Price said.
Plant shutdowns in Victoria and South Australia had increased the strain on those that remain, he said.
“The big difference though is that because you’ve got much less spare capacity, every time a plant has fallen over it’s now felt right throughout the eastern seaboard, which is something we’ve never seen before, because we’ve always had lots of spare capacity.”
New laws have been created to prevent a repeat of the rapid exit of Hazelwood from the market that caused capacity shortfalls in Victoria and South Australia.
From September, generators will be required to provide at least three years’ advance notice of their intention to close, unless the Australian Energy Regulator grants an exemption.
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