Renewables Road Trippin’ in South Australia

The first week of May I had to chance to jump on board a trip around South Australia, hosted by The Climate Council, to tour the stellar renewables projects happening in South Australia. Thanks to a connection to a new friend, I found out about a spot on the tour thanks to a last minute cancellation. Woo hoo! Road trip!

I didn’t know much about The Climate Council before my trip, but learned that in the wake of the de-commissioning of the Australian Climate Commission by the “We put the Coal in Coalition” Government, the Climate Council was formed independently to provide a third party view on the progress on climate policy in our federal and state governments. Which in the light of the complete “head-in-the-sand” approach of the current Aussie government, is more necessary than ever.

You can check out the reports that the Climate Council has done recently, like one on the costs of climate change.

Why South Australia?

Well, aside from Tasmania, it’s the only other state in Australia which has been aggressive about the use of renewables.

“Last year alone, South Australia was powered by 51% renewables (approx. 40% wind and 10% solar), a jump of more than 7.4% compared to 2017. South Australia is predicted to have enough wind and solar generation to provide the equivalent of 100% of its demand as early as 2026 or 2027.”

The government of South Australia took action despite an inept and inert Federal government, and they have great results today because of their action.

A quick primer on power and energy for Australia

A handful of facts I scraped from a number of places: Remember there is a difference between power (measured in a single moment, in Watts) and energy (measured over time, in Watt-hours).

  • The average household in Oz consumes 1.36 KW during the day, or 15.2 KWh/day, or 5.5 MWh per year. The total households in Australia will be 10 million by 2020, which is a nice round number for estimates.
  • The population of South Australia is around 1.6M, or 6.5% of Australia’s population of 24.5 million. In 2016, the number of households in South Australia was 765,786, and since household grow in Oz is about ~2%/year, that means 812K households in 2019, so South Australia would have ~8% of Australian households.
  • Total annual energy need for Australia is 229 billion kWh of electric energy per year. Per capita this is an average of 9.3MWh, which you will notice is higher than the 5.5MWh per household, since energy needs go beyond just households and of course includes businesses.
  • Total of all electric energy producing facilities in Australia is 243 billion kWh, also 106% of current requirements.
  • Bottom line: Given I was about to see in South Australia, we would need 15x the amount of renewable energy for all of Australia to match this state’s current usage renewables. We got some work to do now.

First Stop: The Snowtown Wind Farm

Wind turbines are even more impressive close up.

Our first stop on the tour was the wind farm in Snowtown, South Australia, operated by Tilt Systems. Despite seemingly an unlikely place for snow, it is ideal for wind!

“The Barunga ranges around Snowtown were selected because they enjoyed wind speeds of 30 km/hour off the southern ocean. Snowtown is also close to the main power lines serving the state.”

A few facts:

  • Snowtown Wind Farm can generate enough electricity to power more than 230,000 homes.
  • The power produced offsets over 1 million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution from coal power stations every year.
  • The blades move at 260 kph at the tip, and yet I was shocked how quiet they were (the wind itself was much louder).
  • The impact of bird deaths is so exaggerated — they report less than 10 bird deaths in an entire year across the 150+ turbines of Snowtown I and II.
  • Each turbine produces from 1.5 to 3 MW (megawatts), so the total farm produces over 300 MWs of power.

Wind farms are a serious part of the renewables strategy, though the price/kW is not dropping as quickly as solar. But wind can be a power source 24 hours a day, so it has some benefits over solar, and of course you want of mix of energy sources in the grid for stability.

I learned a bit about PPAs (Power Purchase Agreements) and how they provide pricing stability for producers of energy in working with local governments.

The Bungala Solar Farm

We stopped by the expansive “Bungala Solar” farm. It’s the first grid-scale facility in South Australia and is currently the largest solar facility producing energy in Australia.

  • There are over 800,000 solar panels on the farm! You cannot possibly take it in with a single glance.
  • The plant delivers 220MW of electric power to the national grid (110MW for each of the 2 sites).
  • The panels start the day flat, then adjust every 5–10 minutes about 1 degree, using a GPS timer rather than actually tracking the position of the sun.
  • Because of high winds, the “stow” position is 30 degrees for safety of the panels.
  • The panels are cleaned once a year, and it takes six months to finish!
  • Price tag: $190 million to build the site.

Our guide used to work at a nearby coal plant which was shut down years before. He spoke about his pride in working on the solar farm, and the contrast to the “dirty work” of coal mining and burning, and how the quality of the air is much, much better now. Win. Win. Win.

Image for post
Image for post
It took me a while to count all the panels individually.

The Lincoln Gap Farm

We talked with the team from Nexif, who had developed the Lincoln Gap wind farm outside of Port Augusta. They gave us a view into the engineering complexity of creating the wind farm.

  • The farm has 59 turbines; 35 in phase 1, and 24 turbines in phase 2.
  • Each blade is 140m in span, and each turbines generates 3.6MW.
  • The site will be finished in May 2020, and 155000 households will be supplied when it’s finished with the total target generation at 222MW, delivering 800 annual gigawatt hours. That results in 0.6 mega-tonnes of carbon offset per year
  • There is a lot of discussion around frequency response — Oz runs at 50 Hz of AC, and the Lincoln system has a tolerance of .15Hz. On the grid, generation and load must be matched. More on this when we talk about the Tesla battery.
  • The construction challenges are no joke. It took 69 tonnes of steel just to reinforce the foundations. Which they claimed was quite small because of the rock underneath. Given it’s previous military use, they found unexploded ordinance on site!
  • The site has 10–12 permanent staff with pp to 30 contractors for spot work. There is 40km of cabling (power, fibre) for the site
  • They have a MLF rating in the high 90s (MLF = marginal loss factor — or how much energy gets lost in transmission to the grid) — high 90s, because of good proximity to the demand centre. They also benefit from a transmission line close to the site.

A Community Meeting in Port Augusta — Politics does matter

While I wish that we had sensible leadership, and the federal politicians were not largely in the pocket of corporate donors, the fact that we still have people arguing for the development of coal mines like Adani speaks loudly to the non-rational state of the government.

We had the pleasure of getting to hear from Jay Weatherill, a former Premier of South Australia, talk about the transformation of South Australia to being a leader in renewables in Australia. Even more amazing was that we had a liberal member in the South Australia state government discussing renewables in a positive, intelligent fashion with his labor counterparts in the South Australia state government. It underlines further the tragic circus of our federal government and the immorality play that we are subjected to day in and day out.

While I don’t have a recording of Jay’s talk, I wanted to include a video that my friend Karyee sent me of one of Jay’s best moments, where he exposes the absolute asinine behaviour of Josh Frydenberg, who I would love to see Oliver Yates replace in the coming Federal election in Australia.

Watch the entire thing. It’s so worth it. Josh’s solution to energy is acting as a giant windbag. Jay’s solution is building wind farms.

Hornsdale Wind Farm, including the World’s Largest Battery

The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the World’s Largest Battery, a Tesla 100 MW battery that I had completely misunderstood before this trip.

The battery got a lot of press because of the rapid tweet-based-agreement between my former boss and Elon Musk. Taking just 6 months to build, the
battery was first switched on in November 2017. In its first year of operation saved consumers $40 million dollars.

The Tesla battery is not about providing power when we don’t have sun or wind. Natural gas does that today.

Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
At the 100 MW Tesla Battery, and the Hornsdale Wind Farm. Facilities are simple, but the impact these projects have is massive.

The battery provides:

Frequency response. This is primarily about system stability. One challenge of networks, which electric energy networks are vulnerable to, is the shifts in circuit characteristics when a power source is turned on or shut off. When a large power source disappears, the frequency of a circuit can shift enough to cause problems for generators and consumers — the grid is meant to operate at 50 Hz, and small shifts outside that frequency can damage equipment. Generators are then programmed to shut off when the frequency gets outside the desired range. This means one outage can cascade through the network, causing one outage after another, and this is what happened in South Australia. The Tesla battery is the insurance to make sure this does not happen again.

Economic / price stability. The battery can provide additional energy stored in the battery in response to poor market conditions where energy organisations would like to gouge consumers when there are fewer options. In this way the battery has already paid for itself. The frequency response is a daily job of the battery to keep the system in optimal condition, not just an emergency brake.

Thanks heaps to Prof. Andrew Stock for so much of the background on electricity networks!

A few facts about the battery:

  • The Hornsdale site was idea: Land was available, they had a spare substation and a spare transformer, it was connected to the grid.
  • 100 days for construction. Testing up to a week prior to launch meant timeframes were tight!
  • They can discharge the entire battery in seconds!

Tesla is also working with South Australia on fitting solar and Tesla PowerWall batteries in Adelaide houses. Next year they hope to have 10,000 batteries in homes, with an eventual goal of 50k power walls across South Australia, which will provide another level of stability and power alternatives that the grid can use in times of instability or short term power needs.

Not to be outdone, the nearby Hornsdale wind farm has ~100 turbines and can generate more than 1 million MWh each year, enough electricity to power 180,000 homes.

What else did I learn?

  • We were lucky enough to be joined by Lesley Hughes, a Distinguished Professor of Biology at Macquarie University. From Lesley I finally understood the events of the Great Barrier Reef that have led to bleaching. Two seasons where ocean temperatures spiked due to the heat absorbed from the atmosphere were enough the create the day and night (brilliant colours vs. drab greys) experiences that I had on the reef in 2011 and 2016.
  • The scale of renewables investment that we need is massive. To power Australia, remember we need 243 billion kWh for 10 million households. So a massive renewables project that covers 200,000 households — we will need 50 of those projects. This scale is required because we’ve been ignoring the need to shift to renewables for decades, and now we’ve got to reverse so many of the bad decisions that our leadership has made, with the consent of many of us.
  • A long time on a bus is not great for me. I caught the flu and the next week I was completely laid out.
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
Image for post
The bus that took us all over South Australia. A Tesla recharging station in Port Augusta!

And, just so you don’t forget why need to shift to renewables:

  • There is 46% more CO2 in the atmosphere then preindustrial times. We are currently well above 410 ppm (parts per million).
  • The 20 hottest days have occurred in the last 22 years
  • The change in the ocean temperature is detectable down to 2,000 meters below the surface! In addition the oceans are acidifying because of CO2- and now contain 30% more acid that they did in pre-industrial times.
  • We are not getting more storms, just stronger storms.
  • In Australia, we have a drought during a non el Nino season — this is exceptionally rare, but it is now the norm.
  • As water levels rise, the Kakadu flood plain, which my niece and I visited two years ago, will become completely submerged

And now, I’m headed to the airport, to fly to the states. The fun never stops.

Written by

A man. A plan. Subscribe via email at http://eepurl.com/dhhmvr

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store