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The problem with coal

Written By: - Date published: 10:13 am, May 1st, 2021 - 38 comments
Categories: australian politics, climate change, Economy, energy, global warming, uncategorized - Tags:

Well here’s an Australian headline you’re not likely to find here:

“Power Prices Fall as Mild Summer, Renewables Reduce Generation Costs”

It’s hardly the greatest critique of New Zealand I could think of since our electricity generation is far more renewable than that of Australia.

But we are about to enter a transition phase in energy that’s going to affect absolutely everyone.

Here’s a quick primer from MBIE about our energy production and use profile as a country, helpfully studded with useful facts.

Rolling down SH1, until the bypass past year we used to drive past Huntly. Our great big four-masted coal-fired concern.

Unfortunately most of our other big generation is in the South Island, which, since most of our population lives above Tokoroa, means much of what is generated there is lost in transmission. Those big lake storage generators are not just the South Island, they are in the area of the South Island really close to our largest fault line which is 75% likely to really go full Memphis Meltdown within the next 50 years.

You get an idea from the animated model of the fault rupture here:

Big generation is in the wrong place. As well as earthquakes, we also have periodic volcanic eruptions in the central North Island. Both have the potential to interrupt the supply of electricity from the South Island to the North Island.

Our Climate Commission expects to phase out new natural gas connections to buildings in 4 years. In industry, it says boilers should be rapidly converted to electricity or biomass, at an equivalent of one or two dairy factories per year. “We need to almost eliminate fossil fuels. This means ending the use of coal.”

As the Auckland region goes into its second year of long term drought, I’m reminded of the electricity supply crisis of 1998. I’ll spare you the details but we looked a shambles to the world, and we were. We started to get serious about electricity security after that, and in time a harder-nosed electricity authority was formed.

What the Electricity Authority is charged with, and the Climate Commission have been charged with, are in real tension. The Electricity Authority’s statutory objective is to promote competition in, reliable supply by, and the efficient operation of, the electricity industry for the long-term benefit of consumers. The Climate Commission is charged with doing everything we possibly can to decrease our reliance on carbon and do better for CO2 production as our own contribution to the world’s overall efforts.

This makes for a furious debate largely unseen outside specific networks of companies and agencies around Wellington.

The Government has until the end of this year to accept the Commission’s proposed budgets or come up with its own and to create an emissions plan for meeting the budgets. I would be surprised if we don’t get strong direction in the May budget coming up. Also I’d expect policy releases in July.

But when Government finally releases its policy responses to the Climate Commission, I hope it just lets debate rage for a while and in particular to get nice strong pressure on Tiwai Point, Methanex, Fonterra, the Major Users Group generally, and of course the big gentailers. What will the Government do with its remaining influence as 51% owners of many of them?

Maybe once Tiwai Point and Methanex leave, there’s simply such bountiful generation supply that the government need actually do very little. Maybe actually this is a market problem which the market can solve, and the politics is actually just non-useful noise? Too early, of course.

Here’s a wee summary from the Electricity Authority on the history of government action and intervention in electricity supply:

But we can’t get past the tough point of Huntly’s coal generation.

Obviously many will claim great things for wind power. But there’s two problems. Take Wednesday of the third week of March this year. While New Zealand’s wind turbines had the capacity to generate 780MW of power, on that day they only generated 4MW nationwide – and so the country relied on the coal-fired power from Huntly instead. Greater electricity reliance requires a bigger totally reliable base load to always be there. That’s not a comfortable feeling when we are being directed to rely more and more on electricity not mineral fuels or other fuels.

The second problem is that they are rigorously opposed by every community they are proposed in.

What we need, and what our electricity regulator is charged with, is security of electricity supply. According to the NZ Electricity Authority’s definition: “Security of supply refers to the electricity industry providing appropriate electricity system capabilities (such as generation and transmission capacity) and storable fuels (such as water, gas and coal) to maintain normal supply to consumers.”

A well regulated electricity market means we have certainty that the lights come on and there’s hot water. Genesis, the owner of Huntly, has said resolutely that New Zealand still needs this plant, as a backup in dry years and in emergencies.

Tiwai Point at least appears to be around for a while now that it’s done its once-a-term taxpayer lemon-squeezing.

Huntly coal begins to feel something like what I’ve just done today, which is the annual ritual of stacking the wood for the winter on the south side of the house. It’s the thermal load that keeps the high power bills at bay when the need for heat is highest – something like how Huntly works for half of New Zealand. There’s an art to it which the Norwegians have a name for:

It would be great to be at a point where our own headlines shout: “Power Prices Fall as Mild Summer, Renewables Reduce Costs.”

But we’re not there yet.

38 comments on “The problem with coal ”

  1. RedLogix 1

    As usual a quality post Ad. What you've accurately shone a light on here is the NZ specific version of the much wider reality that intermittent renewables everywhere are pretty much all backed up by natural gas plants. This is why Germany for instance while building out massive wind generation, has at the same time paradoxically increased it's CO2 emissions, while at the same time causing the price of electricity to rise.

    The only good solution to renewable intermittency is mass grid scale batteries, but despite all the hype we're still a long way off building out the capacity for just a few minutes of grid backup, much less the hours or days that will be necessary. Plus of course this is an expensive thing to do.

    It's my view that the next logical step toward resolving this problem is the re-integration of NZ's power system into a single entity that is managed for optimum CO2 reduction as a primary goal. In essence undo Max Bradford's engineering vandalism.

    Optimistically both Aus/NZ are well placed to transition to a renewable mix from a raw energy perspective, but managing their diffuse and intemittent nature is going to be a significant challenge on both the supply and demand sides. If I was the relevant Minister I'd be looking very hard at what it would take to rebuild human capacity in my departments to be able to take over industry leadership, and then start gradually expanding via regulation the scope of the state sector once again.

    It's my view that NZ can make this transition without anyone having to be annoying and and using the n-word too often.devil

    • Ad 1.1

      No one is going to unwind Max Bradford's reforms to the extent of re-nationalising all those gentailer utilities now listed on the sharemarket. It's not like they are still wthin the public sector broadly like the hospitals and polytechs that they have re-nationalised.

      But everything this government is now doing is saying huge amounts more state-directed control are on their way: banking and reserve bank re-regulation, water governance, water regulation, public housing, public health, tertiary education are but throat-warming exercises for this government.

      If I were having a forecast-type bet on electricity reform, I would see things like:

      – Dumping EECA because they are a pathetic waste of time, rolling their functions into a stronger new entity

      – A red-line no more subsidy warning to Tiwai and and preparation for them to leave, and Methanex 'allowed to fail': bulk generation freed up across NZ

      – Transport fuel taxes wiped out within a few years and a straight mileage RUC on every single vehicle that you have to buy – every month for every combustion engine vehicle

      – A requirement from NZTA and MoE that all bus fleets and taxi fleets have to go 0 emissions inside say 5 years. From that all the rental fleets and major constructor fleets would follow fast. And from that you get a second-hand market forming properly

      – Potentially a merged Electricity Authority and Transpower with a stronger focus on security of supply

      – Potentially an accelerated return of the Mercury 75% shares to Auckland Council to help make Auckland more financially viable and to drive more utility integration

      – Potentially a reversal of Bradford's network / generator split which would allow local governments who still own electricity network shares to buy into generators again: same result as for Auckland Council

      – And one of the big generators is going to propose a massive battery system in the centre of the North Island as an alternative to the dreadful Lake Onslow battery proposal, apropos South Australia

      Any of these move would be faster than trying to build more public transport networks, love them though I do.

      • ghostwhowalksnz 1.1.1

        "return of the Mercury 75% shares to Auckland Council "

        Not going to happen, as it wasnt the Super Citys in the first place to 'return'. As well Mercury is generator NOT a power line business, you must mean VECTOR.

        There is also the issue that the Vector 75% owner Entrust's beneficiaries are in the old Auckland City and Manukau City areas only. The North Shore, Waitemata and Franklin areas got paid out with 1000s $ in free shares when their power supply business was corporatised.

        There is no reason Auckland Council needs to get involved in power line business let alone the gas supply and others that Vector is involved in.

        Batteries are far too short term compared to reserve hydro system- which actually should be Manapouri when Tiwai closes in 4 years. (Saves having to buy back electricity to pump water around.)
        South Australias problem was grid stability, as they dont have a string of hydro and geothermal power stations like the north Island does which generate AC power at 50hz. Thats why they had a state wide blackout once the power gets outside the narrow range around 50Hz a full blackout is inevitable rather than rolling blackouts from not enough MW.

        • Ad

          Cheers yes it's Vector not Mercury.

          But otherwise to correct you: the Trust will be wound up in 2073 and its assets will be transferred to the local government authority in the Trust district – unless the Trustees believe it should be sooner or unless there’s legislative change. That's now Auckland Council alone. There have been multiple calls for those shares to come back to Council. I expect the question will come up as the supply security and local government reform arguments start to converge.

          This government may take another term to re-merge that which is still public of the public generators and line companies, but don't put the ambition to do it past them.

          Plenty of Councils own lines companies and do very well out of electricity utility ownership.

          Ownership by local authorities is particularly useful when the utility delivers crap service and needs a good roasting: Aurora has picked up its act after Dunedin Council took its poor maintenance record to task three years ago.
          Some such as Palmerston North City are still investing in generators.

          There are of course many other arguments towards public ownership, but that really needs its own post and some policy moves to engage with.

          No one has done a study evaluating the Onslow scheme in the south versus a grid of large scale battery in the north. That's the problem. At the moment Onslow is the darling of Wood and Parker but they are the only two in Wellington Dr Turner has convinced. Zero officials or industry players believe it's viable. It would be far better to test options than go for a single solution first and design the question later.

  2. Sabine 2

    Holzmiete and Holzhousen are german. Holzmiete = Woodrent. Holzhousen = Woodliving. But the tradition of storing wood that way is common across central and northern Europe.

    • Ad 2.1

      Such videos tend to come from Scandinavia, hence the dual titles.

      • Sabine 2.1.1

        ah, makes sense.

        Funny word tho 'holz miete'. it was actually a rental payment in the old days. 🙂 If you could not pay in money you could pay in wood.

  3. Stuart Munro 3

    I'm afraid that the approach to coal smacks of the kind of lack of nuance that also characterizes attempts to ban bottom trawling – regulation that goes beyond its object and creates difficulties in its own right. With trawling, there is no doubt that the use of heavy bottom rigs on deepsea pinnacles is very destructive to the often slow-growing coral and echinoderm communities. But the use of light trawl gear complete with tickler chains over sandy bottoms, as small inshore vessels do to catch various flatfish, is not particularly destructive, and ought therefore not to be endangered by their more aggressive deepsea colleagues.

    A joined up approach to carbon and sustainability would retain some coal fired generation as a means of disposing of a number of products that must be burnt at high temperatures, and of the many unrecyclable plastic or oil byproducts that can both be disposed of and produce electricity in this fashion.

    It is too much to hope, of course, the the government should invest in research into high temperature superconductors, which offer a pathway to transmitting our generation surpluses to the main consuming centres, much less the diamagnetism consequent upon it, that would give us maglev highspeed trains. Our governments are only ambitious when it comes to failed economic policies like neoliberalism – they have the souls of accountants not engineers. Those that have souls.

    The poor will pay in higher electricity prices, as we have since the Bradford grand theft of public generation resources. And this will be accentuated by restrictions on coal, gas, and other forms of heating, that the generously remunerated regulators need never contemplate. Our already very cold (by global standards) housing will merely generate a higher mortality, and our substantial and rapidly growing inequality will grow even more.

    • Ad 3.1

      I've never understood why Transpower and the Wellington superconductor people have never got it on.

      • Stuart Munro 3.1.1

        It's not like we don't have the talent 🙁

      • ghostwhowalksnz 3.1.2

        They already have 'superconductors', they are called powerlines.

        The link from Bemore hydro power station in Mackenzie country is 600km to Haywards in Upper Hutt rated at 1200MW . Its a DC system rather than AC as the losses are lower over long distances.The power can flow both ways and is often supplying the south overnight off peak.

        I dont think your superconductors can do that

        • Andre

          Uhhh, "superconductor" is a specific term referring to materials that conduct electricity with zero resistive loss of energy.

          The HVDC link from Benmore to Haywards is definitely not superconductive, it loses about 6% of the energy to resistive losses along the way.

          So far, all actual superconductors require either extreme cold (think liquid nitrogen temperatures) and/or extremely high pressures. Like 270 GPa, only achievable in diamond anvils. (The highest pressures I can think of in any kind of wide application are the contact stresses in bearings, which might reach say 9GPa)

          • Ad

            The Robinson system HTS wire is already up and going as General Cable Superconductors.


            They already have a couple of commercial projects in test. Believe it or not the latest AirNZ in-flight magazine featured them.


            • Andre

              In the context of superconductors, "high temperature" means liquid nitrogen temperatures, ie just a bit lower than -196 C. Earlier generations of superconductors required liquid helium level temperatures, -269 C or just 4 K above absolute zero.

              Note the temperature they are talking about below:

              In 2007 we began producing HTS Roebel cable commercially under GCS Ltd, a partnership between Robinson and General Cable Corporation. GCS Ltd supplies our HTS Roebel cable to leading institutions and corporations around the world including Siemans, C-EPRI, and Cern.

              Roebel cable has played an important role in several of our internal projects. In 2014 we built a 1 MVA distribution level transformer using HTS Roebel cable for the secondary winding. The solenoid winding used a 20 m 15/5 cable with an operating current up to approximately 2000 A at –203°C . Measurements showed that the Roebel cable reduced AC losses in the winding cable to a level less than, or comparable to, losses in other parts of the system such as the current lead and cryostat. The project confirmed that Roebel cable is stable in operation and a suitable conductor for HTS transformers.


              • Ad

                It's not like it would be as simple as stringing some single line across the pylons.

                Vector's Asset Management Plan is actually a note to the regultor. – so they all get that security is serious.

                Vector's massive mains supply through Auckland central is encased in an oil-filled pipe, which is in turn housed in a tight little tunnel.


                So it would be a bit of a step to pull out all those pylons up the South Island and replace them with superconductor cable. Still, it will be good to see the "transmission loss" and "security of supply" equations mount up.

                • Andre

                  So it would be a bit of a step to pull out all those pylons up the South Island and replace them with superconductor cable.

                  You probably have a much better idea than I about how to actually go about swapping out those overhead ambient-air cooled power lines we currently have for a few hundred km of liquid nitrogen cooled probably underground cables.

                  As for that Vector Asset Management Plan – does your job involve actually thoroughly reading such documents? Or worse, producing them?

                  • Ad

                    Oh thank God no. I prefer to go project to project.

                    It's just another one of those tough logistical challenges that some luckless utility is going to have to face in order for New Zealand to get to 100% renewable generation.

                    Maybe someone keen will propose superconductivity for Auckland's light rail (if any company is bold enough to propose a light rail system here now).

                    Or even whether the 'first mile' cable from wind power systems to main Northern grid – which otherwise have such binge-purge loading – might consider superconductor wire.

                    • ghostwhowalksnz

                      The 'longest' larger scale trial of superconduction is 1 Km long.

                      They used it to show instead of the grid level 110kV they could get it down to 10kV to transfer the same power. Thats were a lot of the lower losses come from lower voltage.

                      the cost? €13.5 mill.

                      HVDC like the Benmore-Haywards 600km line is already lower energy losses than AC

                  • ghostwhowalksnz

                    'A few hundred' – its 600km. Effectively its out of the question and a silly distraction form the main issues.

                    We have to get the Manapouri power back in direct public ownership after Tiwai exits – probably via Transpower- to act as the system reserve for the NZ power grid. The ability to run for a few hours or even months ( like it should be now with the natural gas Pohukura purifying plant for offshore gas on maintenance) and without the cost of pumping water back up .

                    No wonder the energy companies and their friends in MBIE would love a pumped storage system as they get paid for the power to pump back again.

                    • Stuart Munro

                      Why is when silly ideas are discussed and their flaws are revealed their supporters come up with even sillier ideas

                      The only flaw revealed by your distaste for this idea is a failure of imagination.

                      But by all means explain your preferred way of addressing relative electricity imbalances, and upgrading our transport network, if you have anything to contribute.

                    • Stuart Munro

                      So… you've got nothing. Why am I not surprised.

                    • ghostwhowalksnz

                      Continue responding …you are making the point about silly ideas ( always fervently held) even clearer..

                    • Incognito []

                      The onus is on you to back your own view with a counter argument. Simply echoing your unsubstantiated view is no argument at all and is just silly.

                    • Stuart Munro

                      You don't have a point, clearly.

                      You have an ad hom – congratulations on your lack of character.

                    • Stuart Munro

                      Superconducting conduit, and maglev train lines have synergies.

                      8151.pdf (pitt.edu)

                  • Stuart Munro

                    It would be a major task – a refrigerated conduit. But you could save a bit of cost and trouble by sticking a railway line on it – both need to traverse the same terrain after all – and the tech would be exportable.

                    • ghostwhowalksnz

                      Why is when silly ideas are discussed and their flaws are revealed their supporters come up with even sillier ideas

  4. greywarshark 4

    Here is an excerpt from a comment from Bill in 2019 that has some stats and thoughts for considering. It had 174 comments. https://thestandard.org.nz/a-confession-2/

    …There is somewhere approaching one trillion tonnes of excess carbon dioxide in the biosphere today. That one trillion tonnes translates to an atmospheric concentration of CO2 that’s somewhere around 410 parts per million.

    I want to draw attention to the fact we’re talking about excess – ie, carbon that was previously sequestered in the form of coal, gas and oil, but that we’ve been merrily burning back into the biosphere as carbon dioxide by-product. That excess has been accumulating since at least the mid 19th century. That is, carbon dioxide ejected into the air in 1850 is still in the atmosphere today, or mixed into some other part the carbon cycle and merely circulating around the land, sea and air. Very little of all the carbon we’ve reintroduced to the biosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution has actually been sequestered (ie – taken out of circulation). That takes thousands of years….

    …Recent reports that parts of Antarctica (ice shelves) are melting up to ten times faster than previously thought are adding to suggestions from within the scientific community are that we might see one metre of sea level rise well before 2100. And if you think that’s a big deal merely because of the unimaginable upheavals involved in relocating much of human civilisation away from coastal locations, then I’m afraid you’re not seeing anything like the full picture.

    According to Professor Peter Ward of the University of Washington, (from 32min and 25sec in the video link) we grow about 25% of our crops on the fertile soils of river deltas. With something not much more than one metre of sea level rise, those deltas disappear under water or, because salt migrates through soil horizontally, they become salinated and unusable…

    …Lewis Ziska (Plant Physiologist working at the US Department of Agriculture) conducted a study around the effects of elevated CO2 levels on the composition of plants that was published in 2016.

    He discovered that nutritional value decreased in line with increasing CO2 concentrations. For that study he examined samples of goldenrod going back as far as 1842 and he concluded plants were no longer producing the nutritional density required by healthy insect populations. (His study involved bee populations).

    Further to the above, Fulai Liu from the University of Copenhagen has headed up field trials for wheat where “they grew wheat over four generations under high CO2 using seeds from the previous generation for the next one. They found that nitrogen (this means protein too), K and Ca declined more in the 4th gen relative to the 1st gen.”..

    …But scientists are already talking about the possibility of increased rates of malnutrition, associated ill health and death for human populations that source the bulk of protein and trace elements directly from plants…

    May 2019 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/23/greta-thunberg-young-people-climate-strikes-20-september

    I’ll end with Greta Thurnberg from the piece above.

    We have learned that if we don’t start acting for our future, nobody else will make the first move. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.

    (I hope this is not too long. I picked out details and info backgrounding. Bill hasn’t posted since May 2020. Is he still around?)

    • Bazza64 4.1

      The only thing I can remember Greta saying is:

      "You have ruined my life, I will never forgive you !"

      • Sabine 4.1.1

        Pretty much all the kids that age and below are entitled to that opinion.

      • greywarshark 4.1.2

        She didn't mean you personally bazza64 – it was more all of us oldies who have never managed to get all our geese lined up in a row and hissing at we interlopers in all the places we shouldn't have been. The way we were strutting about and at the same time ruining the planet ignoring people's cries from their difficult situation (still are) and killing the bees and ,,,,and… Personally I try but it isn't enough and some of my friends hardly give the future problems any thought. So I have to take it on my nose from Greta, at the moment.

  5. weston 5

    Well i dont want anybody elses power dont need anyone elses water either just save me some of the cleanest burning coal for blacksmithing if you would .

    • greywarshark 6.1

      It is time that the use of fossil fuels was limited to businesses and people to whom it was essential and big users were required to rethink their processes or even their businesses.

      • weston 6.1.1

        Hi grey i wouldnt really call myself a blacksmith at this stage although plenty of times ive heated steel up in fires of one sort or another in order to either straighten or bend them .I can see that being a bit more organized with a proper forge set up would be very handy indeed for making usefull things out of scrap materials .Ive built a small workshop and have most of what i need but the big problem for me would be a supply of good quality coal .As far as i know nz only has a few mines that produce good coking coal and i think we export most of it .SO we have a situation where the biggest users like Fontera burn the lowest quality dirty coal but blacksmiths probably have to damn near prostitute themselves for tiny amounts of the good stuff !!

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