Peering through the Huntly coal smokescreen

Energy Minister Simon Bridges revealed in Parliament this week he has no idea what majority state-owned power companies are up to, when he wrongly claimed that Genesis Energy would not burn coal at Huntly unless there was a shortage of renewable electricity. Was it ignorance or a smokescreen?

Huntly Power station - New Zealand's last big coal-fired power plant
Huntly Power station – New Zealand’s last big coal-fired power plant

Responding to Genesis Energy’s decision to backtrack on its 2015 plan to phase-out burning coal at Huntly, Bridges said on TV that coal will only be used as back-up power supply, and that, “I think it’s going to be used very, very infrequently.” He must have an odd definition of very, very infrequently because, as I pointed out in Question Time, it was burning coal all day yesterday and at near capacity. It was spewing out pollution at a time when we didn’t need backup supply, the hydro lakes lakes were 94% full and free sunlight was pouring down on Auckland’s roofs.

This is the spin he and the power companies are trying to share: coal is just a back-up insurance policy we need to keep the lights on. This argument is a total smokescreen. The truth is coal is being burnt very regularly at Huntly and produces more than one million tonnes of greenhouse gas pollution annually. This isn’t about security of supply, it’s about pollution being profitable under current rules. It’s also about the power companies not wanting to invest in renewable alternatives because taxpayer subsidies to Rio Tinto’s Tiwai Point aluminum smelter have prolonged uncertainty. If the country’s largest electricity customer may not be around in a few years, how can anyone make investment decisions regarding new electricity generation?

Coal is both the most expensive and most polluting way to generate electricity New Zealand. It contributes 20 percent of our total emissions from the electricity sector despite being a small amount of generation. The US, China, and the EU are all moving to shut down coal-fired power plants to combat climate change and it’s pretty odd New Zealand is committing to burn more.

New Zealand has a wealth of cleaner solutions to burning coal at Huntly. We have almost 4000 megawatts of consented renewable generation ready and waiting to be built. A distributed network of smaller, clean generation sources would always be more reliable and secure than dependence on a single giant power station. We can keep the lights on without burning polluting coal. wind turbine

I’d wager the real reason for the spin and the smokescreen is that the Government is embarrassed that five days after signing the Paris climate agreement, National stood by while the power companies signed up to six more years of “pragmatic” coal-fired electricity in New Zealand.

Click here to tell the power companies to join the twenty first century and stop burning coal at Huntly.

20 Comments Posted

  1. OK on the pertinent points regarding generation and demand. PV is not well coupled with night time demand nor is direct substantial generation using wind. Storage of electrical energy is a heavy and probably unsustainable overhead at present consumption rates.

    The popular discussion seems to shy clear of sustainability and changes in human behaviour needed to seriously attempt a sustainable system of living based on what is possible to survive and keep on surviving as a species. Attending to environment is crucial and trumps any human wants.

    The way we presently use electricity, and the harvesting of other energy sources, we are so heavily dependent on for out lifestyle. which has evolved away from any sustainable models demonstrated over millennia; is our problem resulting in a catastrophic raft of consequences ahead that most of us prefer to acknowledge.

    What period of time is envisaged for continued consumption of energy at present rates. The human race has got into the present mess by working on short term goals and either being ignorant of long term consequences or not caring apart satisfying immediate wants.

    Many desperate attempts to model a future largely based on present lifestyles of the West, are hopelessly flawed and usually full of reductionist analysis.

    Local is more efficient in the consumption of non Renewable Natural Resources which is one of the ceilings confining our future prospects and possibilities.

    But the real ceiling is man’s understanding and behaviour.

    Harvesting of energy and NNR consumption track closely together. This is usually ignored in most discussions.

    Solar may well be what we come to rely on with harvesting being seasonably variable and our application adapted to suit ,if we employ low tech harvesting with minimal or no NNR use.

    PV at present relies on a platform of manufacture with NNR consumption and has also a pollution foot print attached. So it has a limited future in its present form.
    Comparatively it may still stack up well in NNR consumption / dependence in the medium term against other energy harvesting where electricity is the sought after product and mainly for low rates of usage.

    Efficiency needs to be measured in real terms of energy harvested and applied against NNR consumption over a long term.

    Mechanical generation of electricity has many losses at every stage along with a heavy NNR consumption / dependence.

    Modern wind turbines also have a heavy NNR dependency, and so add to a list of devices we use for harvesting which do not appear to have a sustainable future. Older technologies for harvesting wind energy include low tech more sustainable methods and usually no generation.

    Gravity is a useful force that can be applied to do work and so allow harvesting of energy. How we use gravity with minimal low tech low NNR consumption is an ongoing quest. Dams and mechanical generation of electricity seem a medium term option but not without consequence. Distribution networks and large schemes are fragile and heavily depend of NNR consumption. Local schemes less so.

    Conversion of bio harvesting of energy appears to have a promising future if the scale of dependence / implementation is limited to what is sustainable.

    We have a long history of sustainable existence using solely bio energy harvesting and natural solar harvesting coupled with employing gravity to do work. Gravity can be harnessed as an energy storage consideration.

    Some sustainable combinations were developed historically but eventually humans used that platform to launch other forms of energy harvesting that have not been intelligently controlled. That has lead up to the present day need to drastically reduce population or face population reduction by starvation, war and an uninhabitable planet.

    Short term solutions seldom mitigate all long term consequences.

    If we really don’t care about the future then present human behaviour will reflect that. Discussions will be about detail of BAU rather than adaptation towards sustainability or meaningful interim mitigation.

    “Local” seems to invoke reaction yet historically it was a successful strategy with limited hidden consequences, if local learning accumulates controlling human behaviour.

    Back to electricity consumption. There are households in NZ with very low electricity use and no winter heating of any sort. Some off grid. It is a matter of design, human behaviour and common sense. Clothing has been used as body insulation for longer than records allow us to understand. Many of the techniques of adaptive human behaviour to meet winter cold have been discarded and lost to most people. Consequently important resilience has been lost.

    Our society is of degraded design and habits but can be changed.

    Sustainability is a very fundamental shift, the success of which is measured in total environmental consequences over tens or thousands of years and more.

    Our present reliance on NNR consumption is temporary. Extensive research and analysis and modelling done by MIT, CSIRO, Mebourne Univesity ( as late as 2014 ), and many other Scientific organisations, concur that we have consumed nearly two thirds of the NNRs available, in a short period since circa 1800. Much of the easy stuff has gone.

    Our present NNR consumption rate is within the steepest part of the graph, a graph that shows a continuing reduction of NNR use in the immediate future as industrialisation rates show decline in the next 5-7 years with more rapid fall to two fifths of present activity by 2050.

    The latest data from Melbourne university show a slowing in NNR harvesting and industrial output rates already.

    Within 2 – 3 decades our NNR consumption will be a small fraction of today’s rate.
    The destructive flush of uncontrolled consumption will be well over.

    Infrastructure of present day will not be maintained and somewhat drastic changes will be forced upon shrinking communities, communities forced to rely on local.

    The realisation that our Western lifestyle including industrialisation and energy harvest dependent cultures, will seriously limit our children’s and grandchildren’s survival chances if they get through the next decade or so.

    Average “standards of living” will fall and the importance of basics become more of a realisation particularly in the Western world. Inequality will be much more pronounced and more coupled with survival chances.

    The smaller the remaining NNR pool the smaller any surviving population will be and that is without factoring in climate change and resulting consequences.

    So do we continue on the path of incremental modification of the causal BAU destruction or face the somewhat drastic change in direction.

    What is the moral imperative.

  2. I see Gareth is still going on about distributed generation:
    ‘Hughes said the EA was going against the worldwide trend toward more local, distributed generation.

    “Discouraging local distributed generation is likely to actually increase transmission costs in the long term, because we’ll have to keep paying to upgrade the lines to carry power in from far away.” ‘

    This is New Zealand, not Australia or California. Our peak power demand is on winter nights, not summer days. Distributed solar power won’t help meet this demand, so the trends in areas like those two are not relevant here. In other countries, the distributed generation is often gas-fired, but I doubt Gareth wants to see more gas-fired generation here.

    The thing to remember about renewable generation is that it has to be located where the energy is, then either used at that location (unlikely) or transmitted to where it is needed.Hydro stations are built on rivers, not in cities. Wind turbines are built on windy ridges, not sheltered valleys. And because many of the renewable resources are intermittent, transmission lines are needed to carry the power from where there is energy to where it is needed, and the main area where there is always energy available to meet our needs is the Southern Lakes area.


  3. When Gareth wrote:
    “A distributed network of smaller, clean generation sources would always be more reliable and secure than dependence on a single giant power station.”
    what sort of small clean generation sources did he have in mind? Solar PV is guaranteed NOT to keep the lights on in the evenings. Wind might be able to keep the lights on 90% of the time, but not the heaters. Consented geothermal is less than the output of Huntly alone, and much less than the total of all the fossil fueled plants still operational.

    Huntly may be a single power station but it has several generators and several feeders and it is very unlikely that a single fault will knock it all out. (A protection circuit fault took out two generators simultaneously a while ago, and the resulting overload took out some more, but the lights stayed on.)


  4. The value of Tiwai isn’t much different from the cost of reinstating the land so perhaps Meridian should simply buy the smelter. Then it could be used as a variable load to compensate for year to year hydro inflows.


  5. The reason no-one is investing in generation is that we don’t know the future of Tiwai point. If the smelter closes, that’s a big chunk of (relatively) low cost Hydro that’ll be coming on the market. until the fate of Tiwai point is sealed, no-one is going to invest $1 in new generation.

  6. Chris, nothing you have written makes anything I have written wrong. Yes, it is possible that the spot rate will be set by a geothermal plant whose rate has been set higher because of that plant’s CO2 emissions, but I never wrote anything that said that would not be the case. Of course, increasing the price on CO2 emissions would encourage owners of geothermal plants with high CO2 emissions to look at trapping those emissions rather than just releasing them into the atmosphere.

    Fuel poverty is an issue whether or not the price on CO2 emissions is increased. However that price will go to the government who can then use that money to support those people vulnerable to fuel poverty, e.g. by increasing benefits, reducing the bottom tax rates, getting low cost housing insulated, etc.


  7. No Trevor, you are wrong (again). As has been pointed out before, the carbon dioxide emissions from some geothermal plant is greater than from CCGTs on a gm/MWh basis.
    Increasing the carbon price will raise the generation cost, whether it is replacement new plant or continued use of operational thermal plant. That will increase the fuel poverty.

  8. I suspect that one of the reasons the power companies are not investing in more wind and geothermal plant despite having the resource consents to go ahead is uncertainty about the price of carbon. While this is low, the return on investments in renewable generation are less certain as coal and gas fired generation can keep the price of electricity down. Any increase in the price of carbon will increase the price of electricity when the fossil fueled plants are having to run, improving the return on investment in renewables.

    The government needs to send clear signals about the price of carbon, such as setting a minimum price for the emission trading units.


  9. Hi DB

    I agree with what you say. However if the HVDC link is increased in power and the amount of dispatchable generation in the North Island reduced by closing down some of the fossil fueled plants, then the North Island will be increasingly vulnerable to a pylon failure anywhere from Haywards to Benmore. Only by installing a second set of pylons for another cable or two can more power be delivered reliably from the South Island to the North Island.

    The idea of a tap at the top of the South Island has merit, but the transmission bottlenecks either side of Christchurch will pretty much prevent this from moving power to the North Island. It would give improve security of supply to the top and west of the South Island either from power sent north from Benmore or south from Haywards.


  10. Trevor, when I said “upgrade the capacity”, I’m talking of the existing poles, not adding more poles. Probably by taking the voltage up. Your spinning reserve understanding is correct, there needs to be enough to cover the first contingent event, which when the HVDC is above about 300MW per pole north, then the HVDC is “it”, with less than 300MW going north, the some other generator, probably Huntly, might be the single biggest contributor.

    I’ve mused on adding more poles, and the biggest hassle and expense will be the cabling; would one add another parallel path of pylons, or add another pair of wires to the existing pylons. I suspect that upping the voltage would be cheaper than more poles, but that makes the size of the spinning reserve required larger… Your idea of a separate route has merit, and yes, going further south and north. The incremental cost of a longer distance is, in the scheme of things, a sensible investment.

    There is also talk of adding a tap to the HVDC in the upper sourth island…

  11. The key to the amount of spinning reserve required is the power generated by the largest single unit or the largest amount of power being supplied by any one transmission line. Therefore if a separate high voltage pole were added to the HVDC link, less spinning reserve would be needed. However this is quite expensive, as it would require a second set of pylons in each island and another pair of convertors, and to increase the peak capacity significantly, it would also require another undersea cable. For this much trouble, a completely separate HVDC link could be considered, say from Roxburgh or Clyde rather than Benmore and further north than Haywards, perhaps Bunnythorpe or even Whakamaru.

    Then we might be able to close down some of the fossil fueled plant without running out of capacity to meet our North Island winter peak demands.


  12. Unless I have missed something, the HVDC link currently has two poles. Pole 1 (the newer one) has 1 undersea cable and this limits it to 1400A, or 500MW. Pole 2 has 2 undersea cables and can run at 2000A or 700MW. The amount of spinning reserve required is the power carried by whichever pole has more power, less the remaining capacity of the other pole which can take over some of the load if necessary. This means that the spinning reserve needed is the total power carried by the link – the rating of the lower pole (Pole 1 = 500MW) or 0-700MW. Increasing the capacity of Pole 1 with a fourth undersea cable will give two poles of 700MW but the same calculations show no more spinning reserve will be needed – the maximum spinning reserve will still be 700MW = the capacity of the highest power pole.


  13. As long as there are private power companies and SOE then there will never be any serious campaign for power use reduction or managed use towards this end.

    Small reductions observed are linked to the unaffordablility of power for many. The profits made are totally unnecessary for a power distribution with a state owned and controlled network.

  14. Regarding Aluminium Smelter. Saw something about Aluminium being made into new lightweight powerfull batteries for electric cars. Is this true because that would make Tiwai A GOLD MINE??? Its obvious to me that the Bioshere is already going into a irreversable decline affecting ALL food production and ,housing. As d Human CANT and WONT STOP poisoning then SHUFFLE to the GAS CHAMBER people!!!

  15. One step that would help which is outside the power companies’ control is increasing the capacity of the HVDC link.

    Yes, but… if existing pair of poles are upgraded then they’ll need more spinning reserve in the North to cover pole failure.

    The long term view of the HVDC link will be thrown into sharp relief if and when Tiwai shuts up shop. We’ve already got enough SI generation to max out the link, so another 800MW coming on line may not make the instant different folks think.

  16. As I have pointed out before, the other reason for keeping fossil fueled plants operating is that the North Island peak winter demand exceeds the amount of reliable renewable generation (hydro and geothermal) plus the HVDC rating, and if the HVDC is run at full power, there needs to be 700MW of spinning reserve. Building solar PV and wind farms will help keep water in the lakes but solar PV is guaranteed to be of no help at all during our winter peak electricity usage times, and wind is not guaranteed to help (but does most of the time). Building new geothermal plant will help, but is not currently economically justified.

    One step that would help which is outside the power companies’ control is increasing the capacity of the HVDC link.


  17. As per normal Gareth Hughes gets it all wrong again in regards new coal fired electricity generation around the world. A world where 2400 new coal fired stations are being built.

    China in particular is building 368 plants and planning a further 803. So much for the world (and China in particular) reducing coal usage for electricity generation.

    Yes burning coal is bad for the environment, but for Gareth Hughes to claim that the world is reducing coal fired electricity generation is total bankum and shows an out of touch with reality, mentality.

    Not good for the Greens to have such inaccuracies promoted as the truth.

  18. db
    You also need to remember that coal is ideal for hydro-firming (the dry year reserve) plus the coal can be stockpiled, unlike gas.
    Currently, it looks like the power companies believe it will be a dry winter so want to save the water. Gareth would be the first to complain if we had another 1992.

  19. Despite Gareth being as wrong as ever, there is something of real importance in his post

    It’s also about the power companies not wanting to invest [in anything generation] in renewable alternatives … Rio Tinto’s Tiwai Point aluminum smelter … uncertainty … how can anyone make investment decisions regarding new electricity generation?

    And that’s the problem in a nutshell. Coal fired generation is a fine match for baseload generation, other than the minor matter of it fucking over the environment, but until the dust settles over Tiwai, no-one with half a brain would knowingly close Huntly entirely. Its days are numbered, there is just considerable uncertainty over how many days that will be. Quite a lot, I’d wager.

  20. Please learn to read graphs Gareth- the hydros are 94% of mean storage for this time of year, not 94% full. . Also read the assumptions. Then think about what it actually means, which you yet again got wrong.

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