A TRANSFORMER failure at Liddell power station on Thursday has seriously injured a worker and has one of the coal-fired station's four generating units out of service for about 10 weeks, station operator AGL said today.
The outage caused a near crisis for the electricity grid, with Tomago Aluminium smelter confirming it was approached to shut down two of its potlines to save power. AEMO also called on another power user that offered to reduce its demand to keep the lights on for households.
Tomago chief executive Matt Howell said the incident showed the situation the power grid was in, when the unexpected loss of one generating unit could not be compensated for by producing more power, and needed customers to cut their electricity use instead.
A Renew Economy graph of Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) shows that solar and wind produced about six per cent of the state's power yesterday.
Wholesale power prices reportedly peaked at $15,000 a megawatt hour - or more than 300 times the typical long-run wholesale price of about $45 a megawatt hour - at least once on Thursday. AEMO produces a real-time chart of power demand and price, which when downloaded by the Newcastle Herald this afternoon showed a peak price of more than $10,000 a megawatt hour late on Thursday afternoon.
The Herald is still seeking further detail of the accident at Liddell but AGL said in a statement that a worker had been "seriously injured" in a "transformer incident" at Number Three unit of the power station.
Liddell has four units that have historically been rated at about 500 megwatts each, for a total potential output of 2000 megwatts.
For comparison, Renew Energy's live supply and demand graphics were showing coal producing 6245 megawatts at 4pm today, together with 957 megawatts of gas, 1109 megawatts of hydro, 289 megawatts of wind, 853 megawatts of large solar and 432 megawatts of small or rooftop solar.
Mr Howell said Tomago had been approached under an AEMO scheme called the RERT - Reliability and Emergency Reserve Trader - on Thursday, which would have paid the smelter had it cut the power to one of its three potlines for up to three hours to reduce demand on the grid.
He said that in the end another power user made a cut and so Tomago was not required.
"We've been saying for some time now that the smelter should be compensated properly for extreme demand periods, given that us shutting a potline down essentially keeps the power and the lights and the air-conditioning on for everyone else," Mr Howell said.
"There are things we would have to do our end, which is basically to strengthen and modernise the smelter's high-voltage infrastructure, because high-voltage gear does not like being switched on and off all the time.
"You can switch it off alright, but switching it back on again, rapidly, can present problems."
Mr Howell said aluminium smelters could play a major role in stabilising the national electricity market.
He acknowledged a deal announced just days ago by Energy Minister Angus Taylor, in which Victoria's Portland aluminium smelter would be paid $76.8 million over four years so that it could be switched off for short period of time as a type of "demand management" whenever Victoria needed more power.
"If we know, with certainty, that we can be compensated for losing power, safely, in the same sort of way that Portland has agreed to, then we could provide the same service for NSW," Mr Howell said.
The failure at Liddell is the latest in a string of incidents at the 2000-megawatt station, which was commissioned in the early 1970s and is scheduled to shut in three years time.
Critics say its failures are part of the problem with coal-fired power while supporters of baseload electricity say they are more a result of a lack of maintenance spending as the plant nears the end of its life, and a failure to invest in more baseload power putting extra strain on the remaining coal-fired stations.
Mr Howell said that whatever people thought about power, aluminium was "ubiquitous" in the manufacture of all sorts of renewable power devices, such as the frames of the many millions of solar panels being installed across Australia.
"As well, if we have to, we can come off line in the blink of an eye, freeing up very valuable power for others," Mr Howell said.
"At more than 10 per cent of NSW's power, we are the state's biggest user."
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