A HIGH-VOLTAGE 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, power station operator AGL said yesterday.
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 graph from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) shows wholesale power prices hit almost $11,000 an hour on Thursday afternoon, or more than 200 times the typical long-run wholesale price of about $45 a megawatt hour.
Despite the power shortage, AEMO data indicated that solar and wind was producing about six per cent of the state's power at the time of the accident.
The Community and Public Sector Union and the Electrical Trades Union say the transformer failure put an experienced Liddell operator in Royal North Shore Hospital's burns unit.
They say he was hit with extremely hot oil from an oil-cooled 330,000 volt-amp transformer when it was switched on after investigation of a fault.
The unions said WorkCover was investigating but they believed the problem was plant failure rather than operator error and were advised the transformer had been the subject of recent "issues". They say the incident had similarities with a 2015 transformer "arc flash" that burned two workers maintaining the unit. AGL agreed to a $1.13 million "enforceable undertaking" to improve maintenance procedures from April 2018.
AGL said in a statement on Friday morning that it was "continuing to ensure" the injured employee "receives the required treatment at this difficult time".
It said an investigation was under way and was assessing the length of a possible outage at Liddell number three unit and had told AEMO on a precautionary basis that it expected it could take two-and-a-half months to fix the resultant problems, although this time frame was "highly preliminary".
"AGL will inform the market of any financial impact of the transformer incident and any potential outage once these assessments have occurred," the company said.
It expected to know by Wednesday, two days before Christmas Day.
Mr Howell said Tomago could play a greater role in stabilising the NSW power grid if it had an agreement such as that announced with Victoria's Portland smelter on Monday. Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the smelter would be paid $76.8 million over four years as compensation for being switched off for short periods whenever Victoria needed more power.
"If compensated we could provide the same service for NSW," Mr Howell said.
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