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Publishers Letter

Wind power is no substitute
for base-load generators

Back in the July 2009 issue we featured a story on Sydney’s water desalination plant together with a panel entitled “Where does the electricity come from?” As explained in the panel, the state government has decided to build wind farms to generate the power which would otherwise come from coal-fired base load power stations, albeit at a higher price.

But in the this month’s Mailbag pages, reader Paul Miskelly points to the fallacy in this arrangement. Desalination plants must run continuously and therefore must draw their substantial electricity requirement from the grid all the time. Paul Miskelly has taken the trouble to analyse the figures for wind farm output and has produced graphs which clearly indicate that wind power is a very variable source – hardly suitable for running a desalination plant.

It is stating the blindingly obvious to say that the wind does not blow all the time. But it doesn’t and for the politicians and public servants to try and pass off wind power as a “green solution” is just a lie. When the wind stops blowing, all the electricity required by the desalination plant must come from the coal-fired power stations. There are no ifs, buts or maybes. And one can envisage a situation where, if there was a major overload on the grid and the wind wasn’t blowing, the desalination plant would be one of the last to be subject to “load shedding”. In other words, normal commercial and domestic consumers will be blacked out long before the desalination plant.

I remember some years ago having lunch with one of the magazine’s advertisers and the subject of the mooted Sydney desalination plant came up. I wondered out loud where the power for the plant should come from. Nuclear power was the instant and only practical answer. “Where should we put it?” was the next question. The immediate answer was “Right next to the desalination plant at Kurnell!” Then “How big should it be?” and the answer was “A bloody big one!” And while the answers to the questions may have been glib, they were absolutely correct and practical.

Desalination plants need lots of power and nuclear plants can provide that power on a relatively small site with no air pollution at all. None. Since such a large amount of power is required, it makes sense to site the power plant right next to the desal plant, to minimise transmission losses. And since Sydney requires more base load power in any case, having the nuclear power station adjacent to the city also makes sense, to minimise transmission losses. That’s how they do it in many other parts of the world.

Sadly, while everything we discussed was and is correct and practical, nothing like that is ever likely to eventuate even in the far future, given that State and Federal governments appear to be so inimical to the concept.

But those people who say that we can rely more on renewable energy sources must face the fact that when those source are not available, such as when the wind is not blowing, then the base-load power stations must be able to take up all the slack. Unfortunately though, all of the interconnected electricity grid for the eastern states of Australia is running very close to capacity, especially in the summer months.

Finally, those people who point to European countries which apparently have a much higher component of their electricity coming from wind power should realise that those same countries buy their electricity from nuclear-powered France when the wind doesn’t blow. Furthermore, those countries that have invested heavily in renewable energy, such as Spain with its government-mandated solar energy, are paying much more for their energy. That is now recognised as a gross misallocation of resources.

Leo Simpson

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