Blackout: Managers must go, says union source

By ERWIN CHLANDA

 

The Electrical Trades Union (ETU) wants two senior Territory Generation managers to get the sack following the system black in Alice Springs on Sunday, according to a union source.

 

The definition of frustration: Rain falling but not reaching the ground.

 

They are CEO Tim Duignan and Grant Chorvat, General Manager Assets and Operations.

 

And the union source says the union has a bone to pick also with Essential Services Minister Dale Wakefield: “She has been kept informed by the union about the operational crisis in TGen over a long period.

 

“But she has chosen to ignore the issues that have been identified to her and she and her staff have persistently taken the side of management.

 

“Ms Wakefiekd has been the mouthpiece for TGen’s spin,” says the source, pointing to a clipping (pictured) from TGen’s Connect newsletter.

 

But of course Ms Wakefield doesn’t have it easy: A fellow Minister, Treasurer Nicole Manison, is the only shareholder of the NT Government’s electricity business. Ms Wakefield yesterday called for an independent report into the system black. The Alice Springs News has asked Ms Manison to comment.

 

Former Chief Minister Adam Giles spent $75m on the new Owen Springs power station some 25 km south of Alice Springs. This is said to be blowing out to $100m with exact costs unknown and shrouded in secrecy.

 

He bought 10 Jenbacher gas-burning generators. That was in 2016 and became a major issue for the elections in August that year.

 

Of course the engines had been ordered well before that but this had been kept a secret until the News broke the story ahead of the usual fanfare of a Mr Giles announcement.

 

So, TGen has had well over three years to become accustomed to these news assets – how come the debacle on Sunday?

 

The events cast a glaring light on the choice of the former Chief Minister.

 

“The day was saved by operations and maintenance personnel based at the Ron Goodin Power Station,” says the source – not the new generators, but in the old powerhouse slated for closure years ago.

 

“Staff were called in to repair equipment failing due to TGen senior management deciding not to perform critical maintenance tasks which have been getting highlighted for months in some cases.”

 

The expensive Jenbachers, all the way from Austria, are currently last in line to be fired up although the contract entered by Mr Giles, and taken over by the Gunner Government, had “a date for commercial operation of 2017”.

 

The new engines are now under a 30% output restriction and running in a “block load mode” meaning they are only able to run at a set output and will not respond to load changes.

 

Previously the engines had been touted as being capable of short-term performance variations, of fast adaption to demand changes. This is proving to not be the case.

 

The equipment also needs to be calibrated to respond by load shedding, not by shut-downs. This means some people will lose power for a short time, not the whole region for a long time, as was the case on Sunday.

 

BESS, the battery (at left) introduced with fanfare in June last year, kept the town going for less than a minute, says the source.

 

Trouble is, the new Remote Operating Centre (ROC) in Darwin hasn’t got the on-the-ground experience of the people working the system in Alice for decades: Computer modelling isn’t a replacement for that, says the source.

 

Again, it wwer the Alice Springs workers at the Ron Goodin Power Station who dealt with the crisis calmly and efficiently: “It was like poetry in motion,” says one of them. “People working together, relying on their years of experience.”

 

Another problem is that the relationship with the Austrian suppliers is on the rocks and the after-sales responsibilities of the manufacturers are in the courts.

 

Of course, Sunday was a big day for demand fluctuations, but not unexpected: Cloud cover reduced the contribution from solar installations, private as well as commercial.

 

It was hot and humid, not a good time for swampies (evaporative air conditioners) but requiring reverse-cycle ones which need a lot more power.

 

But surely, that isn’t a surprise: That’s our climate, and it’s going to be hotter in a few weeks, and the spikes will be higher and lower.

 

We will probably hear a lot about being an “island grid system” which means we’re not getting power from external sources.

 

But that is also no surprise: It was well known when Mr Giles spent $75m of taxpayer’s money at Owen Springs.

 

The last black station occurred on November 9, 2017.

 

It was not as long as Sunday’s, Ron Goodin was still running and it took only four and a half hours to get the power back from Owen Springs, according to our source.

 

 

UPDATE 3.20pm

 

Statement from Minister Wakefield

 

The Territory Labor Government is investing in the stability of the Alice Springs power grid and we take into consideration the future of Territory Generation employees.

 

We have facilitated discussions between Territory Generation and the Electrical Trade Union on concerns raised with the transition from Ron Goodin Power Station to the Owen Springs Power Station.

 

An independent consultant, chosen by ETU, was appointed for the ETU and Territory Generation to utilise where clarity is required in relation to the transition and to act as the umpire.

 

The ETU and Territory Generation have agreed to use this process and I encourage them to continue to work through this process on concerns raised.

 

UPDATE Oct 16, 1.20pm

 

Statement from TGen’s CEO Tim Duignan:

 

Territory Generation’s Owen Springs Power Station (OSPS) expansion project, including the substation expansion, was completed well under the CLP’s original approved budget of $74.6 million. The total spend for the works was $72.9 million.

 

We will continue to work with Ron Goodin Power Station (RGPS) employees and the independent consultant chosen by the Electrical Trades Union to minimise impacts of the transition from RGPS to OSPS.

 

 

 

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9 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Karen
    Posted October 21, 2019 at 11:04 am

    I had to go on POW facebook site to get updates, thank God for our little generator, at least our fridge / freezer, fan and TV were on, cooked dinner in the gas webber and have plenty of dolphin torches and candles on hand. We had no power for 7.5 hours.

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  2. Erwin Chlanda
    Posted October 16, 2019 at 5:00 pm

    @ Craig B: The advent of clouds must surely be the most easily discernible meteorological phenomenon on the planet.
    Just look out the window, up into the sky, at about a 25 degree angle, and you see them coming. How long does it then take to start a generator?

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  3. Craig B
    Posted October 16, 2019 at 2:42 pm

    @ Simon Kelly: There are no generators capable of being used as a back up when a cloud rolls in and you lose a large amount of power instantaneously.
    The grid frequency needs to be maintained at 50Hz. When you lose a large amount of generation in seconds the demand (which is still there) drags the frequency very low and nothing can recover the grid from that point and every generator trips off, leaving you in black out conditions.
    This is the result of non qualified people running your power system.
    I should know. I moved from the Alice to Adelaide and it’s the same problems here.

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  4. Interested Adelaide Observer
    Posted October 16, 2019 at 2:10 pm

    Pretty sure the problem is not so much the time taken to kick in, but the actual capacity of the battery.
    Thing to consider is that battery storage is sold as a magic thing that can keep the lights on when the power goes off, but the reality is that it is to keep the network from collapsing until the backup power can be switched on.
    The other trick for young players is the terms used. Ever noticed that new power supply is usually listed as being able to “provide power for up to 100 homes”?
    Know the ratio of homes to small offices? Or homes to local supermarket? How many traffic lights to the average home?
    Other comment is “10% of the town for 40 minutes” which sounds wonderful until you realise that these numbers also roughly translate as 100% of the town for four minutes.

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  5. Interested Darwin Observer
    Posted October 16, 2019 at 8:50 am

    How long does it take for BESS to kick in versus the battery system put in by SA from Tesla? Apparently the SA system can activate and output power in milliseconds.

    View Comment
  6. Simon Kelly
    Posted October 15, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    I agree with Ted that the most annoying thing about the blackout was the failure of PWA or the ABC to provide us with any information about it.
    The next most annoying thing is now the facile rush to judgement by various parties — the usual calls for heads to roll, and even “just fix it” from a pollie who on ABC radio compared it with getting her car fixed.
    We had seven hours of blackout, until when our old swampy was keeping our house beautifully cool despite the “humid” weather.
    We were unhappy with the heat, but I don’t see how sacking someone will stop it happening again.
    A bit of clear thinking suggests we may be dealing with an unprecedented situation in terms of ever-increasing amounts of solar electricity being fed into the grid and its sudden disappearance when the weather goes cloudy.
    The new gas turbines, although moved to Alice Springs three years ago, have only been operational for less than two years, and teething problems might reasonably be expected, especially given the new solar regime, for which our grid was not designed.
    A proper inquiry is indeed needed before the blame game gets out of hand.

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  7. Domenico Pecorari
    Posted October 15, 2019 at 4:37 pm

    What a monumental mess indeed.
    Ten new gas-fired generators that cannot be relied upon to deal with fluctuations in demand; the former Ron Goodin generator not maintained to provide back-up if needed; what seems to be an undersized back-up battery system and remote management of the power system from Darwin …
    The Electrical Trades Union is correct in calling for heads to roll.
    An opportunity also for the Minister, Dale Wakefield, to either show courage or to reward incompetence.
    Alice Springs deserves better.

    View Comment
  8. Michael Dean
    Posted October 15, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    “BESS capacity is equivalent to around 10% of the town’s demand with 40 minutes of storage.”
    Well, that didn’t go to plan on Sunday, did it.
    With these vast sums of public monies being spent it’s reasonable to expect value for money and what is promised will happen.

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  9. Ted Egan
    Posted October 15, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    The most annoying factor was that it is not possible to speak to a real person.
    At 9 pm Sunday night, having been told earlier by the plastic 1800 voice that the power would be on at 8 pm, I rang the number again.
    The plastic voice advised me that the power had come on in our region at 6.30 pm!
    And where was the ABC? In the bushfire season the ABC, through heroes like Derek Guille and Trevor Chappell, stays at the post, advising residents of the graphic detail of what’s happening.
    Not a mention of the whys and wherefores of our power outage.
    Busy creating the latest “Thingy”?
    Clue One: I happen regularly in Alice Springs. Clue Two: Nobody knows how, why, or when. TBC.

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