Four Myths Genesis & Meridian will tell you about Huntly Power Station

Since Genesis Energy revealed it would be keeping the Huntly coal burners firing, it has received a rolling barrage of complaints from unhappy New Zealanders. The power company responded to those comments by releasing several statements...or shall we say myths. We decided to bust them, because let’s be clear: The decision to keep coal alive is all about profit.

Myth #1. “The current commercial reality is that while the future of Tiwai Pt is uncertain, no company is likely to build large scale renewable generation.”

No-one can predict exactly what’s going to happen with Tiwai Point: The aluminium smelter there could announce plans to close next week, or it could close in 10 years, but uncertainty should never be a reason for inaction. In fact, if Tiwai was to shut, the extra electricity in the market would actually result in lower prices of power for us all - not a bad deal considering New Zealanders are paying more for electricity every year.

Genesis has also failed to acknowledge the fact that if we started constructing renewable electricity replacements like wind farms now, then when Tiwai did close, we’d be in a prime position to shut down another fossil fuel plant and be one step closer to meeting the 90% renewable electricity target that the industry has agreed to reach by 2025.

Myth #2. “Shutting Huntly’s coal burners would create a very real risk of electricity shortages – especially if we have another dry year.”

Last week, Minister of Energy and Resources Simon Bridges was the latest to join the uninformed crowd of people claiming that Huntly’s coal burners would only ever be used in very rare cases of an emergency electricity shortage during a dry year.

To put it mildly, this is utter bull.

If the coal burners remain open, they are going to be used constantly, year round. In 2015, the Rankine Coal Units at Huntly Power Station ran at a 40% capacity factor throughout the year. In fact, we actually turned off some of our renewable hydro power in order to burn more coal!

The reason the use of the coal burners was, and will continue to be, so high is because of the enormous cost of keeping the units in business. Think about it: If the burners aren’t generating any electricity, then they’re not bringing in any revenue. Why would anyone in their right mind spend millions of dollars a year on maintenance and staff just on the off-chance we may need to burn coal at some point for a couple of hours during an emergency?

In order to keep the cost per unit of electricity low, the coal burners at Huntly Power Station need to be run frequently, and not just in dry years.

And unlike what they’d have you believe, Huntly’s coal burners are certainly not the only defence against dry year risk. In 2012, even Meridian Energy’s general manager of markets and production, Guy Waipara, stated:

“There are parallels to the way in which wind and hydro generation are complementary resources. In simple terms, hydro can be used when the wind doesn't blow. The same applies when the sun doesn't shine."

So rather than sticking to the status quo, what we need to be doing is diversifying our energy production by investing in new wind and geothermal. Another solution to the issue of dry year is investing in better energy efficiency and demand side management techniques. This means rather than trying to endlessly supply energy to an ever growing peak demand, we should be reducing the size of the peak by shifting demand to times when there is excess electricity in the grid. This is called “load shifting”.

A smart grid would give people cheaper electricity to use during off peak times, which allows for big changes in demand with very little impact on lifestyle. We’re talking about incentivising a shift in activities like drying clothes, using freezers, charging electric vehicles and running dishwashers to different times throughout the day, depending on the electricity demand.

Because of the little investment needed to make huge cost savings, this is the direction that electricity providers around the globe are already heading in, and fast. We’re being left behind.

Myth #3. “Genesis Energy has put solar panels on 92 schools around New Zealand, but at current installation rates it will take 41 years to replace the output from Huntly with solar panels.”

It’s all well and good to put solar panels on schools, but it’s not nearly enough investment in renewables. What New Zealand needs, as well as solar panels on community buildings, is serious large-scale investment in solar for everyone as well as a mix of renewable projects including wind and geothermal to meet our growing electricity needs.

What Genesis isn’t saying is there are already over 2,000 Megawatts of wind farms approved for construction in New Zealand - that’s double Huntly Power Station’s entire electricity capacity.

Myth #4. “We are committed to retiring the Huntly coal units, it just will take a little longer than we announced last August.”

We’re going to keep this one short and sweet. Genesis Energy has confirmed it has no planned construction of renewable projects on the horizon. This shows zero commitment to a renewable future for our communities.

Genesis claims the reason for this is continued uncertainty around Tiwai Point.

Please refer back to Myth #1.

P.S. As we write this, Huntly’s coal burners are on full power. You can see a live graph of it here.