13 terms you need to know in Australia’s energy debate
Source: Business Insider
Australia’s energy market is a prominent fixture in our daily news cycle. Amid the endless ideology and politics swirling around the sector, technical terms such as “baseload power” and “dispatchable generation” are thrown around so often that there is a danger the meaning of these terms can get lost in the public debate.
The term “energy crisis” is bandied around quite loosely with some confusion around whether the crisis is about prices or security of supply. The politics of this are infernal and largely avoidable if all sides of politics had paid consistent and principled attention to energy policy over the 20 years since the formation of the National Energy Market.
It’s worth setting the record straight on the meaning of some of these terms and how they relate to climate policies, new technologies and the progression of market reform and regulation in Australia.
This glossary, which is by no means exhaustive, is a first step.
Baseload power refers to generation resources that generally run continuously throughout the year and operate at stable output levels. The continuous operation of baseload resources makes economic sense because they have low running costs relative to other sources of power. The value of baseload plants is mostly economic, and not related to their ability to follow the constantly varying system demand.
Baseload plants include coal-fired and gas-fired combined-cycle power plants. However, Australia’s international commitment to reduce carbon emissions is curtailing the economic viability of traditional baseload sources.
Wholesale market (the “National Energy Market”)
The term National Energy Market is confusing because it refers to a competitive market for wholesale energy mostly on the east cost of Australia. It doesn’t include Western Australia or the Northern Territory and also includes the gas system. The National Energy Market allows all kinds of utility-scale power resources to connect to transmission system to meet large-scale power requirements.
However, industry talk about the “energy market” or even the “NEM” can also refer to the entire supply chain that includes the networks for voltage transmission, and medium- and low-voltage distribution as well as the retailing to the end consumer. The prices consumers see include all these aspects of the supply chain. This can add significantly to confusion.
The wholesale market is referred to as a “market” because there is competition between generators. Each generator places daily price “bids” to sell power and adjusts quantities in up to 10 price bands every five minutes. In this way, the sale of power is matched to the available energy and performance of the generating unit.
The market works to efficiently dispatch all variable and “dispatchable” resources to minimise the cost of electricity. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) co-ordinates the National Energy Market.
The wholesale “spot” price at which power is traded in the NEM is based on the highest accepted generator offers to balance supply and demand in each region. This is intended to encourage efficient behaviour by generators, as well as to co-ordinate efficient directing of resources.
Storage refers to energy captured for later use, typically in a battery. Electricity has been expensive to store in the past, but the cost of storage is expected to continue to fall with the improvement of battery technologies. For example, lithium-ion batteries were developed for mobile communications and laptops but now are being upscaled for electric vehicles and utility-scale energy storage.
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