Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Misreading the lessons of the Great Blackout

The dog can't believe that move either.

Lawrence Chung over at SCMP gives us the anti-DPP take on the recent blackout fiasco.
The officials’ resignations and Tsai’s apology, however, have failed to address public concerns over whether the government is able to keep its promise that there would be no power shortages as result of the government’s plans to scrap nuclear power.

Tsai has promised a nuclear-free Taiwan by 2025 – using green or renewable energy like wind, solar and water, as well as gas and coal – to replace the energy now generated by the island’s three nuclear power plants.
Qz also published on the same...
While Tuesday’s blackout only lasted five hours, a larger one is within the realm of possibility. It could have potentially devastating effects for an economy that is heavily dependent on manufacturing and critical to the world’s technology supply chain—Taiwan is home to industrial giants like TSMC, one of the world’s largest contract chipmakers. TSMC, a major supplier to Apple, said its operations were not affected this time.

One solution is to invest in more nuclear power. Yet that’s anathema to the current government.
And of course, the Economist. No need to comment.

Like those weird evangelicals for whom the cure for all social problems is more Jesus, for the nuke cult, the cure for all power troubles is more nukes.

This is a fundamental misreading of the lessons of the Great Blackout of 2017. What was the cause of the problem? Chung says:
The incident took place on Tuesday at around 4.50pm when an operational error by government-owned CPC Corporation caused power generation at the gas-fuelled Datan plant in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan to be temporarily interrupted. The result was a total shortfall of 4.65 million kilowatts all over the island.
The error occurred when we were at a razor-thin margin for power supply. But the cause of the problem was not insufficient power, but operator error. Or, more broadly, it was power grid management as a commentary in the TT observed:
The Datan plant has a capacity of 4.2GW and, at the time of the blackout, all six of its generators were running at full capacity. Therefore, the supply from Datan was, at the time, in excess of the operating reserve.

As far as systemic stability is concerned, should the generators at the Datan plant suddenly, for whatever reason, cease supplying electricity, the operating reserve would be unable to make up for the loss.

As a result, this is an issue of power grid risk management.

The problem was that, as this was happening, CPC and Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) had underestimated the supply-side risk of the system, and neglected the fact that the operating reserve was insufficient for accommodating a shut-down of the supply at the Datan plant.

With this low operating reserve, engineers were sent to replace valve components that controlled the natural gas supply at the plant, a process that they carried out without adhering to proper procedure, putting the system in jeopardy.
One can almost hear the chabuduo-s and meiyouguanxi-s and yinggai meiwenti-s ringing in the air as the operators commenced their repair work....

Operator error at a natural gas plant inconveniences the public for a few hours. Operator error at a nuke plant can kill people. Yet Taiwan's state-run firms (both CPC which was responsible for the error, and Taipower, are state-owned) are not exactly known for their inspiring safety culture.

We already have a laundry list of documented operator errors with nuclear power in Taiwan. The Fourth Nuclear Plant, much of it locally sourced, is basically one long operator error. Remember this report from June of 2010? "Nuclear power plant a disaster":
Making assertions that raise concerns about the safety of the plant, Robert Greenspan, president of the Rapid City, South Dakota-based Midco Diving and Marine Services, said during a telephone interview with the Taipei Times on Tuesday last week that Taiwan Power Corp (TPC), the operator of the nuclear power plant, was treating the suppression pool — a critical component in case of an emergency — as a “garbage dump.”
An earlier piece at Global Voices noted:
In 2008, there was a scandal in the construction of the fourth nuclear power plant in Taiwan because the constructor changed the original design without authorization. Later, the control room was submerged in a typhoon. Recently, the plant has failed in a number of safety tests. Yet the constructors are hurrying to complete construction because of orders from the top. Is this a risk we want to take?
Global Post itemized the problems with that plant.

Then there is the corruption.... the TSU accused Taipower officials a couple of years ago of colluding with independent power producers in order to obtain illegal insider benefits, when the independent power producers (IPPs) refused to raise rates....(Taipei Times):
Taiwan Power Co (Taipower) was behind the refusal of nine independent power producers (IPPs) to renegotiate electricity prices with the state-run company, Taiwan Solidarity Union (TSU) lawmakers said yesterday.

Four of the nine IPPs — which were slapped with a NT$6.32 billion (US$212.5 million) fine on Wednesday for conspiring to refuse Taipower’s request to renegotiate electricity prices — are subsidiaries of Taiwan Cogeneration Corp (Taiwan Cogen), Taipower’s reinvestment company, TSU caucus whip Lin Shih-chia (ζž—δΈ–ε˜‰) told a press conference.

Among the 36 board members of the four IPPs, 21 were appointed by the government, including 13 from Taiwan Cogen and four each from the Taiwan Sugar Co (Taisugar) and CPC Corp, Taiwan (CPC), which means that Taipower knew that the companies would refuse, Lin said.
As I wrote years ago in response to an Economist piece:
But to return to the point about the nation's nuclear policy lying in tatters, it lies "in tatters" because there was never any nuclear policy -- it started out "in tatters".There is still, after five decades of nuke plant operations in Taiwan, no place or policy for long-term storage of nuclear waste. There is no plan or place to evacuate Taipei in the event of a catastrophe at of one of the three plants that ring the city. The plant is rife with construction irregularities (Global Post). The Fourth Nuke Zombie was supposed to have a tsunami assessment performed, but this was never done. If the nuclear policy is in tatters, it is because its supporters never had one that made any sense. It was just another construction-industrial state project, building, always building, just as it is with dams, roads, and other infrastructure.

Indeed, one could point out that KMT might have begun this mess because it knows perfectly well that the Fourth Nuclear Plant construction is rife with irregularities and that its local suppliers have little or no experience. Thus, it could never be opened. The government merely waited until all the money had been spent and the thing was almost completed, as if to ensure that its patronage networks had been properly fed and watered. Since a 1994 local referendum rejected the plant by +90% vote, and the public remains opposed to it, this whole mess might be the KMT's way of getting the plant shut down without taking the blame for it, as it did when it killed that monster naptha cracker in Changhua. "Those damn street protesters! They tied our hands!" Then when electricity prices go up as they must because they are far too low, the government can blame the anti-nuke types as well. My cynical guess would be that the KMT never anticipated that things would go in this direction.
But never mind all that. Perhaps the government can be strong-armed into buying US nuclear power reactors as it was forty years ago, to replace all our aging reactors. So we're going to have a more stable electricity supply, right?

May 30, 2016
One of the reactors at Taiwan Power Company's (Taipower) second nuclear power plant in New Taipei has shut down and the cause is being investigated, the company said Monday.

It said maintenance of the reactor had been completed recently and the reactor was restarted May 16, but half an hour later, it automatically shut down for reasons that are not yet clear.


This means the reactor is likely to be offline for at least a month, the power company said, estimating a restart date sometime in July.

The shutdown of the reactor raises concerns about a power supply crisis in Taiwan, given the current high temperatures and the fact that several other nuclear power reactors currently are offline for maintenance.
July 23, 2017:
Taipei, July 23 (CNA) A reactor at the No. 3 nuclear power plant in Pingtung County was shut down Sunday morning due to a cooling system failure, which could strain Taiwan's power supply this week, Taiwan Power Co. (Taipower) said.
In June of 2017 rain brought down a power tower, so a nuke plant went into emergency shutdown. How many of you know that one reactor at the first nuke plant has been offline since 2014?  Or that the nuke plant in Pingtung was damaged via operator error in May of this year? The reactor at Jinshan accidentally tripped last year, putting pressure on the power supply... since 2002 the nation's reactors have suffered 29 trigger events.

These failures are not a new trend. But as the plants age, these problems will only grow.

So actually, one of the reasons we have so much pressure on the power supply is, in fact, the less than stellar reliability of our nuclear power plants. But the answer, according to the nuke cult, is always more nukes. Then with enough nukes, we will finally reach that blessed future in which we will all be made whole by the grace of nuclear power...

The clear lesson of the Datan debacle is not that we need more nukes. It is that institutionally Taiwan is not ready for a nuke future. Especially given the lack of oversight the legislature gives our state-run firms and their all-important budgets.

The real and only answer to Taiwan's power problems is massive and urgent investment in conservation and renewables. Now.
Daily Links
Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Anonymous said...


You are more or less on the money with regard to the bone-headed reaction to the Taiwan power crisis so far.

I absolutely agree with your final point: "The real and only answer to Taiwan's power problems is massive and urgent investment in conservation and renewables. Now."

In fact, as a foreign solar power investor and as an academic, I have made this point directly to the Taiwan government on numerous occasions.

The most memorable was in a meeting 6 months ago with one of the most senior cabinet officials involved with the power sector: I pointed out the obvious conflicts of interest of Taipower vis a vis nuclear, the current absence of preparedness or alternatives, and emphasized that Taiwan was facing a power crisis NOW and needed to act urgently on accelerating power sector policy with more of a sense of crisis.

His answer was "Crisis? No crisis. The new LNG terminal should be completed in time to prevent any power shortages."

I was flabbergasted. This was an intelligent and thoughtful man, a PhD like me, so he certainly should have the capacity to understand the absurd risk of staking the country's power stability on a bet on one mid-construction LNG terminal. I warned him that (a) construction is fraught with risk so (b) he should be looking to massively accelerate investment - whether public or private - into alternative energy generation assets to bolster Taiwan's options and avert a power crisis.

But no. He insisted that (a) there is not, and will not be, a power crisis; (b) LNG will fill in any and all power supply gaps because of the completion of the new terminal; (c) a cave-in by the government on nuclear power is absolutely out of the question; (d) the pace alternative energy investments is still slow and insignificant in scale, but he believes it will grow.

I noted, from a private sector investor perspective, that the incentives and risk / return for (d) are out of sync currently. There is a huge pool of expert foreign and domestic capital prepared to participate, but the foreign portion of it at least will not touch Taiwan green energy investments unless the profit margins are sufficiently attractive to offset the risks of Taiwan's unclear and fragmented energy regulatory environment and a hostile and politically powerful state-owned incumbent (Taipower).

We ended up agreeing to revisit status later this year, to see if any of my predictions had panned out and to consider whether he should consider adjusting policy accordingly.

Lo and behold, the LNG terminal is behind schedule. The power crisis is already upon us. No significant green energy investments have occurred, with only a handful of insignificant showcase distractions of 0.5MW here and there. And the government is clearly starting to cave in on its no-nuclear stance already.

I think part of the administration's problems, at least in this cabinet member's case, is there are a lot well-intended and intelligent academics in the cabinet but they lack an understanding of the real world and don't have a sufficiently action-oriented style. They are neither politicians nor businessmen, nor even fully bureaucrats; instead they are often academics coming to these issues for the first time. I think they have a chance of understanding but they need to hurry the hell up.

At the same time, the quality of public debate domestically in Taiwan on this issue is very poor. It's frustrating to watch and rife with stupid contradictions and disingenuous conflicts of interest.

Despite all this, I am still guardedly hopeful that the Tsai administration will eventually see the light. They pushed through pension reform; power sector reform is in the same ballpark of strategic, financial, and economic importance for Taiwan's present and future.

Anonymous said...

There are all kinds of problems with Taipower and the government is right to have considered breaking up the company with a view to privatization of electricity generation. What the blackout reveals though, is that the operating reserve is insufficient and must be raised by having additional large scale and reliable sources of electricity generation, which with apologies to the greenies, basically means more gas-powered generators like those at Datan. There are too many technical issues with renewables and the continued need for subsidies means they are basically just pork for would-be foreign investors.