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Smelter boss slams energy sector

The boss of Newcastle’s Tomago aluminium smelter has raised concerns that the Australian energy market is not suitable for his business, and puts his plant at risk.

Tomago Aluminium chief executive Matt Howell spoke on 3AW News Radio on February 10, as temperatures soared across the eastern states.

He said AGL had asked the smelter operator, which uses roughly 12% of NSW’s energy supply, to take each of its three pot lines off power for 75 minutes, sequentially, for a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes.

This was despite the Australian Energy Market Operator only asking for a three-hour shutdown, he said.

“The key to running a pot line is to keep it running,” a frustrated Howell told 3AW.

“These cells operate at very high temperatures – around 960°C – and if they freeze, they cannot be restarted.”

Howell said the operator became concerned that an extended power outage would cause a very unstable cell on restart, “which means our operators [would] need to go out there in the heat – exposed to the hazards of molten materials – and physically intervene”.

“We’ve been working very closely and cooperatively with the [energy] market operator AEMO.

“Our issue today was that [AEMO] only required a total outage duration of three hours, but [energy supplier] AGL were asking for three-and-three-quarter hours.”

The difference between those two requests, Howell said, was crucial.

“Every minute counts,” he told radio host Ross Greenwood, “and that’s a very good question that you might like to put to AGL, because we haven’t had an answer.”

Ultimately, he said, the power outages should be avoided completely.

“There’s no doubt there has been some efficiency losses in the process,” he said.

“What’s hard for people to understand is to turn the cell off … is literally the push of a button. It’s instantaneous.

“[But] to get the power back on is a much slower process. And even when the power is fully restored, the cell is in a pretty sick state. It can take many days – up to a week – to be fully back to the condition it was before we took power off.

“That’s the essence of running a pot line.”

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