WA energy debate: When and where the wind blows after coal

The WA energy trilemma: Labor is ready to go but don’t mention coal, Liberals want to drop coal but are light on detail, the Greens want to dump gas as well, and they all love green hydrogen.

WA energy debate: When and where the wind blows after coal

The energy transition on the South West power grid is charging ahead, but the State's political leaders differ on targets, the rate of change, coal closures and how best to harness the wind.

Energy Minister Bill Johnston yesterday said in Labor's first four-year term 1439 megawatts of renewable energy capacity was added, with both wind and rooftop solar capacity more than doubling.

Johnston spoke at an energy policy debate with Liberal David Honey and The Greens' Tim Clifford hosted by the Australian Institute of Energy.

The event had unexpected importance after the Liberal's last week committed to closing down State-owned Synergy's two Collie power stations by 2025 and underwriting 1500 megawatts of wind generation in the Mid-West with a Synergy power-purchase agreement.

The Liberals want the WA Government to achieve net-zero emissions by 2030 but have no plans to impose any private sector restrictions.

Labor plans to close two Synergy generators in Collie but is silent about further closures and has a stated aspiration for all of WA to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

In the March 13 State election, a solid Greens vote could see the party, which now has four members in the 36-strong Legislative Council, hold the balance of power in the upper house.

Greens MLC Tim Clifford said the South West grid should be 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 and wants the State to achieve net-zero emissions by 2035.

It is a long way from Labor's position, but upper house horse-trading could allow the Greens to pull an expected second-term Labor Government towards their targets.

However, whatever the targets, there are some practical issues the next government must tackle.

A lot depends on the future of coal, that generated 41 per cent of the power sold in the South West in the last 12 months.

The life of coal

Few dispute that coal will eventually depart WA power generation, but the question is when?

It is essential information for the planning and construction of whatever generation takes its place, together with any additional transmission capacity needed.

Synergy's Muja C units, Muja 5 and 6, will close in 2022 and 2024.

Technical condition and economic viability will determine the life of the remaining Synergy units at the Muja and Collie power stations and the privately-owned Bluewaters.

Labor's 20-year Whole of System Plan assumed Muja D (units 7 and 8) could last until 2036 and Collie and Bluewaters Power stations will be capable of producing power past 2040, based on a standard 50-year life for coal-fired plants.

Honey recalled his experience as a production manager at Alcoa's Kwinana refinery: "The last thing we ever did was turn the boiler up and down because you destroyed it and it cost millions of dollars to do your overhauls."

The Liberal energy spokesperson said WA's coal-fired plants were being destroyed as they respond to fluctuating solar generation.

"They are shutting themselves down because they are not baseload, they are swing, and they are up and down like a yoyo," Honey said.
Collie coal-fired power station loads for 48 hours to 6AM 17 Feb 2021: Muja, Collie and Bluewaters stations.
Collie power station loads for 48 hours: 15-17 Feb 2021. Source: AEMO WEM Data Dashboard

Yesterday on the other side of the country Energy Security Board chair Kerry Schott said east coast coal-fired power plants are unlikely to operate until the end of their technical lives.

"It's a very difficult juggling act because it is not just the plants going because they are old, it is they are going because they are commercially unviable and can become so reasonably quickly," Schott said.

Honey said the cost of running the stations was huge.

"The trouble is that Labor is half on the pot, they are half committed to going to renewable energy, but then they are committed to maintaining union jobs in Collie with the coal-fired power stations," Honey said.

Johnston said the Liberal plan was not thought through and a 2025 closure of Synergy's coal generators would cost about $500 million to buy out the coal contracts that go beyond 2025.

"We support renewable energy and lower carbon outcomes, but it had to be done through a proper transition," Johnston said.

Where the wind goes

All sides see wind stepping in to at least in part replace coal but disagree on where and how much.

Johnston said the Liberal plan for 1500 megawatts wind farm generation in the Mid-West "over a 1000km from Perth" connected by a single line to the major load was not a real solution. The Minister said the Australian Energy Market Operator recommended such a large facility have three connections.

Johnston said the 97 per cent reliability of the massive wind project meant "11 days a year the Liberal Party are planning to switch the lights off."

The Energy Minister said the proposed 500MW battery to accompany the wind farm only provided 20 minutes of backup but about two hours of storage was required to get gas generation up if the wind dropped.

Johnston wants future wind generation to be located closer to Perth in the South West where it could use existing transmission capacity freed up as coal plants in Collie retire.

"I was quite horrified to see the Liberal Party's announcement last week; it is too risky, it is not a realistic plan for this State's energy," Johnston said.

"If you want to know what we're doing for the next four years read the DER roadmap, read the Whole of System Plan and look at the 700 pages of new rules were implementing here in WA.".

However, question marks over South West power remain as the misnamed Whole of System Plan is a study of four possible scenarios, not a documented set of actions people usually associate with the term "plan."

Green hydrogen on the distant horizon

The Greens' position on the role of gas is starkly different to the major parties that strongly support WA's existing gas giants.

The Greens' targets would see gas banished from the South West grid in 10 years and from the entire State in 15 years unless carbon emissions were offset or captured and buried.

"LNG is a pariah, if we give so much of our economy to the LNG industry without offering a transition plan for it we are going to have stranded assets and a situation where we don't take advantage of green hydrogen," Clifford said.

And the promise of green hydrogen was applauded by all three parties, perhaps showing that general support for a new industry is more comfortable than the necessary but difficult and complex disruption of an existing one.

Main image: Graphic. Source: Warradarge wind farm: Synergy,  Bluewaters power station near Collie: Bluewaters Power, graphics: Boiling Cold.