24 January, 2017

Nathan Vass

Courtesy of the Newcastle Herald

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull might as well have been speaking directly to the NSW Government and the Hunter Valley’s state and federal MPs last week when he declared that governments can’t let ideology get in the way of selecting future energy production.

“Our approach, and my approach, to energy is absolutely pragmatic and practical. This is not a matter for ideology,” the Prime Minister declared.

“We’ve got to be able to afford to pay the bills, and it’s got to be reliable.

“You don’t want to be in the situation South Australia is, where they have the most expensive — and the least reliable — electricity in Australia.”

The Prime Minister expressed his support for clean coal, something he first did in 2009 when visiting the Hunter, which is home to world-leading clean coal research at the University of Newcastle through Professor Terry Wall and his team.

This work is crucial for the Hunter, the coal capital of Australia, with the region responsible for one third of Australia’s exports via the world’s largest coal port, as well as playing a crucial role in turning locally mined coal into the energy that powers NSW and parts of Queensland and Victoria.

Four of NSW’s six coal fired power stations, including Australia’s largest power station, are in the Hunter.

Like all energy infrastructure, each station has a use-by date. Muswellbrook’s Liddell Power Station will close in 2022 and Bayswater in 2035. Eraring has no disclosed closure date but it’s the same age and size as Bayswater. Vales Point celebrated its 50th birthday several years ago and has already been sold off by the NSW Government in part to avoid its decommissioning costs.

South Australia reached a similar fork in the energy road several years ago and elected not to build new coal fired power stations. Instead, in the words of their Premier Jay Weatherill, they elected to “experiment” with wind power. Within months the consequences of this decision were painfully and expensively revealed when the entire state suffered a blackout for 24 hours. A second smaller blackout occurred in November and a third in December.

It is crucial that the NSW Government learn from the mistakes of their SA counterparts, as they start planning for the day when the Hunter’s coal fired power stations inevitably enter the decommissioning phase. While renewables will play a major role in building Australia’s clean energy future, now is not the time to abandon our coal resources, costing thousands of jobs in the Hunter and possibly doubling energy bills, according to the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which says clean coal must be part of keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees.

Yet despite our abundance of coal, the embarrassing truth is that Australia is behind much of the developed world in implementing clean coal technology. In Japan for example where much of the Hunter’s coal ends up, the city of Yokohama is powered using a state of the art ultra-super critical power plant that emits 25 per cent less carbon than the traditional power plants that exist in the Hunter. It’s a similar story in China, Germany and the US.

If the Hunter, and indeed NSW, is to avoid the energy crisis now unfolding in SA, the new Premier of NSW must quickly join the Prime Minister in supporting the roll out of clean coal generated electricity.

Nathan Vass is a former energy sector executive who established the Australian Power Project to promote sustainable national energy policy.