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Australia brown coal warriors switch to solar, disruptive technologies

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This must be a sign of the times: The two men who ran Australia’s two dirtiest brown coal generators, and who were one-time trenchant critics of climate and renewable energy policies, have switched sides. They have now thrown in their lot with the solar industry and other disruptive technologies.

Tony Concannon is the former Australian boss of GDF Suez, now Engie, which operates the Hazelwood brown coal generator, among other assets. He has now re-emerged as the chief executive of Reach Solar, which is looking at solar projects and battery storage across Australia, including a 200MW solar PV facility located near Port Augusta airport.

Richard McIndoe is the former head of Energy Australia, which owns the Yallourn power station, and has since emerged as the executive chairman of a new company called Edge Electrons, which developing new technology, such as voltage control, that is helping businesses and households save on electricity bills.

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Solar, battery storage and energy efficiency are the new big ticket items in the transition of global energy systems to low-carbon technologies. All three technologies attack the very basis of the business model built up for half a century around brown coal, which revolved around “base-load” generation and ever increasing demand.

In their previous roles, Concannon and McIndoe’s companies had fought ferociously against any policy changes that might have given assistance to solar and energy efficiency, which take away demand from brown coal generators and undercut their earnings.

Both companies argued forcefully against the various emissions trading schemes, against the renewable energy target, and against energy efficiency incentives. At times, they took this argument to extremes: McIndoe even warned that the “lights would go out” if carbon was priced. Concannon also warned of supply shortages, and in one speech warned that the renewable energy target would jack up wholesale prices “25-fold.”

Instead, the opposite has happened and Australia now has too much capacity; although, ironically, it is now proving almost impossible to dislodge brown coal from the system, particularly the big Latrobe Valley generators that these men ran.

Engie last week did suggest that “closure” of Hazelwood was a possibility, but this has more to do with the global reputation of Engie, and its biggest shareholder, the French government, than energy economics.

One brown coal generator that could no longer compete in the modern market – thanks to the enormous wind and solar capacity in its local grid – was the Northern plant in Port Augusta, South Australia.

Concannon’s new venture, Reach Solar, is proposing a big solar plant to at least partially replace that capacity. In February, Concannon and other executives made a presentation to the Port Augusta council, outlining plans for a 30MW solar PV plant near the Port Augusta airport, which could grow into a 200MW facility.

reach solar

In its presentation, which can be viewed here, Concannon’s team said Port Augusta was a great location for solar, thanks to its excellent solar radiation, available land and high voltage transmission lines.

tony concannonThey also said Reach Solar had a number of agreements with battery storage developers, including Tesla Energy. They said storage was important, for providing firm capacity on cloudy days, and for mitigating against peak demand charges.

The $320 million solar project is not the only one being proposed in the area. As RenewEconomy revealed last week, Indian energy group Adani, which is trying to develop the controversial Carmichael mega coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, is also proposing 400MW of rooftop solar projects in the region.

DP Energy is proposing a big 375MW wind-solar hybrid project, while US company SolarReserve is proposing a 110MW solar storage and molten salt storage facility, which would be the first of its type in Australia.

McIndoe, last September, announced the creation of a new start-up called Edge Electrons that he promised would “shake-up the energy industry and help customers save money.”

The new company – “the brainchild of McIndoe and successful electronics entrepreneur Neal Stewart” – offers voltage regulation and correction technologies that can cut electricity bills for homes and businesses by 15 per cent, by ensuring that they use less power.

Edge Electrons said it also engaged with a number of key strategic partners, including new homebuilders, smart meter manufacturers, energy efficient lighting providers, and solar panel and energy storage manufactures.

richard mcindow“What the last year has shown me is that the potential for technology to disrupt the traditional industry is huge,” McIndoe told the AFR in an interview last year. “It is as big in the electricity industry as it is in any other. I don’t think people have recognised that in the past.


“We have this convergence of high technology, software and electronics with customers who want something different, and the added incentive of wanting to do something for the environment.”

According to the AFR, McIndoe played down his role in opposing the carbon tax and other regulation, saying it was “more about dealing with damaging and costly regulatory confusion and arguing for a more measured approach to the climate issue.”Concannon last Wednesday was appointed to the Tasmanian government’s specially convened review board that will look at the state’s energy options.

The task force is being led by Geoff Willis, a former chief executive of Hydro Tasmania, and follows criticisms of Tasmania’s lack of wind and solar resources following the loss of the cable to the mainland and the severe drought that depleted its hydro resources.

  

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  • Geoff

    …another breathless, moist eyed, warm inner glow article Giles. GETUP at its best.
    Instead of articles littered with “could be”, “proposed”, “possible” etc please take a pragmatic/engineering approach to your articles. Energy needs to be plentiful, on demand and cheap. Our lifestyles depend on it. Instead of coming from a position of hatred of big energy generators, look at what they continue to provide and truthfully accept the limitations of the various forms of energy. There never has been and there never will be a shortage of energy options in Australia. It is all about getting the right mix, unemotionally and objectively. I have yet to see an alternative to the fabulous efficiency of the Brown Coal baseload generation. Still supplying reliable and cheap power to eastern Australia as far away as South Australia and Tasmania.

    • Peter

      Geoff, you seem to be the emotional one here. Open your eyes cobber and see what is happening throughout the world. There is none so blind as those who will not see (sic).

      • Geoff

        Peter I am one of the few people on this forum who actually lives totally off grid for 6 months of the year. I have solar panels, battery storage and diesel backup generation. I know the cost and limitations of your happy clappy chatter. All for better energy solutions. Emphasis on better Peter.

    • No Get UP links here. I suppose what you mean by “pragmatic/engineering” approach is an attachment to decades old technologies. You should get out more. Even at the networks association conference last week it was agreed that there was no technology barriers to energy transformation, just cultural, regulatory and business barriers. If you were to accept science of climate change and factored in environmental harm of brown coal, then that technology is far from cheap.

      • Geoff

        Brown coal is unlimited in La Trobe valley and is actually an abundant and totally useless product……. Except for generating 85% of Victoria’ electricity……..and reliable backup to SA and Tasmania…
        GETUP/Crikey…. The giveaway is the breathless positive reporting and none of the “renewable cockups”. Good luck with replacing Baseload electricity and the stablished grid to distribute… The same grid you want to use for windmills and solar panels.

        • Barri Mundee

          Its also the most polluting source of power I can think of . Its time is passing quickly. Even in the LV where I live and worked in the industry, they can see its inevitable demise.

          And I find it hard to believe you are off the grid for six months of the year.

    • Chris Fraser

      Don’t you just hate it when the old militants finally convert ? It must be a pretty disturbing time for the true believers.It isn’t just a supply side thing. A modest 3kW of PV and an evacuated tube hot water system will cut your energy consumption up to 60%. No need to reminisce the glory days of burning brown mud.

      • solarguy

        Another after my own heart. No sexual connotations either!

    • Carl Raymond S

      By definition, baseload is not ‘on demand’. Peaker plants are on demand. When baseload is above demand, it’s called ‘waste’. When it’s below demand, you still have to make up the shortfall. So a better model is solar/wind + peaker plants (hydro, biogas, and yes, even CSG if you need a fossil fuel fix). Baseload never made sense – we had to build the whole snowy hydro to get a semblance of efficiency out of it – somewhere to put all that excess each night.

      A coal plant is boilers plus steam turbines connected to generators. Keep the generators, and replace the steam turbines with instant gas turbines, and turn all those boilers into recyclable steel scrap. Now you’ve got something with utility in a world of dirt cheap solar/wind.

      As solar/wind get cheaper and more and more overbuilding takes place, the peakers will fire up less and less frequently, but when they do, the rates will be most attractive. The plant wins with a healthy profit from minimal fuel cost and the planet wins with minimum CO2 emitted.

      • solarguy

        But get em to use bio gas!

        • Carl Raymond S

          The best mechanism to achieve that is a carbon tax, and last time I looked, neither major party had such a policy. Direct action is an influence auction – he who donates (bribes) wins.

          • solarguy

            Hell no argument from me, but I didn’t think we where talking about a GT.

      • JamesWimberley

        As variable renewables (wind and solar) increase, they push fossil generators, always lower down the merit order, into lower capacity factors. If these are not designed to ramp – and only the latest generation can do this – they are forced to run anyway, and the wholesale spot price falls. In Germany it’s often negative. This spells financial ruin, sooner rather than later. Men like Concannon and McIndoe can see this coming. Eventually the state will be forced effectively to nationalise these stranded assets and run them at a loss until there are are enough modern despatchables (pumped hydro, CSP with storage, geothermal, gas, batteries, demand response) to fill the backup role.

      • Geoff

        Carl. Maybe you shouldn’t talk wast….? Solar and wind produce for the grid when it’s not needed and then don’t produce when it is needed. Base load is just that produce what is needed when it is needed. Talking battery storage just presents another later of cost and technology and another layer of inefficiencies. Not sure why windmills, solar panels and batteries get the tag if renewables. Because they are all consumables and need to be replaced “renewed” and shipped from China or Elons factory in the desert?
        Good luck with your plans.

        • Carl Raymond S

          Google ‘ARES energy storage’. There are efficient ways to store renewables – even when pumped hydro isn’t suitable. They are classed renewable because there’s no irreversible chemical reaction taking place. Renewables we can do forever. Fossil fuels both pollute AND deplete. Just plain stupid to burn them.

    • Alan S

      You’re being sarcastic but forgot the pro-nuclear plug, right? Too subtle – I almost got sucked in.

    • Cooma Doug

      Geoff
      I give you 0.5 out of 10 for this piece. You get the 0.5 for the line “plentiful, on demand and cheap”.

      If you had used these words to describe sunlight, wind and 21st century technology, you get a 5.

      If you had noted that new technologies on the load side will effectively remove the equivalent demand equivalent of all brown coal energy on the grid you get a 7.

    • solarguy

      Yeah, but not if you need to build a new one, heh.

    • Jo

      Did I really read ‘fabulous efficiency’ and ‘Brown Coal baseload generation’ in one sentence?
      This was either very subtle irony or massively wrong. Old coal fired power plants have already a poor efficiency because they cannot run at the high temperatures that new plants operate on. But brown coal fired power stations must additionally evaporate all the water that comes with the the brow coal which is a massive loss of energy. Not much fabulous efficiency here.

      • Geoff

        Jo. As I mentioned somewhere above. Brown coal is unlimited, of no value and totally useless for anything except for generating 85% of Victorias electricity etc etc.
        Steam? Evaporation? You have a problem with this? Better take up the matter with Mother Nature. Is happening all over the world 24/7…..
        Speaking of old technologies I think you would put windmills and solar panels in that category.

        • Jo

          stop trolling

  • Rob

    Full steam ahead with “The Great Energy Transition”.

  • Brian Tehan

    What’s happening with the solar thermal plants proposed for Port Augusta? – repower Port Augusta. While solar thermal might be more expensive than pv per mwh, it provides complementary, on demand, support to the large wind base in SA as well as power for the evening requirements. Or is the PV plant in addition to the solar thermal?

    • market will decide how much solar can be installed – but i guess everyone is waiting to see result of South Australia government’s low carbon tender, which hopefully helps finance a solar thermal plant, or if one of the major parties has the wits to promise it the world in the election campaign. if solar thermal doesn’t go ahed, one of the pv projects almost a certainty. if it does, not so clear but i imagine still room for a heap of pv in the market.

      • Carl Raymond S

        Have you seen this Giles?
        http://www.aresnorthamerica.com
        Cheaper, more efficient and geographically more flexible than pumped hydro. Simple and scalable. Could be the missing piece in the puzzle.

        • Rurover

          Carl,
          Brilliant storage solution using “old” technology. And 85% efficiency…at least as good as a flow battery. Makes sense to me. Just need some hilly country near a major power line to make it work,

          • Carl Raymond S

            “Where there’s a hill there’s a way”

          • Ian

            Serious , 85% efficiency, that’s very good. This idea may open up other similar ideas using storage of solids at a height. Large winders on old mine shafts might be another option or sand turbines. Instead of rocks other heavier materials could be used like lead or iron. The large and deep open cut mines might take and run with these ideas

  • Matthew Wright

    I hope everyone boycotts their enterprises. If there are equally positioned competitors then you can give Mcindoe and Concannon the miss. They’ve damaged the countries climate policy and energy efficiency / renewable energy industries. So do not deserve any stake in the future of those.

    • solarguy

      Matt, the bastards may actually make a contribution, they may have seen the sunlight.

  • Alen T

    Can a sparky or electrical engineer answer me why you would need voltage optimisation for a residential home? For a business with large loads it makes sense, but why a home which would be relatively small in both area and the load profile? Is this not the job of the network operator in managing the distribution lines to your residence?

    • solarguy

      I reckon so.

  • Alan S

    Is this a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment or have they simply seen the writing on the coal face and got out? The tobacco industry mustn’t have been a sufficiently attractive option
    Meanwhile the coal industry continues to be run by other highly paid executives that extol their product, deride the alternatives – and lean on politicians. I realise that every man has his price but it must be difficult looking in the mirror for a while.

  • solarguy

    In the first instance, he knew what was right but just followed the corporate line. Now like rats jumping a sinking ship, but with a pre-conceived plan when all looked like going to shit.

  • Pfitzy

    “I’m the boss of a coal power station. Climate change is rubbish! Renewables will never do! My bonus depends on this!”
    (Time passes. New paths are taken)
    “I’m now the boss of a renewables company. Climate change is a big issue! Renewables are the answer! My bonus depends on this!”

    You’ll pardon my cynicism…