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W.A. Labor pushes for solar, pumped hydro for coal-town Collie

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With the future of some of its coal-fired generators in doubt, the town of Collie in Western Australia may be revitalised with new solar, biomass and pumped hydro facilities.

That, at least, is the plan of the front-running Western Australian Opposition Labor party, which has pledged $30 million towards a biomass plant and $30 million to develop a solar farm in the town, in its pitch to voters ahead of the forthcoming state election.

As part of a wider suite of tourism, transport and community funding initiatives, the WA Labor party has proposed developing renewable energy generation facilities in and around Collie. Around 200km south-east of Perth, Collie is home to a large chunk of the state’s generation capacity.

WA state-owned utility Synergy operates the ageing, heavily polluting 1,094MW Muja power plant and the 340MW Collie plants near to the town, both of which feed coal-fired electricity into the SWIS network.

The coal is sourced from nearby mines. RenewEconomy understands that the average cost of generation at the sites is around $40/MWh.

Muja was opened in 1966 and includes the four 60 MW Muja A and B units, which the current WA state government attempted to recommission earlier this decade at a cost of almost $290 million. Facing spiraling costs, with the project forecast to cost $336 million by completion, the government then decided to mothball the A and B units.

muja wide

The WA Labor Opposition is now proposing that biomass generation and large scale solar be developed in Collie, in its attempt to retain the seat of Collie-Preston in the March 11 election.

“I’m particularly excited about WA Labor’s commitment to innovative technologies,” said Mark McGowan, the WA Labor leader.

“People in Collie and surrounding areas are genuinely worried about their future and families are struggling. We need to plan for our future and build a diverse, modern local economy to create new jobs across a range of industries while maintaining support for our traditional mining, refining, and power generation base.”

While the renewable investment would appear a positive step for Collie and locals in locking in a future beyond coal, McGowan’s statement appears to indicate that Labor will push renewable technology, however, will not walk about from coal-fired generation in the town.

Alongside the $60 million that will be put towards the biomass and solar projects, Labor has also committed $100,000 to go towards a pre-feasibility study for a mine-void pumped hydro facility to be developed in Collie.

State Energy Minister Mike Nahan dismissed the potential for the projects to create ongoing jobs in the area. He told The West Australian that Synergy’s 10MW Greenough River solar farm (pictured top) only employs two people on an operational basis.

What is likely is that jobs at the aging Muja Power Station will be lost.

Nahan has already indicated that 380MW of Synergy generating capacity is scheduled to be shut down. He has not yet announced which capacity that would be, however, the highly polluting Muja, parts of which are approaching end-of-life would appear a prime candidate.

RenewEconomy understands that Synergy is currently developing a large wind project in the state. At present, the biggest wind project in WA is the 206MW Collgar wind farm, which taps strong easterly winds that often blow during the night.

The new project would likely look to exploit westerly, “sea breezes” – the famous Fremantle Doctor – to compliment this generation profile. The Collgar project is owned by UBS International Infrastructure Fund (UBS) and Retail Employees Superannuation Trust (REST).

Efforts by Synergy to spin off its renewable assets to a separate $200 million green fund, and attract private capital, were shut down by the WA state cabinet earlier this month. Such a fund would likely assist Synergy develop the 300MW of projects it is required to under the RET and is similar to the one AGL has developed.

A Synergy spokesperson said all reports regarding the green fund to date had been “purely speculative.”  

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  • Megs

    Collie seems a smart place to get started on new energy. Mining towns have a lot of engineering and hands on skill embedded in the population ( even just the work and safety disciplines and support services) and Collie is also near Alumina refineries and mines and in the heart of an agricultural area that needs to be transitioned to sustainable, all requiring technocal and engineering skills . Not to mention that the it is already a key hub on the grid. Collie sits at the top of the Darling Scarp from where dams ( the nearby Wellington dam) have long fed irrigation systems down on the coastal plain. Hence the geography is right for using pumped hydro as a form of battery. There are study groups who have been intrigued by these possibilities for a long time and no doubt plenty of data to draw upon.

    • wideEyedPupil

      Solar PV will kill coal one way or the other. Will eat into it’s volume and also drop the day time demand minimum to zero some days within a decade according to an IMO report Nahan was presented with. Batteries behind the meter could mitigate that to some extent but is contingent on favourable network rules, tariffs/charges economics and learning curve of chemical batteries.

      Coal needs to operate below the day time minimum demand line as a baseload provider with significant marginal costs (coal and labour). Wind and solar can provide baseload and above (though not as dispatchable generation only as opportunistic provider due to it’s variability).

  • Chris Drongers

    This is blatant Labor party pandering;
    – Collie would be one of the cloudiest places on the west coast – solar should be in the northern and eastern wheatbelt, not on a mountain top sitting under a grey blanket all winter
    – biomass would be good as a use for forest thinnings from a managed plan to adjust jarrah forest density to the rapidly drying climate but
    a) the concerned green populace would not countenance a mechanical thinning of the forest and would prefer to avert their gaze from the increase in wildfires that will soon convert the jarrah forest to a lower rainfall forest (lower jarrah density in southern parts, wandoo woodland or heathland in the north – same endpoint but different way and cost of getting there)
    b) biomass has potentially higher value uses as a source of liquid fuels and chemical precursors than as heat in a power station
    – the windfarms might be at
    – Dandaragan – western sea breezes, already underway
    – Kulin and/or Kojonup – southern sea breezes but delayed by several hours by distance from the coast
    – Beenyup – south coastal trade winds, big powerline left over from BHP failed mineral sand mine, few people to object

    Wellington Dam could well be a pumped hydro scheme, interesting potential to use pumped hydro to stir the salty bottom waters of the dam to possibly assist the plan to desalinate the dam waters for agricultural and industrial use

    But solar in Collie, political non-sensical rubbish

    Why did Synergy cancel the Green Bond? Would have seemed to be a good idea.

    • Alistair Spong

      I think you make some good points , however I support solar in Collie on the grounds that it has the network infrastructure and a population that desperately needs to be retrained . I don’t share your view that collie is on a mountain ? And I do question the level of cloudy days you predict – especially during sept to April , although this year has been an exception.
      Also the idea of thinning isn’t completely objectionable to many greens if it helps the forest recover – the problem really is about commercial vs ecological values. It is possible to have both , but the present policy as demonstrated by the unanimous got a missed call

    • Brian Tehan

      According to the BOM statistics, you are wrong on the weather. Of course, all of the SE of WA gets less sun in winter but there seems to be a lot of wind potential around the area a bit inland from the coast, probably including that location.

      • Chris Drongers

        The windfarm locations at Dandaragan, Kulin, Kojonup and Beenyup are sites where windfarm planning, if not construction, is fairly advanced already.
        Never said that there wasn’t capacity for wind around Collie, only that there were much better places for solar. I had never thought of wind around Collie -the scarp between Collie and Bunbury is a valuable viewscape, and I am surprised that the hilly country inland has as good a wind resource as the sites I nominated or any number of scarp-top sites with fewer site restrictions north of Perth.

        • Megs

          all good informative contributions. Thank you all.

    • wideEyedPupil

      SEN has modelled three suitable wind locations around Collie using it’s open source SIREN energy modelling tools. The wind resource isn’t the best in the state, but not too bad at all and the ready access to existing power transmission infrastructure and the potential to create a wind manufacturing hub around Collie thereby creating the political good will and a solution to social disruption of coal closure would make up for it.

      The government could do worse than begin with three Collgar sized wind farms(~200 MW) around Collie as SEN has identified. This could include include steel towers to mount turbine, nacelles and blades in the least, perhaps rotor hubs and other components even with tech transfer agreements assembly of turbines.

      I suggested to Bill Johnston that WA ALP consider pumped hydro at the mine, but not as a way to get the mine owners out of rehabilitation. The Pumped Hydro area won’t need anything like that volume of pit without an extremely large upper pond. haven’t got the hole sized data to do the maths, but on Google maps the pit is massive. Rehabilitation should keep workers at the mine nearing retirement in work for best part of a decade longer.

  • Alan S

    I have reservations about the feasibility and competiveness of building pumped storage hydro. I trust the feasibility study will look at water supply and water losses through evaporation and ground losses in the mine and the upper reservoir. At face value running weighted trucks up and down inclines appears less lossy and more scaleable.
    However it must be compared to the constantly falling cost of batteries.
    The comparison should not be at today’s rate but the projected cost of batteries at the time the hydro system would be completed.
    BTW – would using the mine for pumped storage then relieve the owners from their responsibility to rehabilitate the large hole in the ground?

    • wideEyedPupil

      seriously, compare with constantly falling price of batteries? what decade are you going to wait until?

    • Miles Harding

      Clearing up reservations are what modelling studies were invented for. We have well caibrated tools available these days, making the task of testing the viability of pumped hydro at Collie a matter of running the models across the available data.

      I agree that best estimates of battery costs over the life of the hydro project should be used, although batteries may not complete very well when the long working life (50 to 100 years), good efficiency (about 70%) and high energy capacity (500MWh or more) of a pumped hydo store is considered. The numbers will guide us.

      It may be that this is the best solution for a generator scale energy store at Collie, leaving batteries to the other end of the transmission network, such as sub-stations and consumer premises, where they can help to eliminate peak demand spikes that have historically determined the grid capacity (cost), instead reducing it to a battery charger that operates on the much lower power 24 hour average needs, removing the need to build additional peak capacity, while reducing the amount of gas turbine backup energy needed.

  • Miles Harding

    Mike Nahan is slipping again. Apparently, he is being a troll for the coal lobby.

    The Greenough workforce statement is disingenuous because it represents a snapshot during that would be the least demanding period of the facility’s life – after intiual bugs have been eliminated and before and periodic maintenence is needed.

    For a regional renewable energy precinct, the construction can be expected to take more than a decade, allowing the construction workforce to morph into the sustainable maintenance work force as the components (millions of solar panels, unmentionable wind turbines and all the other elements of the systems) become due for refurbishment and maintenance.

    Scaling up the small Greenough workforce to, say a replacement for the existing generating capacity at Collie would require a workforce in excess fo 500, certainly sufficient to ensure a prosperous town of Collie.

    The other important, but often deliberately overlooked issue is the finite nature of the coal reserve at Collie. The town will definitely die within a few decades because of coal resource exhaustion, while renewable energy is sutainable over centuries.

    At this point in time we have a choice to either deliberately move to a sustainable model at a pace of our choosing or be forced to move with time and pace dictated by nature. Choosing to move now also carries little, if any, in the way of a cost penalty over continued business as usual that will lead us to a precipice, where choice and cost management is not possible.

  • Rob G

    Curious to see fossil fuel loving REST Superannuation investing in wind power. Could it be that such typical fossil fuel loving companies can see the glory days are coming to an end for coal/oil/gas? Let’s hope so!

  • Matt Meiresonne

    Hey Jonathan,

    Really great article. Thanks for sharing.

    Do you think skills in the energy sector can traslate? (i.e. can a coal worker become a solar worker)..?

  • Robert Comerford

    It might not be the ideal place, but getting votes to make things happen is the reality of life. Unless you can give people whose lives depend on the fossil fuel industries an alternative they will continue to vote for the status quo. The same should be done in Victoria.