Renewables

Australia’s oldest open cut coal mine to be transformed into major renewables hub

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Plans to repurpose the Muswellbrook coal mine in the New South Wales Upper Hunter region have grown from a pumped hydro project to a renewable energy precinct, potentially adding solar, battery storage and green hydrogen to the mix at the site of Australia’s oldest open-cut mine.

The owner of the soon-to-close mine, the Australian arm of Japanese company Idemitsu, this week unveiled a masterplan for the Muswellbrook site that will see it converted into an industrial hub with a total of four renewable energy projects and related training facilities.

The expanded plans for what has been dubbed the Muswellbrook Energy, Training and Industry Precinct (METIP), build on the Bells Mountain pumped hydro energy storage project, which Idemitsu has been developing with AGL Energy.

Bells Mountain, as RenewEconomy has reported, proposes to develop a 250MW pumped hydro facility with eight hours of storage in a disused void at the site of the former Muswellbrook Coal Company. It is currently in the final stages of feasibility studies.

On top of that, Idemitsu says it is now also exploring the feasibility of installing a large-scale, 150 to 200MW solar PV and associated battery project, as well as a green hydrogen production facility, refuelling facility and associated infrastructure it hopes to develop in partnership with Energy Estate.

The renewable hydrogen part of the scheme falls in line with the federal government’s designation of the Hunter as a Hydrogen Hub, which has been backed by funding. Idemitsu is hopeful of state support, too, considering the proposed project is located in the NSW Hunter and Central Coast Renewable Energy Zone.

Energy Estate’s director of energy growth, Simone O’Sullivan, said the hydrogen part of the plan was still in the very early stages, with a grid study underway, as well as early feasibility work, to determine the best location and size of the proposed electrolysers.

Image: Energy Estate

O’Sullivan told RenewEconomy that the focus was firmly on establishing the facility – which would produce 100% renewable hydrogen – at a commercial-scale right from the start, ideally with the support of government funding.

“We’re really focused on getting commercial returns from this and government assistance will be quite important for for making that happen,” she said, noting that so far the project ticked all of the boxes for federal support through the Hydrogen Hub scheme.

Idemitsu Australia CEO Steve Kovac said the METIP project represented a once in a generation opportunity to stimulate economic growth and deliver jobs to the local community following the closure of a coal mine, which will come to the end of its life in mid-2022.

“The Muswellbrook Energy, Training and Industry Precinct is an important development project for the region and will have significant social and economic benefits for the local community.” Kovac said.

“We have a long-standing commitment to the community of Muswellbrook that is deeply important to us,” he added. “At Idemitsu we want to do what we can to turn an otherwise empty pit into an exciting new project that provides jobs and further diversifies our portfolio as a company.”

At this stage, the Bells Mountain Scheme is the most advanced project on the site, and will see the 1.5 million tonnes per annum coal mine transformed into a 250MW pumped hydro project by 2027.

The plan is to pump water 2,000 metres from the existing mine void to be stored in a 1.9 gigalitre reservoir on the top of Bells Mountain.

Using gravity, the water would flow from the reservoir through pipes to drive a turbine at the base, providing a total of 2000MWh of stored energy to feed into existing high voltage power lines nearby.

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