The owner of the Hazelwood coal-fired power station, the dirtiest generator in Australia, has announced a major push into renewable energy, snapping up the international solar farm developer SolaireDirect for about $A300 million.
GDF Suez, now known as Engie under a massive re-branding campaign that signals its shift from fossil fuels and nuclear to renewable energy, will become the largest solar and wind developer in France after the purchase.
But its big focus is on the international scene. Gerard Mestrallet, the CEO of Engie, one of the biggest operators of nuclear plants in Europe, says new solar now beats new nuclear on price, with new solar parks costing between $US60 and $US90/MWh.
“Solar is becoming totally competitive,” Mestrallet told reporters at a briefing earlier this week. To which his deputy CEO, Isabelle Kocher added: “Solar is an energy of the future. It is the energy with the biggest potential for development. It’s no longer a subsidized niche.”
Engie will also invest another $A200 million of capital into SolaireDirect, enabling to fast track development of its 4GW of solar projects, including in India, Thailand, South Africa and Latin America, as well as Europe.
The purchase of SolaireDirect follows Engie’s declaration last month that the age of coal was over, and called for a carbon price to force the environmental impacts of coal to be taken into account, and make gas more competitive.
It seems inevitable that Engie will have to close its Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley, and possibly also the Loy Yang B power station. However, like others, it is likely to want to negotiate an “assisted” exit, unless Australia imposes strict rules about closures based on either length of service or emissions intensity.
Hazelwood is also mired in controversy about the devastating mine fire and the fallout over compensation, and even payments to the local fire service.
But the shift by Engie from centralised fossil fuel and nuclear capacity to one based around decentralised renewable energy generation is typical of the transformation going on around the world – with Europe’s E.ON, RWE and Vattenfall, and in the US, with generators such as NRG, and network operators in California, New York and elsewhere.
Coal companies such as Peabody, meanwhile, continue to plunge in market value. Its stock plunged another 6 per cent overnight after completing the sale of the Wilkie coal project in Australia, taking its total losses in the past two years to more than 90 per cent.
In Australia, the big utilities – both network operators and “gentailers” are also positioning themselves for this energy transformation, although their capture over policy and pricing regulators is making that transition slower than it might otherwise be.
Engie owns nearly 40,000MW of power generation capacity, nearly the size of Australia’s whole grid, including 6,000MW of nuclear. Renewable energy now accounts for 19,000MW of capacity, with another 27,000MW under development.
Mestrallet says that Engie intends to “spearhead Europe’s energy transition” and do “whatever it takes” to acclerate the roll-out of solar and other renewable energy sources.
Last month, the company predicted that half of all generation would be sourced locally, through renewable energy sources such as solar and wind, in a dramatic move away from centralized generation.
The purchase of SolaireDirect follows a failed attempt at an IPO earlier this year. Management will retain a 5 per cent equity stake in the company. It has so far developed 486MW of solar capacity across 57 solar parks, and the two companies have a combined pipeline of 5,000MW. It has no projects in Australia, which has produced little in the way of large scale solar farms to date.
Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.