Plans to develop biomass and utility-scale solar generation facilities in the Western Australian town of Collie have been swept aside, in favour of transforming the state’s coal centre into Australia’s premier “trail adventure town” and underpinning other “future industries.”
The Labor McGowan government said on Thursday it had decided to divert the $60 million earmarked for major biomass and solar projects in Collie to a new Industry Attraction and Development Fund, instead.
The fund would be made available for large-scale initiatives that promoted economic diversity, job creation and sustainability in Collie – but not renewables. At least, not yet.
“The government believes renewable energy could still have a future in Collie but it needs to be part of a broader economic development strategy,” the statement said.
Last month, the opposition increased pressure on the government to come clean on its plans for Collie, and in particular for the proposed renewable energy generation plants — projects the shadow minister for regional development had described as duds.
As we reported here, when in opposition, the WA Labor Party had campaigned enthusiastically for biomass generation and large-scale solar to be developed in the town, in its attempt to retain the seat of Collie-Preston in the March 2017 election.
“I’m particularly excited about WA Labor’s commitment to innovative technologies,” said then opposition leader Mark McGowan at the time.
Of course, Labor’s proposed shift to renewables was not just about revitalising the economy of Collie, but about the shift to low carbon energy generation and the retirement of coal across the entire West Australian grid.
Collie is currently known for its connection to coal-fired power plants: the ageing state-owned 854MW Muja CD plant; the state-owned 340MW Collie Power Station; and the privately owned 400MW Bluewaters Power Station.
The Muja AB coal units were shuttered in 2017, rather sensationally after the previous Liberal Barnett government committed to spending $308 million on rejuvenating the plant. Just last week, Synergy confirmed it had made a $20.3 million provision for decommissioning the coal-fired generator.
The rmaining coal plants, meanwhile, have been struggling, however, to compete with the state’s growing penetration of renewables.
Reports show none of the government-owned coal plants — Collie, Muja C and Muja D — were delivering anywhere near their capacity in the three months to February 28, despite it being during the peak months of summer.
According to the West Australian, regional development minister Alannah MacTiernan recently gently reminded the Collie community that some of the coal plants run by state-owned utility Synergy would reach the end of their design lives “in six or seven years” and face a staged closure.
But MacTiernan also seemed keen to stress that government was in no rush to replace the outgoing and heavy polluting coal plants.
“We want to keep this as part of the production cycle as long as we can so we can make sure this town and the people of this town have other opportunities when that reaches its end date,” she said.
“We could be talking a couple of decades away.
“But we all know some of the power stations are going to be reaching the end of their natural life in six or seven years and that will become an obviously logical point where we might see some sort of step down.
“We are not trying to desperately divest ourselves of coal as part of the operation but we are acknowledging that this is going to happen — that over the next 15, 20 years there is going to be a transition so we’ve got to make sure we’ve got alternatives.”
But the government might also be reading the zeitgeist of the town, whose council last year voted against installing rooftop solar on shire buildings because it felt the town “should be leading the way and burning more coal.”
Locals are attached to coal too, according to ABC Online, with council estimates suggesting one quarter of the 5,000 people employed in Collie work in the coal industry.
Even Premier Mark McGowan has felt moved recently to talk down predictions of a 2025 closure of the Muja plant.
“I personally don’t think that’s what will happen … I expect coal fired power will be with us for some time to come, but obviously demand for that form of power generation is declining … and we’re going to make sure that Collie has many opportunities,” he said here.
Of the new fund and its new focus for Collie, Premier McGowan said it would be crucial in facilitating investment in large-scale initiatives to Collie, to generate growth in a diverse range of industries (but not renewables).
“My Government is absolutely committed to ensuring a prosperous future for Collie, as the town’s economy undergoes a transition in the coming years. This $60 million investment will go a long way to ensuring the future sustainability of the town and new job opportunities for locals.”
One of the initiatives supported through the fund, as mentioned above, is the $10 million Collie Adventure Trails plan to establish Collie as the state’s premier “trail adventure town”.