The pace of coal plants shutting down in Australia could mean the country’s fleet could be gone before 2040. The transformation is enormous – and seems inevitable
August 23, 2017 —For a glimpse into the future of coal power in Australia, go west. The country’s last major investment in coal-fired electricity was in Western Australia in 2009, when Colin Barnett’s state government announced a major refurbishment of the Muja AB station about 200km south of Perth, far from the gaze of the east coast political-media class.
The plant was 43 years old and mothballed. Reviving it was meant to cost $150m, paid for by private investors who would reap the benefits for years to come. But costs and timeframes blew out. An old corroded boiler exploded. The joint venture financing the project collapsed; a wall followed suit. The bill ultimately pushed beyond $300m, much of it to be stumped up by taxpayers – and once completed, the plant was beset with operational problems. It ran only 20% of the time.
By April 2016, the government acknowledged it was subsidising more generation capacity than it needed and predicted demand for coal power would fall over the coming decade. In May this year the new Labor administration confirmed Muja AB would shut early next year.
This spectacular failure had unique elements but underpinning it was a faith in the longevity of coal-fired electricity. Though it rated little mention in the east – mainly because WA is out of sight and has its own grid separate to the mislabelled national electricity market – it is a pointer to what lies ahead.
About a fifth of the country’s coal capacity has disappeared since 2012; Muja AB will be the 13th station to shut in that period; no new ones have opened this decade. For all the talk of new coal-fired power plants, none are in development.
If closures continued at the current rate, the nation’s coal fleet would be gone before 2040. It’s a pace that could put Australia within striking distance of what scientists say is necessary in the electricity sector for the country to play its part in combating climate change. It is far beyond what the government believes possible if the country is to maintain a reliable and affordable electricity supply, and slower than what some energy analysts think could happen given the extraordinary advances in renewable energy cost and technology.
“The coal-fired power sector is in free fall, and wind and solar are competing on cost with fossil fuels,” says Simon Holmes à Court, senior adviser at the federally funded Energy Transition Hub at the University of Melbourne. “Every single panel and turbine installed reduces the market size for inflexible baseload plants.”
Industry insiders stress the scale of the transformation being discussed shouldn’t be downplayed. Coal still provides about three-quarters of our electricity. In the short term, its withdrawal is likely to slow. Demand for power unexpectedly fell at the start of the decade, leading to an oversupply that suppressed the wholesale price of electricity. But with competition reduced and expensive natural gas-fired plants being called on to carry more of the load, the price is now as much as eight times the cost of generation. The remaining coal plants are making hay.
That will inevitably change. After an investment strike a couple of years ago, wind turbines and solar panels are going up in a rush to meet the national 2020 renewable energy target. Once they come online by mid-2019 competition will increase and, for a while at least, the skyward rush of wholesale electricity prices should ease. What happens to existing coal power plants at that point is an open question.
Here is what we do know: coal generators usually operate for about half a century and most Australian plants are pushing that age. Yallourn, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, turns 50 in 2021. AGL has already announced Liddell power station in New South Wales will close in 2022. A brace of others will hit their expected use-by dates in the decade after 2025.
Analysis by Holmes à Court suggests 15.1 gigawatts – nearly 10 times the capacity of Hazelwood, the failing, old Victoria plant that shut in March – could retire in that period. It would leave just 11 coal plants with a maximum capacity less than a third of what was in place five years ago. Most of those would be in Queensland, near the end of the grid.
Meanwhile, between eight and 22 gigawatts of wind and large-scale solar farms may have been built and 20 gigawatts of solar panels installed on roofs, according to Australian Energy Market Operator projections. It’s possible generation capacity equivalent to Australia’s entire east coast grid could have been built using variable clean energy technology in just a couple of decades.
In a report on investment trends, analysts at Bloomberg New Energy Finance projected that by 2040 small-scale solar power will have replaced coal as Australia’s largest source of energy. They found 45% of electricity capacity would be “behind the meter”, rather than from the traditional grid. Photovoltaic panels, battery packs and demand response programs – cash incentives offer to those who volunteer to cut use at peak times – would take over.
As Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s Australian chief, Kobad Bhavnagri, acknowledges, modelling in this area will inevitably be wrong – but it indicates the direction. Holmes à Court believes the system is at a turning point that few have appreciated.
Here is what else we know: there is little to no interest in the business community in building new coal plants to replace those that shut. The 2015 Paris climate agreement triggered a step change in thinking about the long-term viability of fossil-fuel investments. Action towards meeting the Paris goals is fitful but financiers are operating on the assumption policies will escalate, including a probable eventual return to some form of carbon pricing. They are in no mood to make a decades-long bet against it.
The Australian Energy Council chief, Matthew Warren, representing most generators, summarised: “I don’t think the banking sector and the industry are looking to build coal-fired power stations for the foreseeable future.”
Coal is on the outer in other ways. As more variable renewable generation is introduced into electricity grids, market operators are increasingly favoring flexibility over the traditional baseload model. They see the future in generators that can swing in quickly on demand, rather than run all the time. The government has agreed new wind and solar photovoltaic farms will need to have “dispatchable” backup that can be called on at any time, but coal is not as nimble as batteries, gas, demand response or concentrated solar thermal with storage.
It has been slow to filter through to some corners of the political debate, but some business leaders have been stressing these points for months. The specifics demanded vary but most want a bipartisan policy that would provide the confidence to build new plants to replace closing coal. The Business Council of Australia, representing more than 100 corporate leaders, has become increasingly bolshy. In a round table with the Australian Financial Review last month the council’s board pressed the government to adopt the chief scientist Alan Finkel’s recommendation to introduce a clean energy target, which would offer incentives on a sliding scale, favouring plants with the lowest emissions.
Asked where coal fitted within that, the board member and Energy Australia managing director Catherine Tanna described it as a “legacy technology” that was “very, very unlikely to find a market participant” willing to pay for it. Tanna also called out as myth the idea that a coal-fired power station using new technology would be cheap and lead to a cut in electricity prices. “I just don’t think it’s borne out by the economics,” she said.
The most regular argument made in response to this is: other countries are building new coal stations and if the new technology is good enough for China, Japan and Germany, why not Australia? The Minerals Council of Australia is pushing hard for government funding for next-generation technology, known as ultra-supercritical coal which, according to a 2016 World Coal Association report, creates emissions that are 23% lower than the black coal plants of NSW and Queensland but is also 40% more expensive to build. Few fossil-fuel proponents still use the term “clean coal” – mockery has stolen its promotional punch, “clean coal” is a mirage – but when deployed it is applied to new technology that reduces emissions.
While it’s true that new generation “clean coal” plants are being built elsewhere, it is not a straightforward story of bold investment. The overwhelming majority are in China, where they make up nearly 20% of its huge coal fleet (and the fleet is massive – 20 times the capacity of Australia’s national grid). China’s extraordinary growth as it developed this century spurred unprecedented spending on all energy technologies, but its coal consumption has been in decline for three years. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis found the Asian giant’s coal plants last year ran at only 47.5% of their capacity, and estimated it could have US$200bn in stranded coal assets.
Japan faced a unique challenge after the 2011 Fukushima disaster. It abandoned nuclear generation and backed new coal to help fill the gap. But while it has been reported the country is building more than 40 high-efficiency, low-emissions plants, the Global Coal Plant Tracker database suggests this is an inflated figure. At time of writing, it lists 12 coal plants as under construction, some of them small by Australian standards. Only five are listed as HELE; others are the sort of old, dirty technology plants that no one has argued should be built here. A further 28 are listed as being assessed or in early planning. Four proposed plants with a promised capacity of 2.3 gigawatts have been cancelled this year.
Germany is a more straightforward case. It approved some coal plants about a decade ago during a European drive to replace dirty old stations with newer models, and some of them took years to build, but no new coal proposal has been given a permit since 2009. Depending on the day, about 40% of the country’s electricity is renewably generated.
The Minerals Council released a report in July making the case that HELE coal is the cheapest form of new electricity plant available, but its findings differed markedly from other experts who have looked at the issue – not least Finkel’s government-commissioned review into the electricity grid security. Critics say it was based on some brave assumptions: that new coal would not face additional construction and legal costs, that government would underwrite the risk of future carbon pricing, and that wind and solar owners would have to pay to have two to three days backup on hand.
The business community wasn’t persuaded. (One energy industry leader summarised: “We don’t understand what they are trying to do.”) Increasingly, it seems, nor are key members of Malcolm’s Turnbull cabinet. In a speech to the Australian Industry Group in Adelaide, the treasurer, Scott Morrison, spelt out the scepticism. He stressed the Coalition’s “resource and technology-agnostic” energy policy and said the government would welcome investment in HELE coal plants but added: “Let’s also be real about it.”
“These new HELE plans would produce energy at an estimated two and a half times the cost of our existing coal-fired power stations,” Morrison said. “They would also take up to around seven years to set up. While welcome where the economics and engineering stack up, we shouldn’t kid ourselves a new HELE plant would bring down electricity prices anytime soon.”
It was a far cry from February, when the treasurer brandished a piece of coal in parliament, and it puts him at odds with Tony Abbott and other backbench MPs who argue the government should use taxpayers’ money to back new coal. But it was in step with messages from Turnbull, who said decisions on whether to build coal plants were best left to the market, and the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, who has stressed that the government was not planning to build a coal plant itself.
The second half of the parliamentary year is likely to be dominated – again – by energy and climate policy. It will be fraught within the government, and predictions about where it will land are courageous. Options being considered include pairing a clean energy target with a second program that could help fund a HELE coal plant if it proved cheaper than other comparable forms of power, or creatively designing the clean energy target (and the definition of “clean”) so that it offers new coal the same incentive as, say, a solar farm.
There is no guarantee coal would succeed under either model. But, the reasoning goes, giving coal an opportunity to compete might help navigate a vexed issue through a riven party room.
Morrison’s speech offered little hope that for those wanting new coal plants. He spelt out a different vision: “When it comes to coal, the best thing we can do is simply ensure the power stations we currently have – Liddell, Bayswater etc – stay open, remain economic and work longer into the future. We need to sweat these existing coal-fired assets for longer.
“Not only does this provide critical baseload for our economy in the decades to come, but it also buys important time as other energy technologies are developed and can be evolved to match the stability of more traditional power sources.”
The reference to Liddell should be telling. When Sydney was pushed to the edge of blackout during a heatwave in February, it was operating at just 50% capacity owing to ongoing equipment problems.
A few weeks later, Abbott made a spirited 11th–hour call for Victoria to step in to keep Hazelwood going despite the plant facing WorkSafe notices for failures that would have cost $400m to fix. He was widely mocked given the generator’s decrepit state but he wasn’t without support. If the government does head down this path – propping up creaking old coal plants because it is not yet convinced by renewable energy – it might want to brush up on the case of Muja AB.