Australia brown coal warriors switch to solar, disruptive technologies

This must be a sign of the times: The two men who ran Australia’s two dirtiest brown coal generators, and who were one-time trenchant critics of climate and renewable energy policies, have switched sides. They have now thrown in their lot with the solar industry and other disruptive technologies.

Tony Concannon is the former Australian boss of GDF Suez, now Engie, which operates the Hazelwood brown coal generator, among other assets. He has now re-emerged as the chief executive of Reach Solar, which is looking at solar projects and battery storage across Australia, including a 200MW solar PV facility located near Port Augusta airport.

Richard McIndoe is the former head of Energy Australia, which owns the Yallourn power station, and has since emerged as the executive chairman of a new company called Edge Electrons, which developing new technology, such as voltage control, that is helping businesses and households save on electricity bills.

Solar, battery storage and energy efficiency are the new big ticket items in the transition of global energy systems to low-carbon technologies. All three technologies attack the very basis of the business model built up for half a century around brown coal, which revolved around “base-load” generation and ever increasing demand.

In their previous roles, Concannon and McIndoe’s companies had fought ferociously against any policy changes that might have given assistance to solar and energy efficiency, which take away demand from brown coal generators and undercut their earnings.

Both companies argued forcefully against the various emissions trading schemes, against the renewable energy target, and against energy efficiency incentives. At times, they took this argument to extremes: McIndoe even warned that the “lights would go out” if carbon was priced. Concannon also warned of supply shortages, and in one speech warned that the renewable energy target would jack up wholesale prices “25-fold.”

Instead, the opposite has happened and Australia now has too much capacity; although, ironically, it is now proving almost impossible to dislodge brown coal from the system, particularly the big Latrobe Valley generators that these men ran.

Engie last week did suggest that “closure” of Hazelwood was a possibility, but this has more to do with the global reputation of Engie, and its biggest shareholder, the French government, than energy economics.

One brown coal generator that could no longer compete in the modern market – thanks to the enormous wind and solar capacity in its local grid – was the Northern plant in Port Augusta, South Australia.

Concannon’s new venture, Reach Solar, is proposing a big solar plant to at least partially replace that capacity. In February, Concannon and other executives made a presentation to the Port Augusta council, outlining plans for a 30MW solar PV plant near the Port Augusta airport, which could grow into a 200MW facility.

In its presentation, which can be viewed here, Concannon’s team said Port Augusta was a great location for solar, thanks to its excellent solar radiation, available land and high voltage transmission lines.

They also said Reach Solar had a number of agreements with battery storage developers, including Tesla Energy. They said storage was important, for providing firm capacity on cloudy days, and for mitigating against peak demand charges.

The $320 million solar project is not the only one being proposed in the area. As RenewEconomy revealed last week, Indian energy group Adani, which is trying to develop the controversial Carmichael mega coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, is also proposing 400MW of rooftop solar projects in the region.

DP Energy is proposing a big 375MW wind-solar hybrid project, while US company SolarReserve is proposing a 110MW solar storage and molten salt storage facility, which would be the first of its type in Australia.

McIndoe, last September, announced the creation of a new start-up called Edge Electrons that he promised would “shake-up the energy industry and help customers save money.”

The new company – “the brainchild of McIndoe and successful electronics entrepreneur Neal Stewart” – offers voltage regulation and correction technologies that can cut electricity bills for homes and businesses by 15 per cent, by ensuring that they use less power.

Edge Electrons said it also engaged with a number of key strategic partners, including new homebuilders, smart meter manufacturers, energy efficient lighting providers, and solar panel and energy storage manufactures.

“What the last year has shown me is that the potential for technology to disrupt the traditional industry is huge,” McIndoe told the Australian Financial Review in an interview last year. “It is as big in the electricity industry as it is in any other. I don’t think people have recognised that in the past.

“We have this convergence of high technology, software and electronics with customers who want something different, and the added incentive of wanting to do something for the environment.”

According to the Australian Financial Review, McIndoe played down his role in opposing the carbon tax and other regulation, saying it was “more about dealing with damaging and costly regulatory confusion and arguing for a more measured approach to the climate issue.”Concannon last Wednesday was appointed to the Tasmanian government’s specially convened review board that will look at the state’s energy options.

The task force is being led by Geoff Willis, a former chief executive of Hydro Tasmania, and follows criticisms of Tasmania’s lack of wind and solar resources following the loss of the cable to the mainland and the severe drought that depleted its hydro resources.

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy. It is re-published with permission.