Western Australia Labor pushes for solar, pumped hydro for coal-town Collie

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That, at least, is the plan of the front-running Western Australian Opposition Labor party, which has pledged $30 million towards a biomass plant and $30 million to develop a solar farm in the town, in its pitch to voters ahead of the forthcoming state election.

As part of a wider suite of tourism, transport and community funding initiatives, the WA Labor party has proposed developing renewable energy generation facilities in and around Collie. Around 200km south-east of Perth, Collie is home to a large chunk of the state’s generation capacity.

WA state-owned utility Synergy operates the ageing, heavily polluting 1,094MW Muja power plant and the 340MW Collie plants near to the town, both of which feed coal-fired electricity into the SWIS network.

The coal is sourced from nearby mines. RenewEconomy understands that the average cost of generation at the sites is around $40/MWh.

Muja was opened in 1966 and includes the four 60 MW Muja A and B units, which the current WA state government attempted to recommission earlier this decade at a cost of almost $290 million. Facing spiraling costs, with the project forecast to cost $336 million by completion, the government then decided to mothball the A and B units.

The WA Labor Opposition is now proposing that biomass generation and large scale solar be developed in Collie, in its attempt to retain the seat of Collie-Preston in the March 11 election.

“I’m particularly excited about WA Labor’s commitment to innovative technologies,” said Mark McGowan, the WA Labor leader.

“People in Collie and surrounding areas are genuinely worried about their future and families are struggling. We need to plan for our future and build a diverse, modern local economy to create new jobs across a range of industries while maintaining support for our traditional mining, refining, and power generation base.”

While the renewable investment would appear a positive step for Collie and locals in locking in a future beyond coal, McGowan’s statement appears to indicate that Labor will push renewable technology, however, will not walk about from coal-fired generation in the town.

Alongside the $60 million that will be put towards the biomass and solar projects, Labor has also committed $100,000 to go towards a pre-feasibility study for a mine-void pumped hydro facility to be developed in Collie.

State Energy Minister Mike Nahan dismissed the potential for the projects to create ongoing jobs in the area. He told The West Australian that Synergy’s 10MW Greenough River solar farm (pictured top) only employs two people on an operational basis.

What is likely is that jobs at the aging Muja Power Station will be lost.

Nahan has already indicated that 380MW of Synergy generating capacity is scheduled to be shut down. He has not yet announced which capacity that would be, however, the highly polluting Muja, parts of which are approaching end-of-life would appear a prime candidate.

RenewEconomy understands that Synergy is currently developing a large wind project in the state. At present, the biggest wind project in WA is the 206MW Collgar wind farm, which taps strong easterly winds that often blow during the night.

The new project would likely look to exploit westerly, “sea breezes” – the famous Fremantle Doctor – to compliment this generation profile. The Collgar project is owned by UBS International Infrastructure Fund (UBS) and Retail Employees Superannuation Trust (REST).

Efforts by Synergy to spin off its renewable assets to a separate $200 million green fund, and attract private capital, were shut down by the WA state cabinet earlier this month. Such a fund would likely assist Synergy develop the 300MW of projects it is required to under the RET and is similar to the one AGL has developed.

A Synergy spokesperson said all reports regarding the green fund to date had been “purely speculative.”

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy. It was reproduced with permission.