Steve Thomas: McGowan’s renewable energy transition an impossible dream

Feb 14, 2023 | State News, Steve Thomas MLC

Opinion Piece – The West Australian

The State Government has set itself a huge task in its proposal to shut down all its coal-fired generation capacity by 2029 and transition to renewable generation.

It is part of the Government plan to address climate change, which includes a target of being net carbon neutral by 2050.

That target is the same one adopted by both the Labor and Liberal Parties in the 2022 Federal election, and one that I also support.

I have long been known as a conservative who wants to see action on climate change, and the net neutral by 2050 target has, in sensible and informed circles, become the widely accepted vehicle to achieve it.

The State Government’s plan means that over the next six years it will close almost 1000 megawatts of baseload coal generation capacity, which it says it will replace with renewable generation and storage.

Recent reports suggest that the privately owned Bluewaters coal power station may also go by 2029, taking another 440 megawatts out.

It is a worthy and lofty goal, but the McGowan Government has two problems.

The current plan cannot be delivered by 2029, and it cannot supply the State’s power needs.

The State’s energy transition plan in its current form cannot keep your lights on or your air conditioner running.

The biggest problem is that of storage of renewable generation at night when there is no wind, because the State has no plan on how to provide it.

If he is relying on the private sector to fund it, as well as doing the work, power bills will soar in coming years to cover the cost.

All the talk of large scale pumped hydro storage is just hot air — WA does not have the geography to make it work in bulk.

Building enough battery storage to last overnight will cost at least $7 billion, twice the entire transition plan budget.

The Government will also have to change its aging gas generation fleet from peaking stations to baseload to try to keep the lights on, but it does not have sufficient gas stations to deliver both baseload and peaking power.

Asking those gas stations to massively increase their output will also add massively to their wear and tear, so maintenance costs will rise.

For the Labor plan to come even close to keeping the lights on while it closes its coal stations it will have to build more gas generation, and by 2036 it will need to be replacing some of the existing stations.

I think the McGowan Government is aware of the massive pitfalls in its current transition plan, it just doesn’t want the public to know.

And it has quietly told us all how it plans to deal with the problems: it has adopted a Field of Dreams approach.

The McGowan strategy is that the private sector will provide an as yet unknown miracle solution sometime in the future to solve the issues of storage and continuity of supply.

It’s the “if we announce it, they will come” strategy that conveniently ignores current day realities.

Now I am a massive believer in free market ingenuity, and I like to think an optimist, but a plan that relies on a future miraculous development is not a strategy for transition, it is a finger-crossing exercise.

In the meantime, the Government is engaged in a desperate bid to keep the lights on at the very start of its transition plan to avoid public embarrassment.

It has imported coal from Newcastle in NSW to our own coal mining hub of Collie at a cost of tens of millions of dollars.

It has also thrown millions at the overseas-owned but collapsing Collie coal miner Griffin Coal as a free lifeline to keep some coal coming out of the ground to generate power, and have said more will be needed.

That will be hundreds of millions of dollars the Government will never get back, and it is trying to keep the amount hidden from the very taxpayers who are funding it.

If this is the level of Government desperation seen after the closure of only the first coal generation unit (unit 5 at Muja) at the very beginning of the transition, the next six years look ominous. They are lucky it has been a mild summer so far!

It will probably take longer than that to approve and construct whatever miracle the Government is looking for from the private sector to keep the lights on, and four more coal units have to be shut in that time.

It is no wonder that panic has set in, and the cash is being thrown around.

You can envisage the Premier telling poor besieged Energy Minister Bill Johnston that he has to ensure electricity supply to the grid no matter what the cost, because Mark McGowan is frightened of the political fallout of energy failure.

Luckily for the Premier, he has had multiple $6 billion surpluses to draw on to provide that cash splurge.

But that is not enough to fund $7 billion in batteries, $10 billion in renewable generation and a few billion more in transmission lines needed to make the current plan work.

If he is relying on the private sector to fund it, as well as doing the work, power bills will soar in coming years to cover the cost.

The Premier needs to acknowledge that the Government has a duty to keep provide enough power to keep our lights and air conditioners running, and right now this Government’s plan will not.

I think the Energy Minister sees the coming reality, but can he overcome the Premier’s ideology?

Steve Thomas is a Liberal Member for the South West region and shadow energy minister.