Opinion | Alternatives, implications of powering our future

RENEWABLES FOCUS: AGL Macquarie General Manager Kate Coates takes part in the panel discussion hosted by Hunter Research Foundation Centre.
RENEWABLES FOCUS: AGL Macquarie General Manager Kate Coates takes part in the panel discussion hosted by Hunter Research Foundation Centre.

The future of coal-fired power generation in the Hunter is a hot topic with national implications. Here and elsewhere, are we looking at rejuvenation, replacement with more efficient coal plants, or alternatives. What about industries that need the power and implications for local economies? 

The future of energy in the Hunter was the focus of a recent Upper Hunter economic breakfast hosted by the Hunter Research Foundation (HRF) Centre. The 150 people attending heard a presentation by AGL Macquarie General Manager, Kate Coates, who explained the planned closure of the Liddell and Bayswater power stations in 2022 and 2035, respectively. She was then joined in a panel discussion by Professor Richard Bush, the University of Newcastle’s Global Innovation Chair in the International Centre for Balanced Land Use; Dr Geoff Doherty, Senior Biotechnologist for Ethanol Technologies (Ethtec); and Pat Conroy, MP, Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy.

Each panelist was asked by the Mayor of Muswellbrook, Cr Martin Rush, to nominate what energy alternative was likely to replace the power generated by Liddell and what jobs would result.

Dr Geoff Doherty proposed repurposing Liddell into a biomass-fired power station. He cited a British utility that has converted power stations from coal to compressed wood pellets. Doherty knows the field well as his company, Ethtec, is putting a pilot bio-refinery in Muswellbrook.

Professor Richard Bush said the Hunter could imitate the York region in northern England, which has gained 73,000 new jobs thanks to a move towards renewable and clean energy. They have turned to more efficient production technologies, ‘green chemistry’, clean and sustainable agriculture, and renewable energy technologies.

Pat Conroy nominated a ‘power to gas’ concept being developed by CSIRO. Renewable energy powers electrolysis to ‘crack open’ water to extract hydrogen. The hydrogen can be combined with nitrogen extracted from the air to produce ammonia, which is safer to transport and export.

Kate Coates explained that AGL are focusing on renewables, backed up by ‘fast gas’ or pumped hydroelectric storage and generation. They are also researching how AGL can ‘orchestrate’ consumer-generated energy, such as from rooftop solar panels.

The panelists were asked how we can foster the innovation needed to transition to a more sustainable energy future?

Conroy proposed an authority to plan Australia’s energy transition. He said, over a 40-year period, Germany moved from employing 200,000 coal miners to 4000 without a single forced redundancy. Long-term planning achieved this result. 

Doherty explained that commercialising new technologies needed investment. Ethtech has garnered $42 million from a range of government and private sources to relocate its pilot bio-refinery to Muswellbrook. That plant will provide facilities to develop technologies for bio-fuels, platform chemicals to make renewable plastics, and pharmaceuticals.

He said the mining industry was synergistic to a bio-renewables hub. Under-utilised buffer lands and mine rehabilitation sites could be employed to grow bio-mass. Additional biomass could be provided via the existing grain transport route to Muswellbrook from the Port of Newcastle.  

Read the full transcript and see presentations on our website.

Professor Will Rifkin is the director of HRF Centre