Major Hunter companies take opposing sides on Australia's energy future

FOR the better part of a decade, even during the coal mining boom, there was talk about the Hunter region in a post-coal world. The word used was “transition”. How would the Hunter “transition” away from coal?

That kind of talk was confined to environmental groups and a smattering of economists and urban planners.

It was easy to ignore or dismiss, and when the price of thermal coal was through the roof and royalties were pouring in, talk of transition was not on people’s radar.

This week it is – as one of the country’s biggest energy companies, and the state’s biggest electricity user, spoke very strongly about future energy needs. Their view of those needs could not have been more different.

AGL Macquarie chief executive Andy Vesey unveiled annual profits reports that included a rehabilitation plan for Liddell and Bayswater power stations outside Muswellbrook. The company tossed some very big figures around. It estimated rehabilitation costs could hit nearly $900 million.

But it was what Mr Vesey said about Liddell power station – set to close in 2022 – that put the word “transition” into sharp focus. The “most economic option” for energy to replace Liddell is a mix of wind, solar, battery and demand response mechanisms, he said.

He dismissed calls for a new coal-fired power station as not “economically rational”.

The comments came just a few days after Tomago Aluminium chief executive Matt Howell was interviewed and confirmed he had been lobbying politicians about the need for a new generation high-efficiency, low emission (HELI) coal-fired power station to replace Liddell and secure future electricity supply.

It followed a summer where the smelter was asked to reduce its consumption for almost four hours, forcing employees to work in extreme heat and potentially causing a “catastrophic” outcome, Mr Howell said.

The stakes are high. Electricity bills for consumers are also high, and there is genuine fear in the community about whether families will be able to meet future bills.

It brings Federal Government inaction on setting a clean energy target into very sharp focus. While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made much of the outcome of his meeting with energy providers this week, the reality is it will do little to keep a lid on spiralling power prices.

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