Opinion | Why Port Augusta's power station experience is a warning for the Hunter

FUTURE: 'AGL is no environmental hero, but their plan to replace Liddell with clean energy is the only responsible option,' the author says.
FUTURE: 'AGL is no environmental hero, but their plan to replace Liddell with clean energy is the only responsible option,' the author says.

The town of Port Augusta in South Australia has been repeatedly choked with coal ash and dust in the two years since Alinta closed its coal-fired power station there. Hunter communities deserve better than this and should be asking the question: Is this the future for the Hunter Valley if AGL accepts Alinta’s bid to buy the aging Liddell power station?

The Port Augusta Council warns that Alinta’s power station remediation efforts “have so far failed”, and when dust storms from the abandoned coal-ash dams hit the town “local pharmacies ran out of asthma medication” and “health services were stretched to the limit”.

Worryingly, Alinta has offloaded the power station and all liability for clean-up to a company based in the Cayman Islands.

There are plenty of health and environmental concerns with Liddell, including Lake Liddell’s brain-eating amoeba, and smoke stacks that blanket the valley with unacceptable levels of toxic pollution. But it’s important to give credit where it’s due and say that AGL’s rehabilitation plan for Liddell is quite good and looks nothing like Alinta’s track record.

AGL has given seven years’ notice of closure – Alinta gave the town and workers just nine months. AGL has already started consulting the  community on future uses of the site, set aside funds, and committed to no forced redundancies for their workers.

Another issue to consider is achieving reliable and affordable power as Liddell and other coal power stations close.

Last summer, generators at Liddell “tripped” unexpectedly three times, with Unit 1 offline for 164 days. It’s unreasonable to expect a 50-year-old power station to run reliably, but whenever Liddell trips, other sources must rapidly fill the gap, straining the grid and sending prices skyward.

There are many options for creating a modern electricity grid that keeps prices affordable as coal plants such as Liddell close. But common sense and fair solutions are too often ignored in today’s energy and climate debate. Supporting pensioners and other low-income households to install solar and batteries to take control of their  bills and support the grid on peak demand days would be a great start.

The NSW government has sold off our electricity network, leaving the state with $20 billion in the bank and no control over electricity supply. Why not re-invest $2 billion in a regional renewable energy fund to support clean energy projects backed-up storage and batteries so that our electricity prices are no longer at the mercy of coal and gas export markets?

Getting more supply into the mix is essential. New wind and solar farms in regional NSW are already adding supply, which increases competition and puts downward pressure on electricity prices, but there is a lot more work to do.

Keeping Liddell open for five more years will result in quite expensive power. Alinta’s bid amounts to $1.2 billion and they no doubt plan to make a profit on the investment. AGL and University of Technology Sydney have both designed replacement plans using new, clean technology that deliver cheaper, more reliable power and cut air pollution in the Hunter Valley.

AGL is no environmental hero – they are still Australia’s biggest climate polluter – but their plan to replace Liddell with clean energy is the only responsible option. 

Let’s hold AGL responsible for being a good neighbour in the Hunter Valley, not Alinta or its Cayman Islands subsidiaries.

Kate Smolski is CEO of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW