Why Liddell is likely to close in 2022, and why you shouldn’t care
Out of respect for wishes of the RSL and the family of an Australian energy pioneer, the newly formed bomb-throwing “ginger group” needs a new name. Since they’re not approaching the task with any apparent alacrity, I propose we go with the initials of Joyce, Abbott, Andrews, Abetz, Canavan and Kelly: JAAACK.
As in, “you don’t know JAAACK about energy”.
Last week JAAACK threw what’s known as a dead cat on the table, essentially demanding that government subsidise the construction of a new coal power station — a position so preposterous that the disunity in the party would be front and centre this week.
What JAAACK might not know, or care to know, is that two Australian attempts to build coal power stations already failed this decade.
After blowing through $188m in grants, cost estimates for a small carbon capture and storage coal power station in Queensland ballooned to $6.9bn. In 2011 the project, aptly named ZeroGen, was mercifully taken out the back and shot.
A proposed Latrobe Valley power station was allocated 1bn tonnes of coal in 2002, and despite securing grants of $150m, muddled along before the project, HRL Dual Gas, finally fell over in 2015.
A new coal power project would hang as an albatross around the neck of the commissioning party. For at least three protest-filled terms of government, the project would become a focal point for a “next-level” Adani-style protest movement — all before the plant generated its first, expensive, polluting kilowatt-hour. Not going to happen.
Another option is to “refit” ageing plants with “modern” technology, but JAAACK probably isn’t aware of the track record.
South Australia’s Playford plant was refit in 2005 and limped along for seven years before it was mothballed. The market had moved on and the $150m investment was never recovered.
Western Australia found out just how badly a refit can go. After a $308.4m overhaul, the Muja AB plant ran for five years with an average 13% load. Amortised over the energy generated, the refit cost $227 per megawatt hour — possibly the most expensive utility-scale power ever delivered in Australia. Last September, Muja became the 13th Australian coal powerstation to close in just five years.
In late 2017, AGL considered a major overhaul of Liddell, but faced with a $920m outlay for a five-year life extension, AGL chose a cheaper, more flexible and less risky multi-technology replacement plan.
AGL NSW Generation Plan December 2017 Photograph: AGL website
Not to be outshone by JAAACK or AGL, Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg threw their own dead cat on the table. At their urging, Alinta Energy made a blustery, amorphous, non-binding expression of interest in acquiring Liddell. A position so preposterous that, hopefully, nobody would notice the party’s disunity on energy, and leadership.
There are four reasons why Liddell is almost certainly not for sale.
Firstly, Liddell is currently very profitable. Last year the market value of Liddell’s energy was $798m, more than twice the average of the previous five years. While all generators are enjoying the boom-time, Liddell has a huge cost advantage over its competitors — when the NSW government sold its generation assets in 2014, AGL essentially received the plant for free. But wait, there’s more! Former premier of NSW Mike Baird threw in a set of steak knives, metaphorically speaking — Liddell receives coal through to 2025 at around half the market price.
Liddell is riding the high prices and has doubled long-term revenues.
With a free plant, half price fuel and a strong market, AGL are “killing it”, but they know the good times won’t last.
With record volumes of new wind and solar under construction, wholesale prices are widely expected to fall. Just as Engie did with Hazelwood and Alinta with Northern and Playford in South Australia, it makes economic sense to run these old clunkers into the ground. At the time of acquisition AGL told investors their strategy was to effectively “harvest” the asset.
Secondly, AGL needs the energy. When a taxi gets old, it becomes expensive to run. Before the taxi dies, a sensible fleet owner will order a new one, but only a fool would sell the old taxi before its replacement arrives. If AGL sells Liddell before new assets are online, AGL’s ability to service their existing customer base will be compromised. Shareholders would rightly be livid if a number of large customers were lost to a competitor.
Thirdly, AGL has announced future plans for the site and is investigating the siting of a 250MW battery, a “synchronous condensor”, that helps stabilise the grid, and a pumped hydro project that could give a productive post-coal life to the massive mine pits. The existing 2,000MW grid connection has significant potential well past Liddell’s lifetime.
Lastly, Frydenberg, by all accounts a fine tennis player, has made two unforced errors. As a politician, he should know that narratives matter. Australia’s largest carbon emitter, AGL, is spending big advertising that they’re getting out of coal — before 2050. AGL’s pushback on the government amplifies AGL’s positive message a hundredfold and drowns out those disappointed with the slow pace.
The second error, and I concede that I’m speculating, is that Frydenberg might be messing with the wrong guy. AGL’s American boss, Andy Vesey, hasn’t put down roots in Australia. The time will probably come when he returns to the US. What narrative will he want to take to his next role? That when confronted by bullies, he blinked?
It would be foolish to say there’s zero chance Alinta will be running Liddell in 2023, but I’m offering long odds. Alinta would need to pay silly money (with government support?) to compensate AGL for the loss of fat profits, energy or customers, a valuable development site and credibility with customers.
But when Liddell closes, won’t that leave NSW with a major supply gap? Not according to the Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo) who scrutinised AGL’s plan and reported:
In its entirety, all three stages of AGL’s plan would deliver sufficient dispatchable resources to fill the identified 850MW resource gap.”
Of course, AGL is under no obligation to fill the gap. A true liberal government would leave it to the market. A close reading of Aemo’s advice shows that even if AGL and the market do nothing, we can have high confidence that the 99.998% reliability standard will be met.
If Liddell survives until 2022, it will be 50 years old. In 2016 Alinta’s CEO Jeff Dimery said, as he shut the 31 year old Northern Power Station at short notice, some nine years earlier than previously indicated:
The reality is, the technology we are using here is old, the cost structures are high and there’s no longer a place for us in the market.”
Now that JAAACK’s manifesto is out in the open, demanding that the government should spend taxpayers’ dollars on their coal fetish, it is much easier to dismiss this amateur society of electrical enthusiasts.
It’s time to clear the dead cats off the table, appreciate that the economic and environmental cases for Liddell are perfectly aligned, and let AGL get on with its plans.
• Simon Holmes à Court is senior adviser to the Energy Transition Hub at Melbourne University
Originally published at www.theguardian.com on April 9, 2018.