Brian Burke, Kerry Stokes, Kevin Reynolds among major players in race to unlock WA’s green energy future

Former Western Australian Premier Brian Burke is among a growing list of potential bidders looking to develop a major renewable energy project in the state’s coal heartland.

Mr. Burke, who was prime minister during the height of the WA Inc. saga in the 1980s, is involved with an entity known as Collie Pumped Hydro, which wants to use coal voids to build a pumped hydroelectric plant in Collie , 180 kilometers south of Perth. .

Joining him is Kevin Reynolds, a former union agitator who led the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Power Union in WA until 2011.

Leading the company is Frederik Suhren, a former lieutenant to fallen Washington coal tycoon Ric Stowe, whose business empire was anchored in the Collie coalfields when it collapsed in 2010.

The trio’s involvement comes amid efforts by a roster of energy and business players in WA to develop the state’s first major pumped hydro project to replace retiring coal-fired power plants.

Crowded field eyes project.

Chief among them was billionaire Kerry Stokes, whose Seven Group reportedly submitted plans to the state government in 2020 to build a pumped hydroelectric project using old coal mines to store water.

A man with gray hair in a suit, sitting at a table.
In 2020, then-President Kerry Stokes’ Seven Group submitted a pumped hydro proposal to the WA government.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

The proposal from Seven Group, the $6.7 billion conglomerate that spans across mining equipment, fossil fuels and media interests, is understood to have been unsuccessful and the company is no longer pursuing the idea.

Under a plan announced in June, the WA Labor government said it would close its remaining coal plants in Collie by 2029 and replace capacity with a mix of renewable technologies.

Key to those plans is pumped hydropower, which works by pumping water uphill from one reservoir to another when energy prices are low and releasing the water downhill through a turbine to produce power when prices are high. .

WA Energy Minister Bill Johnston said such “deep storage” would be crucial to the green energy transition to ensure lights stay on when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing.

Pipes going down to the water.
Snowy Hydro 2.0 is Australia’s best-known pumped hydro project, but many others are in the works.(Supplied: Snowy Hydro )

Initial estimates suggest that the project, which would have a capacity of between 400MW and 800MW, will cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Attempts by the federal government to build the 2,000 MW Snowy Hydro 2.0 pumped hydroelectric project are estimated to cost at least $10 billion and take several years.

Seven Group’s interest in developing a pumped hydro project in Collie was revealed last year but, until now, the broader list of contenders was unknown.

In addition to Stokes and the Burke-linked entity, major pipeline company Jemena has also been considering a possible tilt at a development.

Burke participation ‘no handicap’

And the state government has confirmed that it is looking at a proposal through its utilities Water Corporation and energy provider Synergy.

Despite their similarities, the competing offers are understood to be separated by a critical difference.

A truck moves through an open pit mine.
Opencast coal mining near Collie, south of Perth, has left voids stretching to the horizon.(ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

While Jemena and state utilities are believed to be exploring more conventional designs using existing reservoirs, the Collie Pumped Hydro plan, and the shelved Stokes plan, are so-called empty mine developments.

The plans would involve converting disused coal mine shafts into reservoirs, allowing state and private operators to avoid rehabilitation obligations that could cost more than $1 billion.

Collie Pumped Hydro chairman Mick Murray, a longtime former Labor MP for Collie state headquarters, confirmed that Burke and Reynolds had been involved with the company but said they were not major players.

A huge mural painted on the side of a dam wall in southwestern WA.
There are already several large reservoirs in southwestern WA, where the Wellington Dam holds nearly 200 billion liters.(ABC News)

“They are very far away,” Murry said.

“Certainly, the coaching staff and finances are very far removed from Brian Burke and Kevin Reynolds.

“If there’s knowledge to use, you use it. But it’s certainly not a cloak-and-dagger thing.”

Coal mines ‘ideal’ for technology

Murray explained that Collie Pumped Hydro’s proposal would involve the construction of two 200MW turbines at the Muja coal pit, which he said was a good fit for the technology due to the slope of the void wall.

Construction is expected to take about two years, create about 300 jobs and cost nearly $1 billion, he said.

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