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.
- Former WA Premier Brian Burke and union boss Kevin Reynolds are linked to a pumped hydro proposal in WA
- His involvement follows similar efforts by billionaire media owner Kerry Stokes.
- WA government wants pumped hydro to keep the lights on amid plans to close its coal plants by 2029
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“It is about to reach a stage where we can present a strong proposal to the government,” he said.
“But we need some support from the government to say, ‘Yes, we will accept your project.'”
According to Mr. Murray, the case for installing a pumped-storage hydroelectric plant at Collie was strong due to the relative adequacy of the area’s topography.
More importantly, he said, there were already high-voltage power lines connecting Collie’s coal-fired power plants to the grid, eliminating the need for costly transmission infrastructure upgrades.
Andrew Blakers, director of the Center for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University, said using old mine voids for pumped hydro was feasible and, in many ways, could provide an advantage given the depth of many.
However, Professor Blakers said there were drawbacks associated with mine shafts, which were often contaminated with toxins and sludge that could damage generating equipment.
He said that while those problems could be overcome, for example by lining the well to prevent contamination, any solution would increase costs.
WA needs hydro pumped up, expert says
In any case, he argued that pumped hydropower would be indispensable to any grid, including WA’s, that was powered by renewable energy.
“The cost of pumped hydro, even mediocre pumped hydro sites, is a quarter or even a tenth of the cost of a battery for overnight storage,” Professor Blakers said.
“And because Western Australia is heading into a solar-dominated system, it absolutely needs overnight storage.
“End of story: you just need it. And doing that with batteries is ridiculous.”
Professor Blakers said southwestern WA was not well suited to pumped hydropower because it was relatively flat, but he believed such a disadvantage would be more than offset by the state’s wind and solar riches.
“Western Australia doesn’t have many options,” Professor Blakers said.
“But Western Australia has great wind and great sun, so they will spend less on generation but more on storage than in the east.
“So, it’s swings and roundabouts.
“And they will end up with electricity at a very competitive price by world standards.”
Pipeline giant warns of interest
Jemena, which is Australia’s second largest pipeline operator, confirmed that the company was looking at the feasibility of the pumped hydro in southwestern WA.
However, he said planning was still at an early stage and there were no firm plans to go ahead with a proposal.
“The WA government’s recent announcement to transition away from coal will increase the firm capacity requirement and it is likely that pumped hydro generation will need to be a key contributor,” a spokesperson said.
“At this stage, development is still in its infancy, but it looks promising.
“However, there are still a number of commercial, technical, heritage, environmental and community barriers that would need to be removed before the project can be considered viable.”