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ABC Tropical North Breakfast

6 March 2017

Interviewer: 
Meecham Philpott

Subject: new coal-fired power stations; energy security; Queensland renewable energy target; South Australia blackouts

E&OE

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

This media release came out late Friday and it caught my interest actually. It reads: Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matt Canavan has called on Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to join the Turnbull-Joyce Coalition in prioritising affordable and reliable electricity, including via coal-fired power stations to secure regional jobs.

So I got in touch with Senator Matt Canavan, Minister for Resources and Northern Australia. We spoke a little bit earlier this morning before he had to jump on a plane to head for Canberra. And I just said: really, so we’re talking about coal-fired power stations?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Because coal still has a very long life in our world in terms of providing energy. In our region and indeed across the world, there are more than 700 advanced coal-fired power stations being built now. Now most of them are being built in our region and burning our coal. Here in Queensland we’ve got some of the highest calorific coal in the world and for these newer, cleaner coal-fired power stations that coal is best suited. So it would appear to me to be a little strange why we would export all our coal over to other countries for them to burn and create industry and jobs and not use at least some of it ourselves to do the same.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

Senator, my understanding is we have a number of power stations in Queensland which have basically been mothballed, why not just fire them up again if we need power?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well those ones that you’re referring to are often gas-fired power stations and we are having difficulties at the moment finding gas at reasonable prices. So the principle reason, for example say Swanbank, a gas-fired power station in southern Queensland is mothballed because it’s just too expensive to buy the gas. Now that may change in the future and it’ll be able to be fired back up, there’ll be no problem with that. But in north Queensland we don’t have a base load power station north of Rockhampton. There are a couple of smaller gas-fired peaking plants in Townsville, but we don’t have that base load capacity north of Rocky and I think that’s something we absolutely have to look at as we seek to grow northern Australia, and north Queensland in particular, and sustain industries like the refineries in Townsville and the aluminium industries in Gladstone which are doing it tough at the moment.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

We have an Adani situation where that’s been wrapped up in courts for six, seven years, something like that, and the cost of the project’s blown out by billions. How on earth could you ever get this past the conservation groups that we’re going to actually burn coal in Australia?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well I don’t expect any of those groups to come on board any time soon, but despite their opposition I do expect that the Adani Carmichael coal mine will go ahead. Now, it’s not a done deal yet, but I don’t think the opposition of those groups is going to stop it or going to be the deciding factor. And likewise, I’m not intimidated by any opposition to this. I’ll do and argue for what I think is best for north Queensland and the people I represent. I think there is a great demand for cheap energy in the north. Businesses typically pay about double what they pay in southern Queensland and that can’t be sustained. We’ve got to start with solutions.

Now just to be clear, coal is one option, but we’ll also see more investment in renewables and that is absolutely necessary as well. What I want to achieve and deliver for people is cheap energy and more jobs. I don’t really care how we do that. But clearly in our region with the coal resources we’ve got, coal is a sensible answer. Particularly when we’ll need advanced coal-fired power stations that can cut carbon emissions by up to about 30 per cent compared to older power stations. So they make sense to invest in.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

All right so what you’re putting forward that should be built – I’m assuming built or retro-fitted to existing power stations, i.e. like at Collinsville – is a better way of burning coal. You’re saying about, what, 30 per cent better than what we currently have in this country?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

That’s right. It’s called ultra-supercritical technology. Basically what it means is you burn the coal at higher temperatures and increased pressures, that increases the efficiency of the output which means you generate more electricity per unit of coal you burn, so that means lower emissions for the same amount of energy.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

But Senator, if … let’s say for instance the public purse went and built one of these coal-fired power stations wherever it may be in a line between Mackay and Cairns. You build it, it takes three years to build it, but in that time technologies moves on and here’s this wonderful renewable energy thing. I mean, it is the Turnbull Government that’s pushing the idea that technology will come on board and new renewable ideas will come forward, is it not?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Look, I mean that’s the case in all investments of course. Technologies will update and improve. The key point here is that the coal technologies we’re looking at using are the most advanced as well. They’ve been improving as well as with solar, and wind to a lesser extent, coal has been improving as well. I mean, I don’t think all of these other countries are stupid. I don’t think Japan and China and Korea and increasingly India are all doing the wrong thing, all at the same time. They’re looking at all those same technologies and seeing that coal can continue to play a very important role in providing base load power.

Solar will increasingly become important in part of our energy mix, and in north Queensland in particular we’ve got good sun resources. But of course solar can’t provide electricity across the 24 hours of the day, and if you’re going to have jobs in manufacturing you need constant power – or you won’t have manufacturing jobs. There’s no reason why north Queensland can’t continue to be very strong in metals manufacturing, in particular, given the minerals and energy resources we’ve got.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

Senator, the whole South Australian thing, there seems to be a lot of finger-pointing at the moment, ideological shut downs of various power providing industries, going renewable and then suddenly black outs. Is it that simple though, that they pulled the plug on the power stations too early and that’s why they’re in problem- in a bother?

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well there’s no doubt that by walking away from base load power in South Australia, particularly the coal-fired power stations you mentioned, that has made the South Australian energy system more vulnerable. That’s what the Australian Energy Market Operator – they’re the engineers who run the system – have been saying for more than a year; that by taking out the Northern Power Station, which was South Australia’s last coal-fired power station, that made their system more vulnerable to shock events, if you like, because base load power provides a certain amount of stability to the system.

Now in the last few weeks, AEMO have also written to the Queensland Government and said exactly the same thing; that their target of 50 per cent, the Labor Party’s target of 50 per cent renewables, potentially will make Queensland’s electricity system more vulnerable. And you’ve got to remember, in north Queensland we’re at the end of the line, like South Australia is at the other end of the National Electricity Market, and like South Australia, we have limited options to import power to North Queensland. So we want to maintain our stability and reliability, we need base load power and I think the Labor Party should reflect on their 50 per cent target given what’s happened in South Australia.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

Just on the power station, a coal-fired power station, modern built one that you’re proposing, I’m assuming that would have to be somewhere in ABC Tropical North’s area for the simple reason that you’ve got to put it close to the coal, you know, to cut down on costs and so forth.

MINISTER CANAVAN:

Well that’s often the case. So Wayne Swan commissioned a study in 2013, a GHD engineering study, a very detailed study of more than 800 pages long, and it showed that a mine mouth ultra-supercritical coal-fired power station in Galilee Basin would make sense. So effectively it’s something like the Adani coal mine or other coal mines in the Galilee being proposed. A power station there would make a lot of sense, it would make money and help north Queensland businesses get their power costs down. It would require upgrades to transmission lines to do that. That would also then have the added benefit of helping bring renewables technologies as well on board, that report found, because it would open up a corridor there sort of from Hughenden through to Townsville that has a lot of wind and solar potential.

MEECHAM PHILPOTT:

Senator Matt Canavan, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia. I spoke to him a little bit earlier this morning, talking about the idea of coal-fired power stations, one in the north to help with electricity. Don’t think that story’s going to go away.

(ENDS)