Brian Burke, Kerry Stokes and Kevin Reynolds among key 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 coalfields.

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

Alongside him is Kevin Reynolds, a former union arsonist who led the construction, forestry, mining and energy union in WA until 2011.

At the helm of the company is Frederik Suhren, a former lieutenant of deposed WA coal tycoon Ric Stowe, whose business empire was rooted in the Collie coalfields when it collapsed in 2010.

The trio’s involvement comes amid efforts by a roll call of WA business and energy players 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 presented plans to the state government in 2020 to build a pumped hydro project using disused coal mines to store water.

In 2020, the Seven Group of then-chairman Kerry Stokes presented a pumped hydropower proposal to the WA government.(PA: Lukas Coch)

It is understood that the proposal by Seven Group, the $6.7 billion conglomerate that spans mining equipment, fossil fuels and media interests, has not been successful and the company is no longer pursuing l ‘idea.

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

Key to these plans is pumped hydropower, which works by pumping water from one reservoir to another when power prices are low and releasing the water downstream through a turbine to generate electricity 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 is blowing not.

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

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

The federal government’s attempts to build the 2,000 MW Snowy Hydro 2.0 hydroelectric project are expected to cost at least $10 billion and be several years behind schedule.

Seven Group’s interest in developing a pumped hydropower project at Collie was revealed last year but, until now, the wider list of candidates was unknown.

In addition to Mr Stokes and the entity linked to Mr Burke, the major gas pipeline company Jemena has also considered a possible inclination to a development.

Burke’s involvement ‘without inconvenience’

And the state government has confirmed it is considering a proposal through its utilities, the Water Corporation and electricity provider Synergy.

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

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

While Jemena and state utilities would explore more conventional designs using existing reservoirs, the Collie Pumped Hydro plan – and the abandoned Stokes plan – would be so-called pit developments.

The plans would involve converting disused coal mine pits 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 from the Collie state seat, confirmed that Mr Burke and Mr Reynolds had been involved in the venture, but said they did not weren’t major players.

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

“They are very far apart,” Mr. Murry said.

“Certainly, the technical staff and the finances are a long way from Brian Burke and Kevin Reynolds.

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

The “ideal” coal pits for technology

Mr Murray explained that Collie Pumped Hydro’s proposal would involve the construction of two 200MW turbines at the Muja Coal Mine, 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.

“We are about to get to a stage where we can present a solid proposal to the government,” he said.

“But we need some support from the government to say, ‘Yes, we’re going to take over your project’.”

According to Murray, the case for installing a pumped hydroelectric power station in Collie was strong because of the relative suitability of the area’s topography.

More importantly, he said, there were already high-voltage power lines connecting Collie’s coal-fired power stations to the grid, removing the need for costly transmission infrastructure upgrades.

Andrew Blakers, director of the Australian National University’s Center for Sustainable Energy Systems, said using former mine voids for pumped hydropower was feasible and in many ways could provide an advantage. given their depth.

Aerial photo of a large solar farm showing rows of panels lined up in an enclosure.
Western Australia is expected to run on solar power for decades to come.(Provided: APA Group)

However, Professor Blakers said there were drawbacks associated with mine shafts, which were often contaminated with toxins and sludge which could damage production equipment.

He said that even if these problems could be overcome, for example by lining the pit to avoid contamination, any solution would increase costs.

WA needs pumped hydro, expert says

A man with short gray hair stands near a brick wall, smiling.
Professor Blakers says potential contaminants in mining pits should be considered. (Supplied: ANU)

Either way, he argued that pumped hydropower would be essential to any grid, including WA’s, powered by renewables.

“The cost of pumped hydro – even from poor 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 moving towards a solar-dominated system, you absolutely need overnight storage.

“End of story – you just need it. And doing that with batteries is just laughable.”

Prof Blakers said the South West of WA was not well suited for pumped hydro as it was relatively flat, but he believed such a disadvantage would be more than offset by the wind and solar wealth of the State.

Power lines built through a clear forest.
Proponents say Collie’s high voltage power lines make it ideal for hosting a pumped hydro project.(ABC News: Gian De Poloni)

“Western Australia doesn’t have a lot of choice,” Prof Blakers said.

“But Western Australia has great wind and great sunshine, so they’re going to spend less on generation but more on storage than in the east.

“So it’s swings and rides.

“And they will end up with electricity at a very competitive price by world standards.”

Gas pipeline giant expresses interest

Jemena, which is Australia’s second-largest natural gas pipeline operator, confirmed that the company was examining the feasibility of pumped hydropower in south-west WA.

However, he said planning was still at an early stage and there were no firm plans to move forward with a proposal.

“The Western Australian government’s recent announcement to phase out coal will increase the need for firming up capacity and pumped hydro generation is likely to be a key contributor,” a spokesperson said.

Photo of white wind turbine against blue sky.
The wind does not always blow when electricity is needed, so storage is considered crucial.(Supplied: APA)

“At this stage, development is still in its infancy but looks promising.

“However, there still remain a number of commercial, technical, heritage, environmental and community barriers that would need to be removed before the project can be considered viable.”

Comments are closed.