If you were looking for a neat summation of the current state of the energy debate in Australia, the tug-of-war over the future of a retired brown coal power plant in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley would be a good place to start.
The old Morwell Power Station and briquette factory on the outskirts of the town of the same name was last week listed for protection by the Heritage Council of Victoria.
The former Energy Brix Power Station, which once supplied brown coal-fired electricity to the grid, was closed in 2014 – two years after receiving a $50 million federal government bailout package.
At the same time, the plant’s final operator went into liquidation.
The heritage listing was granted following a community-led campaign to see the old power station and briquette factory buildings preserved – despite them being run-down and riddled with asbestos – and turned into a sort of monument to fossil fuels.
According to the Latrobe Valley Express, the Heritage Council said the Committee believed the old buildings demonstrated the transformation of the Latrobe Valley into an industrial region for power and energy production, in accordance with post-World War II state government policy.
“… the Place is the earliest surviving large-scale power station designed to provide electricity to the state electricity network,” it said.
“The Committee also agrees with the [Heritage Victoria] Executive Director that the Place is of historical significance to the State as Morwell Power Station is also the earliest and only surviving site with integrated and remaining briquette factories.”
Moe resident Cheryl Wragg – who was behind the nomination – agrees.
“It’s the oldest coal-fired power station in the state, it’s the rarest in terms of engineering, it’s the only remnant of Victoria’s briquetting industry and it demonstrates the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, which changed the course of Victoria’s history,” she told ABC News.
But another group has some different plans for the site; plans that would not seek to enshrine it in the energy past, but to take it into the energy future – plans that will now have to negotiate a Heritage Listing.
These plans, put forward by an un-named private entity, propose to repurpose the site and integrate a large renewable energy and storage demonstration project.
Local solar and storage company Gippsland Solar has been working alongside that “entity” on developing those plans, which would tip more than $100 million into the local community and create hundreds of jobs. Many of them ongoing.
According to Gippsland Solar managing director Andrew McCarthy, the proposal is to knock down the Morwell power station – the building with the majority of the asbestos – keep and refurbish the Energy Brix factory, and create briquettes in a cleaner more environmentally sustainable way.
But the other key plank to the plan – which McCarthy says is quite well advanced – is to turn the site into a clean energy and battery storage hub.
So, instead of building a coal museum, creating a working example of the new energy future.
“Incorporating a large renewable energy and storage project into the existing electrical infrastructure, would provide a great use for this derelict and asbestos-ridden site,” McCarthy said.
“The suggestion was to put in up to a 30MW solar farm there, and potentially battery storage, as well as 1-2MW on the roof of the factory, and replace the broken windows with building integrated solar glass.
“That way, all of the asbestos gets cleaned up on site. And you have the huge benefit of installing megawatts of solar and battery storage, and supplying clean electricity via the same poles wires that feed in to the existing Latrobe Valley grid.
“The site has the most incredible electrical switching infrastructure,” he adds, noting that it was the chosen site for the 100 diesel generators the state and federal governments agreed to install as emergency back-up over the summer. So far, those generators have not been switched on.
“There’s already a fantastic demonstration of the existing coal-fired power infrastructure next door, at Power Works,” he added. “Using the Energy Brix site in this way would show the community what energy is going to look like in Australia, rather than what it used to be.”
McCarthy says another great advantage to the Latrobe Valley community of a new energy hub at the site would be giving all of those workers with “high voltage experience” another chance to keep doing something they’re really experienced at.
“It would be taking their existing skills and just adding another level of knowledge. This is what these guys have done for decades. It would be a wonderful opportunity for the Valley.”
But, he adds, “if the whole site is heritage listed and they can’t touch it, they will pull out of the deal.”
This is not a given, however. As the Latrobe Valley Express reported last week, the heritage listing means that any work to be done at the site into the future will require a permit, unless a permit exemption is granted.
It also noted that future uses of the site were on the agenda for many stakeholders at a public hearing last year, but that this was not considered part of the committee’s task.
“Submissions dealing with these matters have not been considered by the Committee in reaching its decisions,” the report says.
Whatever happens with the heritage listing, McCarthy says, “it would be a shame for the Latrobe Valley to miss this amazing opportunity.
“Let’s hope all parties can come together for a common sense outcome.”