Australia’s ‘dirtiest’ power station considers ‘clean energy’ biomass burning option

With recent changes to the renewable energy target, the burning of native forest wood waste can once again earn credits for generating clean energy, but there’s dispute about whether burning native forest waste for energy is ‘carbon neutral’. Background Briefing reports.

Hazelwood Power Station

Image: Hazelwood Power Station, in the Latrobe Valley, 150 kilometres east of Melbourne. Audience submitted: Maggie Daniel)

The owners of one of Australia’s oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power stations‚ÄîHazelwood in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley‚Äîhave been secretly considering plans to reinvent the plant as a ‘clean energy generator’ by burning forest waste.

GDF Suez, the majority owners of Hazelwood, and Victoria’s state forest corporation, VicForests, have confirmed to ABC RN there have been discussions over the supply of native forest wastes from East Gippsland logging operations.

GDF Suez also confirmed ‘a number of trials’‚Äîmainly using plantation material‚Äîhave been conducted at Hazelwood over the past decade ‘with varying degrees of success’.

GDF spokesman Trevor Rowe says: ‘The most recent trial was in 2009. Due to a number of factors, including cost, availability of suitable material and the need for additional processing to meet boiler requirements, Hazelwood has not proceeded beyond these initial trials.’

Mr Rowe also confirmed more recent ‘initial discussions’ with VicForests three years ago, ‘but these have not been ongoing’.

In an indication of ongoing interest in biomass for its Hazelwood plant, GDF Suez in October last year Excerpt of a job description advertised by GDF Suez in October last year.

Image: An excerpt of a job description advertised by GDF Suez in October last year.

According to a confidential corporate and business plan prepared by VicForests leaked to the ABC, the proposal to establish a local market for native forest biomass would take a lead time of around two years.

Nathan Trushell, general manager of stakeholders and planning for VicForests, says: ‘We’ve not had any [recent] conversations with any brown coal generators. [But] certainly in the past, we’ve had discussions to look at the potential economics and benefits. Still, the economics are very challenging.’

Hazelwood is close to the forests of East Gippsland, where VicForests is losing millions of dollars every year on logging operations since the decline of woodchip markets. The corporation is looking for new markets for sub-prime and ‘residual’ logs to make logging operations more economic.

Asked how much waste resource was potentially available from native forests in the region, Mr Trushell estimates 50,000 to 150,000 cubic metres. ‘In the grand scheme of things they’re not significant volumes,’ he says.

Hazelwood’s majority-owner, GDF Suez, is controlled by French company Engie. The company is well versed in biomass technology overseas. The company spent 125 million euros ($184 million) converting a Belgian power station in Rodenhuize in 2011, amongst others. Engie declined several requests by the ABC for an interview to discuss its international biomass experience and plans.

Asked what VicForests would do with residual logs and waste from east Gippsland with the decline of the woodchip market, Mr Trushell says: ‘If we’ve got surplus material, we’ll advertise that, run through a sales process, a tender process, an open and competitive process. If proponents were interested in approaching us, we will always talk to them.’

Senator Richard Colbeck, parliamentary secretary to the minister for agriculture, is supportive of any plan for Hazelwood to co-fire forest biomass with brown coal.

‘If we’re genuinely looking at replacing coal with other, less emitting forms of energy generation, those are things that can and should be considered. If you look at [Gippsland], there is a significant forest industry. They would be generating certain volumes of waste out of that industry. If that can be properly put to good use as part of a reconfiguration of that [Hazelwood] power plant, why not?’

Greens forests spokesperson, Senator Janet Rice, says that setting up Hazelwood to co-fire native forest biomass as well as brown coal would be straightforward.

‘The interesting thing with Hazelwood as an old coal-fired power station, apparently there’s very little change that needs to be made in order for it to burn wood. There’s evidence, in fact, that trials have been done and Hazelwood has already been accredited to be using wood from native forests for the generation of renewable energy certificates.’

Counting carbon Infographics by Sara Phillips and Jo Szczepanska

Counting carbon Infographics by Sara Phillips and Jo Szczepanska

Indicative of the growing interest in native forest biomass since the government’s recent changes to the renewable energy target (RET), a wood pellet making factory is being built adjacent to the Hazelwood power station. The pellet plant is scheduled to open its doors later this year with plans to take wood waste from nearby sawmills. It will be producing pellets to fuel small-scale heating boilers.

Built between 1964 and 1971, Hazelwood supplies Victoria with one quarter of its electricity needs each year. It’s been tagged Australia’s ‘dirtiest’ power station, with intense speculation over the past decade that it would close with a rising price on carbon pollution‚Äîbut that hasn’t happened.

Three key pages of the confidential 2014-2016 VicForests corporate and business plans The four eastern cooling towers at the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire

Image: The four eastern cooling towers at the Drax coal-fired power station in North Yorkshire. There are eight altogether. (Jonathan Brennan/ CC BY NC ND 2.0)