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Phasing out Hazelwood

The past, present and future of Australia’s most notorious coal-fired power plant.

Coal

Credit: iStockphoto

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What is Hazelwood?

Hazelwood is a brown coal station located in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria. Built between 1964 and 1971, today the "old girl" provides nearly a quarter of the state's energy needs, but puffs out up to 17 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year in the process. Victorian coal stations burn brown coal, or 'lignite', which has a higher moisture content and is more emissions-intensive than black coal. In 2005 WWF-Australia called Hazelwood "the most polluting of all power stations operating in the world's major industrialised countries".

Who owns it?

Originally run by the State Electricity Commission (SEC), Hazelwood was privatised in 1996. International Power, a UK-listed company, now owns 92 per cent of the power station. The Commonwealth Bank makes up the remaining eight per cent. In 2009 the plant ran near capacity, helping International Powers' Australian business record a profit surge of 40 per cent on the previous year.

Why the controversy?

Green groups have labelled Hazelwood a "dinosaur", but it's really a phoenix - after each call for closure the power station rises from its own carbon-rich ashes. Depending which report you read, Hazelwood was supposed to shut down before 2000, in 2005 and in 2009. However, in 2005 the Victorian Government gave Hazelwood access to new coal deposits, potentially extending its life to 2031.

More recently, International Power indicated that under the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, Hazelwood would have closed by 2016. In July this year, the Victorian Government announced it would likely move to close one-quarter of the power station by 2014.

All this uncertainty about closure has frustrated environmentalists, many of whom see Hazelwood as a symbol of Australia's emissions-intensive power sector. In September 2009, a protest at Hazelwood led to 22 arrests and new Victorian legislation imposing prison terms of up to two years for "unauthorised interference" with "critical electricity infrastructure". Green group Environment Victoria is now spearheading a campaign to replace Hazelwood with cleaner forms of energy.

If Hazelwood is shut down,what will replace it?

Environment Victoria proposes replacing Hazelwood with combined cycle gas turbine plants and renewable energy options that are already available and in planning. Projects could be brought forward to replace Hazelwood as early as 2012. The short time frame means some forms of renewable energy, such as solar thermal (preferred by environmental advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions - see comment at right) and geothermal aren't included in the plan. The Victorian Government has indicated "new gas generation"
will be used to replace the quarter of Hazelwood slated for closure, though details were scarce at time of printing. Stay tuned.