What’s next for EnergyAustralia?

Head of Operations: Mark Collette has been managing director of EnergyAustralia since July 2021. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic



ENERGYAUSTRALIA has committed to a $400 million investment at the Yallourn Power Station to underpin improved asset reliability, safety, and performance ahead of the station’s planned closure in mid-2028.

The accelerated program of investment will cover scheduled major outages for each of Yallourn’s four generation units over 2023 and 2024 and includes works to support the plant’s integrity, reliability and performance of the station up until closure.

The Express received a deep dive into EnergyAustralia’s works at the Yallourn Power station with the head of the company, Mark Collette recently.

Mr Collette has been with EnergyAustralia since 2003, coming on board as managing director in early 2021.

Mr Collette is also chair and director at the Australian Energy Council (AEC), which represents 20 major electricity and downstream natural gas businesses operating in the wholesale and retail energy markets.

“We’re a purpose lead company, so our purpose is to lead and accelerate clean energy transformation for all,” Mr Collette said.

“For all (it) means employees, it means customers, and it means communities, and it means doing things in a way that brings people along. 2028 is not far away, so we’ve already started conversations with our team about what comes next.

“We’re investing hundreds of millions of dollars, about 400 million dollars and more in the next couple of years to ensure we’re as reliable and affordable as we can (be) for Victoria and Australia until closure.

“It already means the investments are increasingly going to things like our Wooreen battery – not quite a billion dollars, but it’s quite a large investment.

EnergyAustralia will construct a 350MW four-hour utility-scale battery, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2026. Based on land availability and good grid connectivity, EnergyAustralia’s gas-fired Jeeralang power facility in Hazelwood North, Latrobe Valley, has been chosen as the preferred location for the Wooreen battery construction.

“It’s all about providing our affirming for the system of the future, which is going to be dominated by wind and solar from an energy perspective,” Mr Collette said.

“It’s an exciting purpose and an exciting future that we have, but it’s one that brings lots of change.

“The challenge to overcome is the speed at which things are being built. At the moment, the danger is that they’re being built faster than the power stations closing.”

This sentiment is not shared with the likes of some manufacturers, who have called for baseload coal power stations to be open longer to keep stability as renewables aren’t being built fast enough, as reported by the Australian Financial Review. Steven Bell, chief executive of basic plastics maker Qenos, expressed his concern to the AFR regarding a lack of a transition plan in a “blind rush to turn stuff off.”

EnergyAustralia remains steadfast in its commitment to a green transition, as Mr Collette said, “As long as we can deliver all the projects that we we’ve got in train and others deliver theirs, then we think we can get there.”

In the AFR, Energy Program Director at the Grattan Institute, Tony Wood, addressed concerns that the clean energy transition was going too slowly, and that if renewable energy was being added to the grid more slowly than expected, that presented an opportunity for coal plants to remain economically viable to stay open for longer.

Mr Collette reiterated that Yallourn’s closure by mid-2028 was the date the company remained committed to working towards.

“We’re working toward 2028 with Yallourn, and we think that Victoria probably has enough in-state capacity to keep the system reliable, but of course, we’ll look at other investments and what things we might do to get there,” he said.

EnergyAustralia has many projects underway across the nation. These include the zero-emissions hydrogen and gas-capable Tallawara B project, Lake Lyell pumped hydro, Wooreen battery energy storage system and the gas-fired Marulan power station.

“It’s a big transformation; it’s a big investment horizon that Australia has got there,” he said.

“With our Tallawara Power station … our ambition is to crack the code on what fuel would be zero carbon,” he added.

EnergyAustralia will not look at more efficient ways of coal-powered systems opting to lead the way in clean and renewable energy as opposed to updating old technology.

“We’ve been on the path of reducing emissions since at least 2007-08, so we’ve been on a journey for 15 years or so. We did give much time exploring all the different options available to us – including changes we could make here to improve efficiency, carbon capture and storage, or any of those technologies,” Mr Collette said.

“Broadly, where we landed, from a technical perspective, they’re (updates to coal-fired technology) is just more expensive than the alternatives and where we were better off focusing on wind, solar, batteries, gas turning into hydrogen and pumped hydro because in aggregate and also behind the metre, solar and batteries in homes leads to a cheaper and just as reliable system than the coal-based alternatives.”

EnergyAustralia continues to invest in cleaner technology; another way they aim to do this is through an electronic vehicle trial now underway at Yallourn.

“It’s a good example that there might only be five years left of operation at Yallourn; that’s no reason we don’t use cutting-edge technology,” Mr Collette said.

“It’s from two angles, one is that the technology can give a lot of benefits, either it’s cheaper, or lower emission or different applications that we weren’t able to do with previous technology.

“The other thing is that it helps set out better careers for the future for our people, so you’ll go to the mines and the guys and girls working in the mines, they’re working with cutting-edge technology.”

“The opportunity from that for our team is that the technology they’re using they can use in other places, which makes them more and more employable.”

EnergyAustralia remains committed to ensuring a smooth transition of energy and employees.

The company has invested in a $10 million program to provide transition support for employees and ongoing planning for the safe rehabilitation and transformation of the Yallourn mine and power station site to become an asset for the local community.

“We’ve had a conversation with every single person that calls Yallourn home now, and as you’d expect, much variability in what people intend to do. Some people will retire; others want to move to similar power stations, whether in Victoria or elsewhere; others are excited by the prospect of offshore wind and connecting into Gippsland, and some want to retrain and become a nurse,” Mr Collette said.

With regard to the mine’s remediation, the mine will have to be stabilised with either dirt or water; with the sheer size of the mine, EnergyAustralia will opt to fill it with water to stabilise it.

“We will remediate the site … it means deconstructing and demolishing over time and returning it to a flat site,” EnergyAustralia’s GM said.

Mr Collette explained that because Yallourn is on a floodplain, EnergyAustralia could use the mine to prevent floods and continually benefit the community.

In terms of public feeling towards Yallourn’s pending closure, Mr Collette said it had obviously varied.

“Yallourn has been going for over 100 years, so the day we stop producing electricity from coal will be quite a momentous day. It’s powered the state, it was the original big coal-fired power station, and in that sense, there will be a lot of sadness to see that end because it’s been such a powerhouse,” he said.

“People tend to vote with their feet, and our guys are staying. Personally, I thought that when we announced closure, does that mean we would get an exodus of people saying, ‘I don’t want to be here till the end; I’ll get a job elsewhere.'”

“But we haven’t seen that at all; we have actually seen we actually attract lots of people here; they like what we do and the opportunities we provide, and doing five years in something that sets you up for a great career is still a great opportunity.

Mr Collette often takes the train down and rides his bike along the Moe/Yallourn rail trail that leads him straight to the power station, a special journey he can’t do at any other power station.

“I’ve been coming here for over 20 years, it doesn’t feel right coming without seeing the steam coming out of the cooling towers,” he said.

As Hazelwood closed, many employees complained about safety concerns and mismanagement, but EnergyAustralia reassured that safety was of the utmost concern at Yallourn, and will be beyond closure.

“Safety is the first thought we have every day,” Mr Collette said.

“We’re not operating a brand new power station … and unease is healthy in that sort of light.

“We do a lot of proactive testing and inspections, going around looking at equipment and saying right ‘is it doing what it’s meant to do, is it doing what it did 50 years ago.

“We did enormous work on the pulverised fuel mill to ensure we understood what happened and why it failed.

“We will go to world-bending lengths to understand what happened so we can then justify to ourselves and then test it and justify it to our people that we continue to provide a safe place to work.”

Unit 2 was out of service after an unexpected failure at the time of the interview three weeks ago. Still, Mr Collette stated that the unexpected failure will be studied and understood with the confidence of safety before it is put back in service.

David Burt, the EnergyAustralia communications and community leader for the Latrobe Valley, mentioned the safety circle program, which facilitates a workplace culture of safety first, which will soon be rolled out among Yallourn employees.

Speaking in regard to EnergyAustralia’s investments in wind and solar, Mr Collette said, “We own 50 per cent of a wind project in South Australia; that’s the only one that we own at the moment. We tend to buy the offtake, so we’ll buy into other people’s projects.”

One of the reasons EnergyAustralia opts to operate like this is because they are a retailer, and part of the job for retailers is to get the cheapest energy for customers, Mr Collette explained.

“Things change over time, and particularly we like to make sure we have enough storage and generational capacity to meet the needs of our customers,” he said.

“As batteries and the other sort of storage technologies start to get more located on the same site as the wind and solar, that might mean we might invest more directly into some of those projects.

“It’s not we’re in, or we’re out; it’s what’s the best for our customers that drives what we do.”

Head of Operations: Mark Collette has been managing director of EnergyAustralia since July 2021.

Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic