Scott Morrison has walked back a declaration from last week that 1,000MW of new generation will be needed once the ageing Liddell coal plant leaves the system, and declined to sign up to a net zero target by 2050, because he is “more interested in the doing”.
As part of the government’s much vaunted “gas-led recovery”, the prime minister said last week in relation to the Liddell transition, “We estimate that some 1,000 MW of new dispatchable generation is needed to keep prices down.”
Morrison said “we”, meaning the government, intended “to do something about it” because the private sector had made various announcements but “committed to very few” generation options to fill the gap.
But on Sunday morning the prime minister told the ABC Insiders program “the thousand megawatts are already being made up in part by some investments which I believe definitely will go ahead” and the missing piece was “about 250 megawatts, or thereabouts”.
Morrison also signalled the shortfall did not have to be made up with a gas plant. “If there are others who come up with a better plan, and can deliver that plan in the timeframe and meet the reliability – great, tremendous”.
But he also declared “gas has chosen itself, because as yet there has been nothing that has been presented which meets the goals that we have which is reliability and the firming capability for renewables to meet the gap that will be created”.
AGL, the owners of the ageing plant, have announced Liddell will close in early 2023, and the government has been engaged in a protracted public brawl with the company. The first demand was the coal plant be kept open for longer, but the Coalition has dropped that. Now the argument is about the alternative power generation assets required to meet any shortfall.
The taskforce the government set up to provide advice on managing the planned closure of Liddell did not recommend that 1,000MW of additional dispatchable electricity would be needed after the closure. The taskforce advice was released after Morrison had nominated the figure during a speech at the Hunter Valley.
The taskforce listed a range of energy committed and probable projects that it found would be “more than sufficient” to maintain a high level of power grid reliability as Liddell shut. The projects include confirmed upgrades to AGL’s Bayswater coal plant in New South Wales’s Hunter region, transmission links with Victoria and Queensland, and expected battery and gas projects that were then in the advanced stage of planning.
Australia’s energy market operator suggests only an additional 154MW will be needed in NSW by 2023, and more than that amount has been subsequently announced, including a NSW government pledge to help pay for four new projects: two large-scale batteries, a hybrid gas and battery plant and a virtual power plant.
As well as being quizzed about Liddell, Morrison was asked on the ABC on Sunday whether he would sign up to a target of net zero emissions by 2050 now he was rolling out his government’s energy plans.
The energy minister, Angus Taylor, is expected to unveil the government’s inaugural low-emissions technology statement during a speech at the National Press Club on Tuesday.
Morrison said the government’s plan was to achieve net zero emissions not in 2050 but “in the second half of this century, and we’ll certainly achieve that”.
Asked why the National Farmers’ Federation, business leaders, every Australian state and territory and more than 100 countries had all committed to the 2050 net zero target but the government declined to do so, Morrison said “because I’m more interested in the doing”.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese called it a roadmap to nowhere, accusing Morrison of taking an ideological approach.
“The government says they are going to have a roadmap but to a destination that they don’t have,” the Labor leader told reporters in Sydney. “A roadmap without a destination is a road to nowhere ... it’s only ideology that is standing in the way.”
Morrison said Australia had a good record in beating its domestic emissions reduction targets enshrined in international agreements, but the prime minister did not mention that Australia has budgeted to use carryover credits from Kyoto to help deliver a substantial proportion of the 2030 target.
The tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes last week told Guardian Australia he might “potentially, with friends” consider advancing a project to replace power generation after the Liddell closure if the Morrison government was prepared to set clear rules for any potential proponents.
After the prime minister’s television interview on Sunday, Cannon-Brookes took to social media to declare Morrison’s comments “amazing”.
“So let’s be clear. It doesn’t have to be gas anymore,” Cannon-Brookes said. “It only has to be 250MW (not 1,000). And where are these rules written down? Where does one apply to get them?”
Cannon-Brookes also wondered whether the project being sought by the Morrison government needed, as Taylor had suggested, “to run 24x7”.
“Is that true? Is that mandated? Where? (Awfully expensive to run gas 24x7 and will drive up electricity prices for households and businesses a lot – as well as likely lose money for investors?)”