How problem weeds could power up a former coal generator

How problem weeds could power up a former coal generator

Owners of a former coal-fired power station in rural Australia are looking to weeds to help fuel its second lease on life as the nation’s largest modern biomass generator.

Verdant Earth Technologies plans to transform the Redbank Power Station in the NSW Hunter Valley into a bioenergy hub powered by woody weeds from properties near Cobar.

It is estimated there are millions of tonnes of invasive native scrub (INS) around the region, a problem farmers have been battling for years.

INS is a label given to native vegetation when it takes over the landscape, depleting biodiversity and competing for water and sunlight that would otherwise grow quality grazing grasses.

At Etiwanda Station, the Mosely family has been regenerating their 20,000-hectare property to improve soil health and overall productivity, getting rid of some INS as part of the process.

“Those INS dominated areas, there’s a lot of bare ground, the rain just runs off and doesn’t go in. It’s eroding the soil, it’s not growing any grass for livestock or for biodiversity,” Mr Mosely said.

The Mosely family has been working to improve ground cover with native grasses, instead of bare with INS absorbing its moisture.(Landline: Olivia Ralph)

Mr Mosely said getting rid of the scrub was an “expensive and slow process” using bulldozers to lie it down and push into piles to burn it.

It is all done under guidelines set by state government agency Local Land Services (LLS) and has seen the Moselys double their livestock carrying capacity on the improved country.

“We’re replacing a problem native species with a beneficial native species,” he said. 

“It’s not about broadscale land clearing and turning it into cropping country, it’s about dealing with an issue. It’s about providing opportunities for the next generation.”

The family is now intrigued by the prospect of being paid for the INS as Verdant Earth Technologies looks to restart the mothballed Redbank Power Station, more than seven hours away near Singleton.

“It seems just a terrible waste to burn it in the paddock and not get any benefit or any value out of that waste material,” Mr Mosely said. 

The Mosely family run goats, sheep, and cattle across 20,000 hectares.(Landline: Amelia Bernasconi)

How will the invasive scrub make power?

Like the traditional coal-fired power that has long underpinned Australia’s grid, biomass power is also created through a thermal energy generation process.

Verdant Earth Technologies CEO Richard Poole said bioenergy is “an untapped opportunity in Australia”.

“Anywhere where you’re burning anything it should be put into a power station to create electricity,” he said.

Verdant Earth’s Richard Poole (right) believes biomass is not properly considered in Australia’s energy mix.(Landline: Amelia Bernasconi)

In the past decade, 10 coal generators have closed, including Redbank in its first life and nearby Liddell in 2023.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) said the rest of Australia’s coal fleet would retire within the next 15 years.

With that, AEMO is forecasting an energy shortfall from as early as next year.

There has been a significant increase in renewable energy being delivered through the National Electricity Market (NEM), but AEMO said it would need to triple by 2030 and increase seven-fold by 2050 to meet demand.

Electrochemical engineer Dr Jessica Allen said Australia needed a diversity of energy sources as the nation “hurtles full steam ahead” on its decarbonisation journey.

“What we need to do is anything and everything,” she said. 

“We need as much solar, wind, and renewable energy as possible. As well as renewable energy generation we also need storage, things like batteries, potentially pumped hydro, so that we can access and use energy when we need to 24/7.”

Dr Jessica Allen doesn’t expect biomass projects to take off at a broad scale, but says the Redbank opportunity is unique.(Landline: Amelia Bernasconi)

Experts doubt large-scale uptake

Redbank Power Station first roared to life in 2001, powered by black coal tailings from nearby mines.

It closed in 2014 after racking up close to $200 million in debt.

Verdant Earth bought the plant in 2018 and is awaiting a NSW government assessment on plans to restart it as a 151-megawatt bioenergy generator.

The company said it would process about 700,000 tonnes of dried biomass each year, powering about 200,000 homes.

Dr Allen said what Verdant Earth was proposing at Redbank was a unique opportunity.

“It makes sense to make higher value chemicals with biomass rather than just burning them for electricity.

“That said, burning them for electricity in a plant that already exists, with a feedstock that’s a waste product also, has its advantages,” Dr Allen said.

“For Redbank, that plant already exists. A large amount of the up-front emissions as well as costs is already there.”

Redbank Power Station has sat idle, under care and maintenance, for a decade.(Landline: Bindi Bryce)

To build a site like Redbank from scratch is estimated to cost $720 million, more than double the price of a solar or wind farm of the same megawatt output.

Verdant Earth expects the switch from coal to biomass at the site would cost about $80 million.

Resistance to reviving Redbank

The Redbank restart is facing some opposition.

Nature Conservation Council NSW CEO Jacqui Mumford said the there were concerns around the impact the project could have on air quality.

“Burning timber products is a huge issue in terms of air pollution,” she said.

“It creates PM2.5 particles in the atmosphere, which we know is associated with a raft of respiratory problems.

“So it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for the climate, and it’s bad for people’s health.”

Jacqui Mumford said restarting Redbank would be bad for the community and the climate.(Supplied)

Ms Mumford said the project was not needed in the transition away from fossil fuels.

“If we have the necessary reforms in the planning system, if we have the right incentives in place, we can absolutely get off fossil fuels in the time required without projects like this slowing us down,” she said.

Verdant Earth’s Mr Poole wants Redbank to become a net zero operation.

To complement the INS, Verdant Earth plans to grow its own fuel, and the company is in talks with nearby mines to utilise their buffer zones.

And regardless of the NSW government decision on Redbank’s future, the Mosely family plans to continue to improve the health of Etiwanda Station.

“We’re extremely proud of what we’ve done with the landscape. It’s healthier, it’s more resilient, it’s more productive,” Mr Mosley said.

NSW Local Land Services has strict guidelines to help rid parts of the western district of invasive native scrub.(Landline: Amelia Bernasconi)

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