News | 19th Apr, 2011

Carbon compensation debate shifts to brown coal

Tuesday, 19 April 2011
Simon Lauder, ABC News

As the Government hammers out the details of its carbon tax, an environment group is urging it to tread carefully when considering the compensation demands from electricity generators.

Under Kevin Rudd's carbon pollution reduction scheme (CPRS), most of the $7 billion in compensation for power generators would have gone to those that run on brown coal.

But since then the price of black coal has risen dramatically and brown coal remains relatively cheap.

Carbon Market Economics energy industry expert Bruce Mountain says that means if the same compensation offer is made now it will have a perverse outcome.

"I think it's very much harder for brown coal generators to make a case that the vast bulk of the compensation should be paid to them," he said.

"It seems now that black coal power stations have a much stronger case for that compensation.

"I think the key point is that with the cost of black coal having risen so much, it might be the case that the imposition of a carbon price causes the black coal [stations], which are less greenhouse gas intensive, to close first."

But it is a conclusion not supported by a major player in the brown coal market.

Ian Nethercote, the chief executive of Loy Yang Power which runs Victoria's largest power plant, says the level of compensation offered in 2009 would not be enough for brown coal to remain a viable power source.

"The offer that was sitting there was going to fall short in terms of being able to keep some of the brown coal businesses viable into the future," he said.

Mark Wakeham from Environment Victoria is urging the Federal Government not to offer the industry any compensation.

"We want to be making sure the most polluting producers of electricity are actually getting the greatest incentive to clean up their act," he said.

"So by not compensating any of the electricity generators, we're likely to see the most polluting power stations closed first."

The head of the National Generator's Forum, Malcolm Roberts, says Environment Victoria's argument misses the point.

Mr Roberts says generators need compensation for a loss of asset value, which could have dire consequences.

"What's at stake is the continued reliable supply of electricity to Australian households and businesses," he said.

"A carbon price will destroy billions in asset value, it will put acute pressure on the viability of some businesses which are making a very substantial contribution to our energy supply.

"There's also the question of the impact it has on the capacity of those businesses and the willingness of prospective new investors to invest in the new generation capacity we need."

Those who argue the sector should not be compensated say it is known that a carbon price has been coming for years so it should have been built into financial arrangements.

But Mr Roberts says this is not the case.

"Many of the assets we have here were gone a very long time before there were any decisions or agreement that we were going to progress a carbon price," he said.

"Power stations are long-life assets. They have working lives that are measured in decades.

"The assets we have now were built many years ago. The current owners have bought those assets in good faith at a time when a carbon price was not in the offing."

Hard to separate

The debate over compensation is one where economic and environmental arguments are hard to separate.

Professor of Economics at the University of Melbourne, John Freebairn, says the Government will find it hard to say no to industry pressure.

"Well this is a Government that's very subject to industry pressure and rent seeking," he said.

Professor Freebairn says even if generators are directly compensated, costs may be passed down to consumers anyway.

"That's been the experience of Europe where they were given free permits. They largely passed on the price and it was a nice little transfer from consumers of electricity to producers of electricity," he said.

Professor Freebairn says the possibility that compensation under a carbon tax could actually have a perverse environmental outcome is unlikely.

"The cost of producing dirty coal-fired power will rise more than gas and again that of renewables won't be much at all. There are lots of investors outside in this world, not just the existing Australian electricity generators," he said.

"If they see a clear pattern of a rise in carbon price, we'll grab the opportunity initially to bring in gas as a replacement to coal to put in a little bit more of the renewables and of course invest in making their coal-fired plants more efficient."

He says all compensation should go to households so consumers can make the choice.


More resources

Read the submission here: Treatment of electricity generators under a price on carbon

Read more about our campaign to Replace Hazelwood

Prior to the state election, we analysed where the major parties stand on replacing Hazelwood power station. Download the paper here

We released a report that shows how Hazelwood can be replaced as soon as the end of 2012. All while maintaining energy security, cutting Victoria's greenhouse pollution by 12 percent and creating more jobs than Hazelwood currently provides. Check it out