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Giant Coal Plant to Close as Australia Faces Energy Shake-Up

FILE - Vapor rises from Liddell Power Station near Muswellbrook, 170 km (106 miles) north of Sydney, Nov. 2, 2011.

One of Australia’s biggest power companies says it will close a major coal-fired power station as it invests in renewable sources despite pressure from the government in Canberra to keep it open.

"Run down, dangerous and expensive" is how an Australian newspaper described the Liddell power plant, adding that it was “the perfect symbol of the decline of the coal industry.”

The facility was completed in 1973 with an expected lifespan of 25 years, but it continues to generate power in a country that relies on coal to generate more than 60 percent of its electricity.

The Australian government wants the plant to stay open for a few more years because of fears of power cuts and concerns about the potentially fragile state of the nation’s energy sector. Two years ago wild storms damaged transmission cables, causing a black-out across the entire state of South Australia. Ministers are also worried about the political implications of household power bills that have soared in recent years.

But energy giant AGL plans to decommission the facility in the New South Wales Hunter Valley in 2022 as it concentrates its commercial interests on renewable sources of energy, including solar and wind. The company insists its decision is economic, and not ideological.

Brett Redman, interim chief executive of energy company AGL says that despite pleas from the government the Liddell power station will close as scheduled in four years’ time.

“Our strategy to exit heavy carbon-emitting facilities over the long term is unchanged," he said. "We continue in an operational sense to review our plans but there is no change at this point to the Liddell exit date. I have spoken to and I have met personally Angus Taylor, the new energy minister. I found that to be a very comfortable meeting where he understandably is very worried about power price on behalf of Australia’s consumers.”

Australia remains heavily reliant on fossil fuels not only for domestic power generation, but also for economic reasons. It exports billions of dollars worth of coking coal, currently a key ingredient in the making of steel, and thermal coal, which is used for heat and power generation. Much is sold to China, and into Southeast Asia.

Conservationists argue, however, that the coal industry is waning and that Australia should be vigorously pursuing alternative renewable sources. Despite Canberra’s continued enthusiasm for coal, which in Australia is cheap and plentiful, Australia’s energy mix is changing. There has been an increase in small-scale solar power generation, mostly through domestic rooftop panels and more consumption of natural gas.