Aerial view over lands and river in country Australia. In the back ground is a power station plant with fumes expolling from the stacks. ; Aerial view over lands and river in country Australia. In the back ground is a power station plant with fumes expolling from the stacks. ;

Repurposing power stations: toward net zero regions, hubs and precincts

It is an exciting time to work in the energy industry. The pace of the change and the significance of the energy transition becomes more urgent with every passing week. 

The work we do and the actions we take as an industry have the power to impact how we create a net zero future. However, as we accelerate change to create this future, we must consider the full spectrum of impacts and opportunities.

In Australia, power station precincts are the beacons of change and currently a focal point of the energy transition discussion. Each week there is news of new plans to decommission power stations, often much earlier than planned.

For decades, these precincts have been the economic and visual centre of regional communities and provided cost-effective electricity for rest of Australia. Yet, as their economic viability declines, we must start planning.

So, how do you plan to repurpose these sites so site owners and communities can thrive?

I recently explored this question with a panel of experts at the coal face of this challenge:

  • Brett Hawkins, Chief Executive Officer, Greenspot

  • Julie Whitcombe, General Manager Strategy and Development, CleanCo Queensland

  • Penny Hall, Clients and Market Leader, Arup.

A man seated between two women on stage smiling at a talk. A business event. A man seated between two women on stage smiling at a talk. A business event.
From left: Penny Hall, Arup, Brett Hawkins, Greenspot and Julie Whitcombe, CleanCo

Here are some highlights from the discussion to help you understand how we can repurpose Australia’s power station precincts for the future.

Seeing opportunity in complexity

While every power station site is unique, there are future demands we must fulfil for site owners, including return on investment and fulfilling corporate social responsibility. For our communities, we will need affordable and reliable energy, regional jobs, environments rich in biodiversity and a green economy. I asked the panel about some of the opportunities they saw in their precincts and how they could meet these demands. 

Julie Whitcombe is in the early planning stages of transitioning the Swanbank Power Station in South East Queensland. She shared her thoughts on the opportunities power station precincts offer.

Watch the event recording: 'Net zero regions, hubs and precincts | Repurposing power stations'
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Brett Hawkins is amid transforming the Wallerawang Power Station in regional New South Wales. He agreed, adding: “The sites have core-enabling infrastructure; they often have close proximity to energy, water and transport infrastructure and, in some cases, high integrity data which can be used to leverage future business opportunities over time.”

“The fabric of the community and their workforce, particularly in regional areas, is also a massive opportunity. These communities have been providing opportunities to others for generations, and they deserve a prosperous future.”

Non-traditional partnerships 

The scale and pace of change of the energy transition puts us in unchartered territory for site owners and communities. I asked the panel how they see the value of partnerships and collaborations for transforming these sites.

For Brett, partnerships are vitally important. He explained, “We are taking a non-traditional business partner approach because there is no template for this.”

“For some aspects of the project, we needed expert advice. Arup provides the full spectrum from strategic through to technical support, which is invaluable for us.”

Brett also highlighted the importance of collaborating with all tiers of government, becoming trusted partners with traditional custodians and community groups, and creating a shared vision for the precinct’s future. 

Julie described the future of partnerships as the “collapsing and recreating of typical business models” if we are to keep up with the pace of change. 

“If we want a different outcome, we need to engage differently. Traditionally, organisations have held their plans and information privately. However, we need to be more transparent with the community and our partners to solve problems with speed.”

“We recently underwent a strategy reset and have called out partnering as a core capability that needs to be ingrained in our business from board to site level.”

Taking an evidence-based approach

Offering evidence-based guidance is how we can create certainty and plan vibrant regional community futures. I asked Penny how we can help our clients map out a probable future and help every site see where the greatest potential lies. 

“Before we work with any client, we bring together case studies from power stations projects across the globe to understand any synergies and learnings we can share.” 

As Arup’s lead for the concept master planning of the Hazelwood Power Station redevelopment in Victoria, Penny also shared her insights for using evidence during a project.

“Baselining and reporting back on what is working is essential for progress. For the Hazelwood project, we set metrics at the very start of the project and measured our progress to create data we could use in future on Hazelwood and others.”

Penny explained how our firm takes a multi-layered approach, tapping into our energy, planning, climate services, and finance and economic teams to provide informed, data-backed opportunities for our clients to consider. 

“To navigate through the complexity and future proof decision making, we use scenario planning to investigate and test future options, against a backdrop of possible technological, social and economic change.”

Insights for action

So, how do we ensure we transform these precincts into regions with thriving communities and economies? I asked each panellist to offer their closing thought.

“Partnership and transparency. You have to let your walls down, muck in and collaborate to problem solve,” said Julie.

“Community engagement. The people who live and work in these communities tend to have a very good idea of what the future looks like and how to play to their strengths,” said Brett.

“Generosity. Sharing our ideas, challenges, thought leadership, and evidence so that we can get the best outcome,” said Penny.