The board of Queensland state-owned power generator Stanwell corporation spent 18 months planning a transition strategy to pivot from coal to renewables, before the unexpected resignation of its chief executive last week.
Guardian Australia understands Richard van Breda quit Stanwell after the state energy minister, Mick de Brenni, complained to board members he was blindsided by an announcement – revealed by the Guardian – that rapidly changing market conditions would probably force the scaled-down operation of its coal plants.
Van Breda would not comment other than to say he made his own decision to step down.
However, the resignation appears to have been accompanied by a shift in language from Stanwell around its transition plans. The company’s chairman, Paul Binstead, has since written to staff in an apparent attempt to walk back suggestions that workers might need to be retrained or redeployed.
Binstead said workers’ jobs were “secure, stable and long-term’’ in the email, seen by the Guardian.
The efforts to now backtrack on elements of the company’s announcement have come as a shock to those familiar with the work of the board – which includes federal Labor president Wayne Swan – which commissioned consultant Ernst & Young about 18 months ago to look at how it could manage the business through a rapid market transition towards renewable energy.
As Van Breda told the Guardian last week, the company’s pivot was led by a desire to respond to the “rapid” pace of the energy transition and to ensure workers and communities were supported.
“We recognise that over time, the changes our business must make in order to remain relevant to our customers, will affect the futures of our people and current asset communities,” he said.
“We are therefore taking early steps to bring our people, communities, unions and government together to put plans in place. These plans will help ensure that as we eventually retire our assets from service, our people have choices in relation to retraining, redeployment and – where it is their preference – retirement.”
Van Breda made no comments – as has been claimed elsewhere – that coal plants would be retired earlier than scheduled.
In fact, attenders at a future energy summit in Gladstone say the outoing Stanwell chief executive argued that flexible operations of coal-fired power stations might extend the life of assets that would otherwise become unviable ahead of schedule, as renewables and new technology squeezed out fossil fuel generators.
On Monday, after Van Breda’s resignation, de Brenni told the Australian Financial Review the state had “no plans to decommission any of our publicly owned generation assets in Queensland ahead of their time”.
Sources say that de Brenni – one of two shareholding ministers – complained to board members last week that he had not been aware that Stanwell was planning to make public its strategy ahead of a central Queensland energy summit last week.
It is unclear whether he was aware of the board’s long-term planning efforts prior to the announcement.
“Stanwell and its workforce are critical to Queensland’s electricity supply,” he said.
“We will continue to have the highest respect for the livelihoods of the workers while we strive together to deliver cleaner, cheaper electricity for households and businesses and decent, secure jobs for Queenslanders.
“The Energy Security Board’s proposed reforms are imminent and need to be taken into account in determining how Queensland best captures the opportunities renewable energy brings to our state.”
The apparent political intervention has frustrated those campaigning for a discussion about the inevitability of an energy-market led transition in central Queensland, who viewed the energy summit last week as a turning point.
The summit organiser, Amanda Cahill, said she was unaware of any anger from attendees – including power generators and unions – after the summit.