"WE won't risk the affordability and reliability of the NSW energy system and will step in unless the industry steps up," Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared in his Hunter visit on Tuesday.
The government would certainly prefer that the industry make such a promise irrelevant by committing to covering the looming loss of Liddell's power with their own projects if the market does not. The bottom line is reliability, for the grid but also for power station workers, whose coal-fired livelihoods have a looming end date, and industrial energy users.
Labor's Joel Fitzgibbon was quick to back the project, which is expected to take its ultimate shape on the former Norsk smelter site at Kurri Kurri. Mr Fitzgibbon accused Liberal governments since 2017 of slowing progress by "unrealistically talking about extending the life of the 50-year-old Liddell plant", which he credited with hindering investment decisions by AGL and others. He and Paterson MP Meryl Swanson supported an AGL generator at Tomago and another by Snowy Hydro at Kurri Kurri to boost the region's economy and keep its record of generating more than 8000 megawatts alive.
While renewable projects are dotting the map, Mr Morrison was explicit that a power source less reliant on prevailing conditions was crucial. But the gas proposal, which it is understood could be worth as much as $500 million, is facing its own headwinds.
Environmental groups were quick to slam the plan to trade one fossil fuel for another. While it will give the grid what it needs, this project will hinder efforts to reduce emissions that are already accused of being too little too late. In 2020, patience for that kind of trade-off is becoming frayed, particularly for such major investments.
On another front, the Australian Conservation Foundation claims the project's job credentials are questionable. The Australian Energy Council, a body comprising existing energy operators and the investors behind such projects, says the government's policy would likely deter private sector involvement. Chief executive Sarah McNamara said no present concerns "warrant this kind of interventionist approach".
"Planning should be done independently of government through Australian Energy Market Operator advice, followed by private investment in infrastructure that is not underwritten by government," she said.
As the Prime Minister said, there is more to transitioning power than simply building a windmill. It will take time for the grid to effectively transform. There is no doubt the Hunter is equipped to remain a powerhouse of generation. Mr Morrison's commitment to backstopping renewable projects has more merit than simply assuming their transition will be flawless. No plan is perfect.
Years since AGL declared Liddell would last only a few more years, this is for better or worse the clearest map yet on how the road ahead unfolds. It is welcome, but also quickly becoming time to walk that road.