Ashley Dodd had big plans for his startup solar company, Shine Energy.
“The dream is to become a big player in the power industry,” Dodd told the Koori Mail in 2017.
The Shine Energy chief executive had become a familiar face at renewable energy conferences and had met with several industry figures for advice on how to get a Queensland solar project across the line.
“They were very passionate about why they were doing it,” one renewable consultant told Guardian Australia. “They just didn’t know the first thing about the industry, including that they’d need to have land, and funding, and off-take agreements in place first.”
In a statement about its values – posted on its website in 2017 and since deleted – Shine said: “as a traditional owner company which understands the natural economy, the renewable energy sector is a natural fit for Shine Energy”.
Three years later, Shine Energy is the proponent of a $2bn coal-fired power station at Collinsville and the recipient of a politically-charged $4m government grant for a feasibility study.
Embraced by pro-coal Queensland Nationals and Andrew Bolt, Dodd has more recently said the national energy market has been placed at risk by renewable energy speculators and called green groups “economic terrorists”.
His and Shine’s ideological conversion occurred – says a source with direct knowledge of Shine Energy’s activities as a renewables company – after Shine repeatedly failed to win bids for solar work and Dodd grew frustrated with an industry where work contracts appeared to favour established and experienced players.
The idea of building a coal-fired power station at Collinsville seemed odd to those around Shine Energy at the time.
“We just thought, when you haven’t had any luck building solar panels, why do you then go and propose doing something 100 times more expensive?” says an energy sector consultant who had previously offered informal advice to Dodd.
But Collinsville presented Shine with a bright fleck of opportunity the solar industry had not. It had no competition from other proponents. And it had significant political cheerleaders for a proposal that would be an effective wedge for the LNP at the Queensland and federal election.
Company heads in new direction
Shine Energy began working on its coal power proposal about the time of the 2017 election campaign, when the Queensland Liberal National party first promised to build the generator at Collinsville.
Because it had never won a contract or completed a project, Shine has been structured so that its employees each had a stake in the company. In mid-2017, as Shine moved in a new direction, three of its directors and shareholders connected to a Brisbane engineering and project management business left the company, Australian Securities and Investments Commission records show.
By the middle of 2018, Shine had pivoted to a new engineering partner – the Canadian global services firm WSP – which is understood to have agreed to work pro-bono designing an energy park and completing a business case.
Both Shine and WSP have refused to answer questions about how the firm became involved in the project. Since the Guardian began asking questions of WSP, it has deleted a 2018 website post in which it detailed its relationship with the power company.
“Our team is working closely with Shine Energy as well as the Birriah nation and Wiri nation communities to design and deliver an energy mix solution that enables reliable, affordable electricity with lower emissions that will sustainably shape their future communities,” WSP power and energy executive Peter Skindberg said in the now-deleted post.
“Together, we are committed to increasing economic activity and employment opportunities for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people living in regional communities such as Collinsville, Bowen, Townsville and Mackay.”
In WSP, Shine had the backing of a top-tier services firm that could lend its proposals credibility.
The government designed specific ad hoc ‘grant guidelines for Shine Energy’ that were then used to award the money.
In 2019, in the months leading up to the federal election, articles in News Corp publications and posts by Queensland Nationals first began to refer to Shine Energy as the proponent of the coal-fired power proposal for north Queensland.
Shine had submitted a plan to the government’s Underwriting New Generation Investment program, which was designed to assist the development of new power generation infrastructure, but failed to make the shortlist.
Instead, under pressure from pro-coal Nationals, the Coalition made an election promise to fund a feasibility study, which helped to boost its successful rout of marginal central Queensland seats.
The $4m allocation announced by government in February was made in unusual circumstances. The government designed specific ad hoc “grant guidelines for Shine Energy” that were then used to award the money.
The announcement Shine would receive funding was made on 8 February and two days later, the department contacted Shine and invited them to make an application for the specific grant.
Guardian Australia understands the eventual payment would be the first money the company – which has no physical office – has received since its formation in 2016.
Power play by miners?
On Thursday, during an online forum on renewable energy, the Liberal National Party’s Queensland energy spokesman, Michael Hart, said the Collinsville coal-power proposal was backed by “big mining companies” who were looking for cheaper electricity.
“The LNP is not proposing for any government investment into a new coal-fired power station. So let me draw a line through that straight away,” Hart said.
“What is happening in Collinsville is we have some big mining companies there that say they can’t buy electricity at a reasonable price so they are proposing to back a new coal-fired power station at Collinsville. Basically they’ll take all the power off it.”
Glencore says that it has “no financial stake” in Shine Energy and has not provided financial backing of any kind to the Collinsville proposal.
But the company also says it did provide “advice on project management and governance” to Shine Energy and is interested in an arrangement with the company that could involve both supplying coal and purchasing power.
“Glencore is a major consumer of energy and many of our assets have long remaining mine lives,” the company said in a statement.
“As such, we are open to discussions with potential new energy providers – irrespective of the source of that energy – if doing so will deliver reliable and affordable supply.
“Subject to the proposal moving to a bankable project, we have indicated we would consider a coal supply agreement to the project, given we have a mine located nearby.”
Most recent analysis of the Collinsville proposal – including justifications for the project by Shine Energy and the federal government – has talked about the plan in terms of its ability to feed power into the Queensland electricity grid.
When he announced the grant to Shine, the energy minister Angus Taylor said “an independent strategic study has identified system strength is a real concern in central and north Queensland, and new synchronous generation is a priority to meet the energy needs of customers in the region”.
However even the Queensland LNP seems now to accept the energy grid does not require the Collinsville project. Hart told the forum on Tuesday the state already had “plenty of power”.
Tim Buckley, the director of energy finance studies at the Institution of Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, said federal government subsidies for the project were “energy policy chaos on steroids”.
Shine did not respond to a series of questions.