Power shift: The Latrobe Valley looks for a new future, againSeptember 27, 2021
By Miki Perkins
Coal-fired energy from the Latrobe Valley underpinned decades of Victoria’s economic prosperity, but its days are numbered.Credit:Simon Schluter
Bronya Lipski has warm memories of being five years old and piling into the family station wagon at the end of the day with her mum and sisters to drive from their home in the Gippsland town of Moe to the car park at the Yallourn Power Station.
There they parked – kids mucking about in the back seat – to watch workers pour out of the gates at the end of a shift wearing their green State Electricity Commission jumpers.
Environment lawyer Bronya Lipski grew up in the Latrobe Valley and her father and grandfather both worked at the power stations.Credit:Scott McNaughton
In this crowd was their dad, Peter Lipski, a dump truck driver and member of a close-knit, heavily unionised workforce proud of its role in generating the cheap, coal-fired energy that underpinned decades of Victoria’s economic prosperity and manufacturing clout. Bronya Lipski’s grandfather also worked at the power stations.
“There was a sense of blue-collar camaraderie. Folks were looked after, they had jobs for life, and there was a real community and economic prosperity based around the power industry,” says Lipski, now 40.
An artist’s impression of the Yallourn “W” Power Station, which the State Electricity Commission of Victoria built in 1974.Credit:Fairfax Media
Then everything changed. The Kennett government privatised the State Electricity Commission in the 1990s and thousands of jobs were lost. The seismic shift triggered long-term unemployment and poor social and economic conditions in the Latrobe Valley.
Locals still haven’t forgotten that era of fear and uncertainty. This lies at the heart of the anxiety that accompanies power station closures, says Lipski, who became a public interest lawyer and now works at Environment Justice Australia on the dismal regulation of air pollution in fossil-fuel industries.
“When you talk about closing coal-fired power stations, or when greenies from urban areas say coal kills, they don’t understand the psychological fear around job losses,” she says.
But close they will. Engie, the owner of Hazelwood, shut the plant’s doors in 2017 with an abrupt five-month warning and the loss of 400 full-time and 350 contract jobs. The dirtiest power station in the country, Hazelwood had been a symbol of Australia’s reliance on coal and the political struggles over climate change policy since the mid-2000s.
The demolition of the Hazelwood plant in May 2020, three years after it closed. Credit:Joe Armao
Its closure was a harbinger, the beginning of a transition in the Latrobe Valley. Australia wide, fossil fuel-based generators are under growing financial strain as renewables drive daytime power prices down to levels where coal and gas struggle to compete.
New coal mines might be opening in NSW and Queensland, but Victoria’s industry is in palliative care, as the shift from emissions-heavy fossil fuels towards renewable energy only gathers pace.
So it was no real surprise when EnergyAustralia, owner of the Yallourn Power Station, announced in March its closure would be brought forward to mid-2028, and the company would build a 350-megawatt battery (larger than any battery operating in the world today), to shore up Victoria’s energy supply.
After Hazelwood’s abrupt shutdown, can Yallourn’s cautious approach offer a closure template for other Australian coal-fired generators? Many Latrobe Valley residents want a broad transition – a social, jobs and environmental transformation that doesn’t rely on profit-driven corporations to ring the changes.
‘We should lock them in a room in Canberra, kick pizzas under the door, and not let them out until someone’s made a plan.’
Either way, the science is clear. Even under the most ambitious emission reduction scenarios, the world is likely to be heated to 1.5 degrees or more above pre-industrial levels by 2040, exposing it to extreme and catastrophic weather, says the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
And this means 95 per cent of Australia’s coal must stay in the ground by 2050 if we are to have half a chance of limiting global warming.
In the year before Hazelwood closed, some areas near the 90-metre boilers were so dangerous they were fenced off and workers warned not to enter.
Yallourn power plant today. Credit:Simon Schluter
“They couldn’t guarantee the integrity of the plant,” says John Dowling, a boilermaker and union delegate at the plant for 13 years until it closed. “Like any piece of machinery, it wore out. People said the Greens or Dan Andrews shut Hazelwood down, but it had to shut down because it was knackered.”
Dowling retained his equanimity when the closure was announced but many of the 450 workers had been there for decades and felt adrift. “They had only three months to find work and they felt shocked and betrayed,” he says.
To head off a jobs crisis, the Andrews government established a $266 million rescue package designed to retrain workers and entice businesses to the valley. A pooled redundancy scheme, the first of its kind in Australia, meant older workers from other power stations could apply to leave the industry and Hazelwood workers could take their roles, an approach that saved 90 jobs.
Dowling joined the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council as a project officer, responsible for retraining the shell-shocked Hazelwood workers. He says a national, planned transition away from coal could have save workers, their families and community considerable heartache.
John Dowling and Steve Dodd.Credit:Simon Schluter
“There is no national plan. I don’t care what side of politics, someone just make a friggin’ plan,” he says. “We should lock them in a room in Canberra, kick pizzas under the door, and not let them out until someone’s made a plan.”
Dowling’s colleague, Steve Dodd, secretary of the Trades and Labour Council, says EnergyAustralia’s 2028 closure is far better than the debacle at Hazelwood. “The reality is that developing new industries is a lot easier to do when you’ve got that timeline up your sleeve,” he says.
EnergyAustralia managing director Mark Collette says he expects 2028 will be the date Yallourn ceases generation and it is still providing an essential service today. AGL Energy says the company has committed to providing five years’ notice of closure of Loy Yang A Power Station, but there is no change to the current date of 2048. Alinta, owner of Loy Yang B, did not provide a comment.
Many of the gloomy predictions made for the Latrobe Valley ahead of the Hazelwood closure have not eventuated. In August this year there were more people employed in the Latrobe-Gippsland region – 130,100 – than in November 2014, an increase of 6700 workers, or 5.4 per cent. Since November 2014, the unemployment rate has decreased by a modest 0.5 percentage points (from 5.9 per cent), though the impact of the pandemic is yet to be evaluated.
When Hazelwood closed, the newly established Latrobe Valley Authority was responsible for delivering the $266 million in funding. The authority’s chief executive, Karen Cain, emphasises the authority’s remit is far wider than supporting former Hazelwood workers.
“There was an assumption people would leave the area, but they didn’t. This is about creating the conditions for long-term prosperity, and that’s where we’ve got to go,” says Cain. “We have a positive approach to the word transition, and that includes transformation.”
On the ground, funding has gone to new public spaces, rail trails, arts projects, community gardens, and beautifying the main street of Morwell.
A $16.5 million “economic growth zone” helped 370 businesses to expand and employ more people. Ninety per cent of these businesses were local, and the initiative created 680 full-time and 200 part-time jobs, as well as 70 apprenticeships.
One of the major attractions is the new Gippsland Regional Aquatic centre, where the lap swimming pool is the first public facility in Victoria to incorporate a geothermal heating system, tapping into an underground aquifer.
The authority’s funding runs out in 2022, a source of consternation for some residents, but Cain is confident its work will be extended. Before the pandemic began, the authority surveyed residents on their sentiments about the future: the majority felt “strongly positive”, or more positive than they had in the past 12 months.
One of the Latrobe Valley’s strategic advantages is the existing transmission infrastructure – the electrical “superhighways” – that will enable the region to harness renewable energy. Investor interest is strong. In Victoria, there has been a four-fold increase in applications for wind and solar generation licences in the state since 2017, putting deep pressure on coal generators.
Lily D’Ambrosio, the state’s Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, says when Yallourn exits the grid, other projects need to be ready to prevent disruption and upheaval. “You can’t turn on and off a tap. You have to plan it, be really clear, and send signals to the market.”
Victoria’s 2020-21 state budget included significant renewables fundings, including $543 million for six “renewable energy zones” around the state, including the so-called “windy east” in Gippsland.
Proposals include the massive multibillion-dollar Star of the South wind farm proposal in the Bass Strait, off the coast of Gippsland, which would provide about 20 per cent of Victoria’s energy.
The Star of the South would look similar to this, the Veja Mate offshore wind farm in Germany.Credit:
D’Ambrosio says states and territories have tried for years to get a nationally agreed approach to energy transition but “failed at every turn”, so Victoria invested regardless. “While I remain supportive and encouraging of a national approach, I know one is unlikely to eventuate with this current [federal] government,” she says.
Aside from Star of the South, there’s a long list of clean energy projects mooted for Gippsland. These include the Delburn Wind Farm in the Strzelecki ranges – with turbines to be installed in pine plantations – and solar farms at Hazelwood, Toongabbie and Maffra.
An empty grass paddock at Longford, north of Sale, will become Australia’s first Aboriginal-owned solar farm, with the Ramahyuck District Aboriginal Corporation getting $1 million from the state government to build a 4.9-megawatt system.
One of the largest proposals is Repowering Gippsland, a $2 billion pitch from renewable energy consultancy Solis RE, which is backed by UK-based Octopus Investments, the second-largest renewables developer in Europe.
This will have various solar and battery locations – including solar farms at Perry Bridge and Fulham – and a 500MW battery, five times the size of the Tesla battery in South Australia.
A week after Yallourn’s closure was announced, Latrobe City Council’s mayor, Sharon Gibson, travelled to Canberra to push for a bipartisan taskforce to tackle the region’s transition.
Gibson says the Latrobe Valley is still recovering from the closure of Hazelwood, and the council is too. The power station paid about $2 million a year in rates to the council, and when Yallourn shuts there will be a similar hole in the budget.
Gibson’s mission was successful: the new transition taskforce includes federal Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar, Nationals MP Darren Chester, and Labor’s Chris Bowen and Senator Kim Carr. The state Labor government declined an invitation, though Gibson hopes this will change.
Latrobe City Council mayor Sharon Gibson.Credit:Simon Schluter
Gippsland has been chosen among a handful of places across Australia to receive federal funding to accelerate the development and commercialisation of the Australian hydrogen industry. Gibson hints at an “exciting” new project that involves new technologies, including hydrogen fuel cells for land and aerial vehicles. “We used to think the Jetsons were far-fetched but maybe they weren’t.”
Environmentalists have raised doubts about whether hydrogen produced from coal, rather than “green” hydrogen from renewables, has a future. Indeed, many in the Latrobe Valley say new industries should not be polluting ones.
Last week, Environment Victoria launched legal action against the owners of Victoria’s three coal-fired power generators and the state’s environmental watchdog, the Environment Protection Agency, for allegedly failing to limit climate pollution.
Laura Melville, a community organiser at Environment Victoria, says the rehabilitation of heavily polluted, now-defunct mine pits and power stations should be the cornerstone of any transition. And that if this rehabilitation is taken seriously, it generates jobs.
“It’s not going to be a just transition if what we’re left with is toxic pits with cyclone fences around them,” Melville says. “The environment has been highly altered for more than 100 years.”
Jane, Dennis and Liam Sultana.Credit:Simon Schluter
Moe teacher Jane Sultana is a member of the Latrobe Valley Sustainability Group. Her husband, Dennis Sultana, has worked his entire career at Yallourn, and will soon retire.
They hold grave concerns about climate change and want a greener future for the Latrobe Valley. Jane Sultana predicts all three coal-fired power stations will close long before 2047 (the closure dates for Loy Yang A and B). And she worries about the decades ahead and their two teenage sons: “I’m afraid for their future, not because the power stations are closing down but because of climate change.”
Bronya Lipski shares these sentiments. She has worked with coal communities in the Latrobe Valley, NSW and Queensland and says there is growing awareness of the relationship between industrial facilities and poor health.
One day, she would love to return to Latrobe Valley, where her family still lives. Sooner or later, the power stations will be closed, she says. “And who are we when that’s all gone – what do we actually value?”
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