Latrobe Valley a litmus test for clean energy transition

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Everyone knew that the coal-fired power industry was on its way out of the Latrobe Valley, it was just a question of when.

Hazelwood MineThat came to a head last Thursday, when French company ENGIE, who own the Hazelwood power station in Morwell and the adjacent coal mine, announced it would close by the end of March next year.

Most of the 750 people employed at the station will lose their jobs, though 250 workers will stay on for five years to manage the rehabilitation of the mine.

The death-knell was sounding for Hazelwood long before ENGIE's announced company-wide move away from coal earlier this year. The 50 year old power plant is one of the country's oldest and most inefficient, making it extremely vulnerable to the lower electricity price and supply surplus that appears to have tipped it over the edge.

As the most polluting power plant per unit of energy produced in the industrialised world, according to a World Wildlife Fund report, many will be glad to see the power station go. But its closure also flags a rising dilemma, over who bears the cost of the transition to clean energy. 

The Latrobe Valley has long been reliant on the coal industry and, given that it already has the state's highest unemployment rate of 8 per cent, some are concerned of a looming social collapse. The jobs lost due to these closures shatter the confidence of locals, who see their town heading in only one direction.

On Thursday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a generous support package aimed at encouraging business to move into the area and a hub for the community to develop transition proposals. Announcements also came from ENGIE and the federal government.

But Friday a war of words erupted when Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said Engie was 'driven out of town' by the state government's renewable energy goals. Furthermore there are concerns that the state government packages have come too late to avoid a hard landing and a loss of confidence in the Valley's economy.

 

"Australia's energy transition can either focus on bringing everyone along with it or it can leave behind communities doomed to a fate similar to the rust belt in the US."

 

Wendy Farmer from Voices of the Valley, the group which rose out of community anger at the handling of the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire, queries why Andrews waited until the Hazlewood closed. 'These transition plans should have been started in May ... if not years or decades ago,' she told Eureka Street.

While old Hazelwood was particularly vulnerable, more power stations in the Latrobe Valley and around the country will keep closing as we continue our long-term move towards renewable energy. Latrobe Valley power stations burn brown coal for Victoria's needs, not black coal for export, so their rise and their fall has always been directly linked to the lights in Melbourne. 

While choices to support renewable energy policies will lead to job loss in fossile fuels and new jobs in renewables, few of those championing the move have voiced much concern for the communities most affected. Talking about supporting the economic transitions of vulnerable communities is a relatively new conversation, though unions and some environmental groups are beginning to take it up.

Last year I sat in on roundtable discussions between community leaders taking place as a part of the second Hazelwood Mine fire inquiry. It was clear from these discussions that people want their area to take part in the transition, they don't want another mass exodus from the town like the one that took place during privatisation in the 1990s. They don't want to become a welfare town.

But it's yet to be seen whether they will get the growth needed for long-term transitions, or just short-term splashes of cash from the government announced on days of job losses.

Australia's energy transition can either focus on bringing everyone along with it or it can leave behind communities doomed to a fate similar to the rust belt in the US. Whether the Latrobe Valley flourishes or fades will be a litmus test.

 


Jarni BlakkarlyJarni Blakkarly is a Melbourne based freelance journalist who regularly contributes to the ABC and Al Jazeera amongst other places. He tweets as @jarniblakkarly.

Topic tags: Jarni Blakkarly, Hazelwood


 

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Existing comments

As you say, the economic ramifications of this are enormous. I wonder why no one is thinking about use of clean, new brown coal technology?
Edward Fido | 09 November 2016


A perfect article, with a perfect title, on a critical aspect of climate change. We have to be fair to future generations, but we have to be fair to those caught up in the transition. Would that our political leaders had taken it seriously decades ago: failing to plan is planning to fail, and the fallout in many cases is the lives of innocent people. Perhaps the last-para reference to "the rust belt in the US" is particularly significant this morning.
GJW | 10 November 2016


Australia has the fourth biggest coal reserves in the world and Hazlewood should be recommissioned when Engie vacates. On 14 Nov 2014 (source Fact Check) Greg Hunt said technology which will be available over the next three to five years will reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations by up to 30 to 50 per cent. Also if there is a Hydro Electric turbine on Yarrawonga, why on earth can't one be built at the base of the Hume Weir?
francis Armstrong | 10 November 2016


Please talk about pollution and living sustainably. Everyone can relate to pollution and waste - reduce that and it will definitely affect the climate and our beautiful little planet. Plant trees, they don't have to be big, if you choose carefully and deciduous is better to reduce bush fires.
Jane | 18 November 2016


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