Latrobe Valley left on 'scrapheap' with no transition plan for power station workers after coal departure

Power station near Morwell, Victoria. Picture: Tom Melville
Power station near Morwell, Victoria. Picture: Tom Melville

In Latrobe, in Victoria's Gippsland region, coal is king.

For a century the Victorian state-owned electricity company generated power here by burning the coal buried throughout the valley.

The company was privatised in the nineties, and the workforce of around 25,000 was slashed by 10,000 employees. Then five years ago the Hazelwood power station was closed down - a huge blow to the valley and its workers.

Many people here have deep roots in coal and electricity generation. Mark Richards is one of them - he worked at Hazelwood for decades, and his dad worked in coal power generation, too, as did his granddad.

Mark wants to know how Latrobe and the country can transition away from coal, while making sure the people who rely on the stuff for their livelihoods don't get left behind.

"I was born and bred here, got family here," says Mark. "Generations of family here, worked from the Australian paper industry right through to mining and energy."

Mark Richards was a young power station worker just starting out during privatisation so he's had a front row seat for the decline of Australia's fossil fuel industries. He was on shift when Hazelwood Power Station eventually shut down in 2017, leaving hundreds more people out of work.

"We had people's partners ringing up saying that they've been told their partner is worth more dead than alive due to the fact that they had superannuation for death payouts."

Apart from a couple of days a week at the local CFMEU branch, Mark has barely worked in the last five years.

We had people's partners ringing up saying that they've been told their partner is worth more dead than alive due to the fact that they had superannuation for death payouts.

Mark Richards, Former Hazelwood Worker

Hazelwood power station was constructed between 1964 and 1971. By the end of its life it was providing 25 per cent of Victoria's energy needs -- as well as 14 per cent of its carbon emissions. In 2005 it was rated the least efficient power station in the OECD by the World Wildlife Fund.

Mark Richards has barely worked since Hazelwood's closure in 2017. Picture: Tom Melville

Mark Richards has barely worked since Hazelwood's closure in 2017. Picture: Tom Melville

In November of 2016, ENGIE, the France-based majority owners of Hazelwood, announced the power station would cease operations by March the following year - five months warning.

Hazelwood's nearly eight hundred workers were left with limited options.

"You've got to pack up and move if you want to keep a job in the same sort of field or transfer to another job where you're paid a third of the wage. That doesn't help our local economy," Mark says.

Along with his colleagues at the CFMEU, Mark helped to set up a worker transfer scheme. The aim was to get as many people across to the other power stations around Latrobe. Of Hazelwood's around 800 retrenched workers, 89 were given new positions -- well short of the 150 Victoria's Premier Daniel Andrews had promised.

But without new, emerging industry, Mark says schemes like this are only prolonging the inevitable.

"We did have an opportunity to transfer those workers to one of three power stations. When you close another one, there's only two more power stations left. Where do you go next?

"You could pack up, you could move, leave the community, and make good money elsewhere. But there's such a thing as quality of life and lifelong friendships. You don't want to throw them away," Mark says.

Wendy Farmer's husband worked at Hazelwood, right up until the end. We had tea in the kitchen at her home in Newborough. She remembers Hazelwood's closure as an awful time.

Wendy Farmer's husband took early retirement after Hazelwood's closure. Picture: Tom Melville

Wendy Farmer's husband took early retirement after Hazelwood's closure. Picture: Tom Melville

"It was really terrifying," she says. "It put so much stress in our own household. And what made it even more terrifying was the politics of what was happening, and I mean federal politics and that confusion about energy. But it was also on our finances, and what the future was going to look like for us."

Wendy's house is close enough to the nearby Yallourn power station that she often finds soot coating the leaves in her garden and filling up the roof cavities.

Wendy is president of Voices of the Valley, a group advocating for the health of the valley's residents and a transition to a renewable future for Latrobe. She's frustrated by what she sees as a lack of long-term transition planning for her community.

You could pack up, you could move, leave the community, and make good money elsewhere. But there's such a thing as quality of life and lifelong friendships. You don't want to throw them away.

Mark Richards, Former Hazelwood Worker

"Our organisation would go to politicians and councils and say, 'hey, guys, we have to transition' and we were basically being shut down. 'How dare you use that word around here? We're going to have coal for a long time," she says.

But there's some scepticism in the valley about the green revolution and what it means for the community. The first question is jobs - particularly well-paid, meaningful jobs of the kind that used to be common in the area.

Geoff Dyke helped set up a worker transfer scheme to make sure at least some Hazelwood workers weren't left with nothing. Picture: Tom Melville

Geoff Dyke helped set up a worker transfer scheme to make sure at least some Hazelwood workers weren't left with nothing. Picture: Tom Melville

Geoff Dyke works at Loy Yang B power station, as well as at the CFMEU with Mark. He says that jobs in the renewable sector don't cut it.

"Renewables is not a viable option for our workers to transition to," Geoff tells me. "Our workers are some of the highest paid in the country, and most of these jobs in the renewable sector are some of the lowest. And the skill levels - if you're washing solar panels and spraying weeds underneath them, it's not very high skilled work for skilled workers."

The coveted renewable jobs, Mark Richards says, are in the manufacturing of components for solar and wind farms - but that's not happening in the valley, either.

"We're not making blades here. We're not making the gearboxes here, none of that's being made here. It's all imported from overseas at the cheapest rate," Mark says.

Building a solar farm is only a short term employer, and if you want longer term employment when you bring in the renewable industries, you must build the manufacturing base next to it.

Chris Barfoot, consultant in the renewables sector

In March, EnergyAustralia announced that Yallourn Power Station would close down in 2028, four years ahead of schedule. There's a sense in the valley that this will be just another Hazelwood, and they're bracing for tough times ahead. But they've been given something they didn't have back then: time. And while the dates aren't set in stone, the people I spoke with are hopeful they'll be able to use the time they've got to plan for a just transition.

Former Hazelwood engineer Chris Barfoot now works as an independent consultant in the renewables sector.

While Chris understands all too well the risks that are inherent in a plant closure, he also sees it as a chance to develop new industry in the region. He tells me that Hazelwood's closure meant there was space on the electricity grid available for renewable energy to fill.

"Building a solar farm is only a short term employer, and if you want longer term employment when you bring in the renewable industries, you must build the manufacturing base next to it," he says.

There is some industry preparing to move into the area - a controversial lead battery recycling plant was recently approved and if it goes ahead will provide about 50 jobs. Chris says this is a promising project, and all parties need to come together and encourage more like it.

Chris Barfoot thinks the only way to ensure the valley's future is for new industry to fill the void left by the power plants' closure. Picture: Tom Melville

Chris Barfoot thinks the only way to ensure the valley's future is for new industry to fill the void left by the power plants' closure. Picture: Tom Melville

"Making things happen and getting new businesses down takes time. It takes government policy, it takes incentives, it takes negotiation."

Renewable electricity is far cheaper than coal power, and it's getting cheaper. Unless industry fills the void left by the inevitable closure of the valley's remaining power stations, Chris believes his community as it is today won't survive. And time is running out with those power stations still left in Latrobe quickly becoming unprofitable. They are now expected to close well-before their life expectancies.

Latrobe is just one example, a warning even. There are 21 coal fired power stations around the country, and even more coal mining hubs. Regions like the Hunter in NSW, or Collie in Western Australia are facing similar challenges to the people of Latrobe. Currently, there is no plan to help the tens of thousands of workers employed in Australia's fossil fuel industry transition to new jobs as we move away from coal.

Mark Richards points to the success of Germany's coal transition, and argues that a centralised, long-term plan is necessary to help Australia's workers make the transition.

"That's foresight. That's realising you don't chuck communities on the scrapheap. Currently, we don't have this in Australia."

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This story Latrobe demise a warning to coal communities first appeared on Newcastle Herald.