Renewed insight into the clean-energy job transition for coal-industry towns

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Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), the think tank which released a 10 GW Vision arguing for the Northern Territory’s (NT) potential for 10 GW in renewables by 2030, a vision almost immediately vindicated by the Sun Cable Project, has released a new report. Collie at the Crossroads, looks at the Western Australian (WA) town of Collie, and how it can transition from the coal-industry which created it, to the nation’s zero-carbon future. 

Collie, located 200kms from Perth in the heart of the South West Interconnected System (SWIS), has powered WA since the 1880s with its two coal mines. The mines and power stations employ around 1,250 works and contractors. BZE asks the question, “What does Collie look like in 2030?” 

Like many towns and communities around Australia, the coal industry workers of Collie and their families, who make up a large portion of the town’s 9,000 people, are seeing a new future approaching at pace. Plans were recently announced to close Muja Power Station units 5 and 6, as well as notice of more job losses at Griffin Coal. This continuing trend emphasises the prudent need for a long-term plan for transition along with the rest of the world, and Collie’s residents need this plan now. 

As BZE points out, the impending Muja Power Station shutdown is just one wheezing sign of the dying fossil-fuel industry. In Australia, energy from renewables like large-scale solar is now cheaper than carbon-emitting alternatives. There can be seemingly endless bickering, but everyone eventually shuts up when money talks. And not only is money talking, but it is talking with evermore confidence as prices of renewables continue to drop and their rewards continue to mount.  

Let us not forget that the state government said the coal-fired units that are being retired at Muja Power station from October 2022 are being done so because even now they are only being used about 35% of the time due to the reduction of demand on the grid provided by abundant rooftop solar.

BZE’s report suggests that Collie need not despair, that like other fossil-fuel communities around Australia Collie can share in the country’s low-carbon economic future. Sustainable industry and manufacturing can “underpin the next century of prosperity for Collie’s people.” 

A 100% renewable WA grid by 2030 is affordable and achievable, BZE thinks. “The first step in transitioning Collie’s economy from coal to clean energy and industry is a rapid, managed transition of Western Australia’s main grid (SWIS) to 100% renewable energy.” According to individual modelling done by Sustainable Energy Now (SEN) and researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) a figure of 12,300 MW of renewable capacity is necessary for the SWIS transition. This figure is inclusive of the 650 MW of wind and utility-scale solar, and the 1,100 MW of rooftop solar already active in SWIS. 

The key, BZE argues, is for Collie to retain its role at the centre of WA’s energy system by supplying and supporting the rollout of renewable energy for the State’s transition. BZE sees the potential to create over 1,750 jobs through this transition, more than covering the current fossil-fuel industry. Although this will require significant time and money reskilling Collie’s coal workers. However, BZE thinks this reskilling can be done while they’re still employed, minimising disruption. 

BZE cites the University of New South Wales (UNSW)’s Industrial Relations Research Centre understanding that substantial investment in training and innovation programs helped the successful transition of Germany’s Ruhr Valley away from coal mining. 

Some of the new industries BZE identifies are solar PV, onshore wind, pumped-hydro, green hydrogen, coal plant decommissioning, sustainable building materials such as cement, low-carbon manufacturing, engineering timber, recycled steel, shipbreaking, and lithium-ion battery recycling. 

BZE believes that SWIS will require between 3-4.3 GW of solar PV by 2030, a capacity that could see anything between 10 million and 14.4 million solar panels installed by 2030. Collie, it is suggested, could be home to a PV panel recycling plant. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates the value of materials in retired PV units will total $15 billion per annum by 2050. 

To achieve this BZE sets out recommendations for long-term policy direction: 

  1. Secure social licence for the transition through support for workers and the community. 
  2. Legislate for a 100% Western Australian Renewable Energy Target (WA-RET) by 2030. 
  3. Maximise local industry participation by designating all WA-RET developments as “strategic projects” under the Western Australian Industry Participation Strategy. 
  4. Implement low-carbon building material requirements for all state and local government infrastructure spends over $20 million. 
  5. Develop a Renewable WA Common User Facility to supply the transition to 100% renewable electricity and position WA as a world leader in clean technology. 
  6. Create a Western Australian Sustainable Industry Investment Fund to drive the transition to clean manufacturing and industry with $2.5 billion in investments over ten years. 
  7. Review and redirect existing industry support away from fossil fuel and boom/bust mineral developments towards emerging clean industries.

Collie and its surrounds are part of the Gnaala Karla Booja region under the continued sovereignty of the Noongar people. Collie has changed before, and it will have to change again, especially if it is to it is going to engender the kind of sustainable practices that has allowed the Noongar people, and specifically the fresh water people of the Wilman tribe, to live in the area for such a long time. The change Collie needs to make is to transition to a sustainable renewable energy economy. 

Transitions of the scale we’re talking are rare in human history, and rarer still are they brought about through choice. And yet, the transition to renewable energies is a choice being made by us. “What will Collie look like in 2030?” The answer is up to us.