The Guardian • Issue #1997

Are we really at the forefront on renewable energy?

Wind Farm at Albany, Western Australia. (Photo: Nachoman-au – GNU Free Documentation License)

“Australia is at the forefront of a global experiment on how to shift an electricity grid built on coal to one dominated by renewables.”

So writes Martin Foley, in an article in The Age dated 17th February. This comes as Origin Energy announced it would be closing its Eraring Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales, seven years ahead of schedule.

Do not be fooled: the closure of Eraring is not due to Origin Energy having a change of heart on climate. It is, as it always has been, fundamentally about the company’s bottom line. The CEO of Origin, Frank Calabria, has stated as much:

“[T]he reality is the economics of coal-fired power stations are being put under increasing, unsustainable pressure by cleaner and lower-cost generation, including solar, wind and batteries.”

Eraring is the biggest supplier of coal-based energy currently supplying the national grid. It employs 240 workers and another 200 contractors. Now, those workers are facing an uncertain future. In a vague statement, Calabria assured workers that:

“We’re certainly confident of redeploying our employees to sites on the rollover a longer-term, but there will be a lesser number of roles and working to redeploy them more broadly across Origin as opportunities arise.”

Unsurprisingly, Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) state secretary Cory Wright has voiced concern there are no guarantees that workers will be reskilled or redeployed in other positions at Origin.

“We appreciate that Origin has put some words on a page, but all they are are words and we will be looking for Origin to put their money where their mouth is in the coming weeks.”

Two days after the announcement, Matt Kean, Treasurer for NSW announced an investment in new clean energy jobs to replace the losses at Eraring, but unions are still concerned about the pace at which the investment will be implemented.

There are also concerns about the impact of the closure on the electricity prices. When the Hazelwood plant closed in Victoria, there was an 85 percent spike in electricity prices as the remaining plants struggled to keep up with demand. The fact is, as much as we would like to switch to renewables overnight, the infrastructure just does not exist yet. 

While the closure of Eraring and other coal-fired plants is a step forward towards a clean energy future, the federal government lacks a comprehensive plan for alternative energy. This comes as no surprise, considering the general vagueness of the government’s approach to other climate-related issues (see Guardian #1994 “Reef policy is all bark no bite”).

So are we really at the forefront of renewable energy? Closing coal power plants with no clear plan for the future is a reckless profit-driven move that puts the livelihoods of workers in jeopardy and may lead to soaring energy prices in the future. More than a move towards the future, it feels like taking one step forward, while taking two steps back. ϑ

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