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Wednesday, November 9, 2022

‘A train wreck’: what happens to workers and towns when the lights go out on coal power? | Energy

When Jacqui Coleman heard that Australia’s largest coal-fired power station was to close seven years earlier than planned, she initially didn’t believe it.

Coleman is a retail worker in Dora Creek, the closest suburb to the Eraring power station on the shores of Lake Macquarie in New South Wales.

For years, she has been selling pies, coffees and sandwiches to some of the hundreds of workers who pass through the News ’n’ More grocery store on either side of a shift.

On Thursday morning, Origin Energy announced it was bringing forward the station’s closure to 2025.

Many workers at the site first learned their jobs were to be terminated seven years early when they heard it reported on the radio.

As Coleman heard one customer after another talking about the news, she said “it hit home that it’s really happening”.

Jacqui Coleman
‘It’s the workers I worry about’: Jacqui Coleman. Photograph: Peter Lorimer/The Guardian

“I feel for all of the people whose jobs are going to be lost, especially when some of them have been there for so long. What are they going to do?” she said.

“I don’t think the boss is worried for the business because we’ve got enough of the community coming through.

“But it’s the workers I worry about. They’ve got families as well. Who is going to support them?”

Origin Energy said its decision reflected a rapidly changing energy market in which traditional power stations could not compete with cheaper, renewable options.

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW estimated the exit of Eraring would avoid up to 87m tonnes of climate pollution, describing it as a “ray of hope for leaving a safe climate for our children”.

But the council said the NSW and federal governments also had a task ahead of them to ensure a seamless transition for both the energy grid and communities affected by station closures.

In the NSW Hunter region, four power stations are set to close – on current schedules – by 2033.

AGL’s Liddell power station is first in 2023, followed by Eraring in 2025, Vales Point in 2029 and Bayswater no later than 2033.

Governments have had years to prepare communities and workers for the transition to a green economy.

And yet calls for action from the Lake Macquarie region have gone unanswered.

Lake Macquarie mayor Kay Fraser.
‘It’s like a train wreck’: Lake Macquarie mayor Kay Fraser. Photograph: Peter Lorimer/The Guardian

Kay Fraser is the mayor of Lake Macquarie city council, which serves a population of 209,000 in centres including Belmont, Charlestown, Swansea, Toronto, Morriset and Warners Bay.

She said the community was “devastated” by Thursday’s announcement, which would affect not only the 400 workers at the plant but thousands more in the supply chain, and the areas they live.

“We’ve known this was coming but it’s like a train wreck,” she said.

“What I want to see happen is a jobs package and transition package but I don’t want them to talk about it for two years. It needs to happen now.”

The NSW treasurer, Matt Kean, has promised to announce a jobs package to support affected communities.

Cory Wright, the NSW and ACT secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, said that plan should have been ready when Origin made its announcement.

“You can imagine that some of these workers had a 10-year plan in mind in which they were preparing to make a transition. That’s been cut down now,” he said.

Wright said the union would be looking for a plan from Kean that supported not only the 400 directly affected workers but everyone downstream.

“This has been bandied about for years, that’s how long we’ve been talking about a transition, and we’ve been begging employers and governments to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

Greg Piper
‘We’ve got to find opportunities to keep people here’: Greg Piper, independent state MP for Lake Macquarie. Photograph: Peter Lorimer/The Guardian

The union’s NSW branch is one of the founders of the Hunter Jobs Alliance, a coalition of groups that historically have sometimes been at odds with each other.

They include unions such as the Electrical Trades Union and the United Workers Union, alongside environment groups that have been pushing for a phase-out of coal power, among them the Lock the Gate Alliance, the Hunter Community Environment Centre and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW.

For years, the jobs alliance has been pushing the NSW and federal government to establish a statutory authority to guide the massive shift in the region’s economy.

Warrick Jordan, the alliance’s coordinator, said the first priority had to be workers and their families, some of whom had now had “their lives turned upside down”.

“People have been advocating for years for a government authority and for specific programs to help workers and attract jobs,” he said.

“If the closure of Australia’s biggest power station, with the loss of 400 jobs, isn’t a trigger for a Hunter Valley transition authority and workers support and investment attraction, then I don’t know what is.”

Georgina Woods, usually known for her work with Lock the Gate, represents the Nature Conservation Council on the jobs alliance.

Woods, who lives in Newcastle, said the Origin announcement was “a travesty” that could have been avoided were it not for Australia’s toxic climate politics.

Instead, there was no architecture in place to support workers.

Eraring power station.
Eraring power station. Photograph: Peter Lorimer/The Guardian

“We can’t afford to let long term structural and environmental issues of this kind be held to ransom by the political process and elections,” she said.

She pointed to the closure of BHP’s steelworks in Newcastle in the 90s, which took years of planning and attention to pathways for workers.

“There was money from the federal government, there was investment in building stuff in Newcastle to provide new opportunities. It was a massive undertaking,” she said.

“This [closure] is three years away. Origin needs to create a fund now that will be used to help the workforce transition and help the community of western Lake Macquarie.”

Greg Piper is the independent state MP for Lake Macquarie. His son works at the Eraring site as a contractor.

He said Origin’s decision was a welcome one for the climate and acknowledged there were people who would happily see the station close even sooner.

“I have always supported a move away from coal but the fact is, the workers and this power station have been the heavy lifters in giving energy security to NSW,” he said.

Piper said there would be workers who had qualifications that were not readily transferable and who would require retraining.

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He said it was important such opportunities allowed people to keep living in the region.

“We can’t be patronising and say we’re going to offer you the opportunity to retrain and can you please move 100km away,” he said.

“We’ve got to find opportunities for investment to keep people here.”

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