The end of coal-fired electricity is clearly looming, but for Australian communities that depend on the fossil fuel industry, the future looks even more uncertain.
the main points:
- More than 800 employees in Lithgow’s coal industry will have to find new jobs as energy providers abandon fossil fuels
- EnergyAustralia aims to be carbon neutral by 2050, which means it will shut down coal-fired power plants.
- As the move toward renewable energy intensifies, locals say there is no roadmap for the city’s future
The city of Lithgow in New South Wales, located on the western edge of the Blue Mountains, was established to extract the surrounding coal-rich soil in the early 1900s.
At its peak, more than ten mines were operating in the area, but today there are only three.
All of the area’s mines supply the nearby Mount Piper Power Plant, which supplies electricity to nearly 1.2 million homes in the state.
The 30-year-old plant is expected to be the last coal-fired power plant to operate in New South Wales.
Its owner, EnergyAustralia, has announced that it will no longer need to burn coal after 2040, when it will shut down the power plant, two years earlier than originally planned.
The company aims to be carbon neutral a decade later.
The New South Wales government announced more ambitious emissions reduction targets this week, pledging to halve greenhouse gas pollution by 2030.
State Environment Secretary Matt Kean said the cuts “take into account the growth of the coal sector” in NSW.
Despite this, the Piper Mountain closure has sparked calls for the government to put in place a transition plan for the community and others like it – a viable roadmap for survival without coal.
Lithgow City Council Mayor Ray Thompson worries about what will happen to his community when it loses the industry it was built on.
“The age of coal is definitely over,” Cr Thompson said.
The mining industry employs nearly 800 Lithgow residents and will have to find jobs elsewhere when the power plant shuts down.
A report by research firm Green Energy Markets and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis predicts that Mount Piper will be at a loss by 2025.
Australia’s dependence on wind, solar and hydro power reached an all-time high of more than 60 per cent last week, according to OpenNEM, a national electricity market data platform.
Climate Council Australia Professor Will Stephen said the boom was well underway.
The Australian government has not yet committed to a net zero target by 2050.
“It’s not optional,” Professor Stephen said. “We have to take care of the people in these societies who need to undergo this transformation.”
Changing the fabric of the economy
The head of the local CFMEU Mining and Energy Federation, Graeme Osborne, said the flow effects of the loss of one of the state’s largest coal-fired power producers will reverberate across the country.
“It’s not just having an impact on industry and society in Lithgow…it’s probably at the level of Australia, or at least at the state level,” he said.
Autonomy, volatile export markets, and renewable energy technology are the biggest threats to jobs over the next two decades.
According to the Australian Climate Council, a 50 per cent renewable electricity by 2030 scenario will create more than 28,000 jobs.
Its report found that job losses in coal-fired electricity generation would be replaced by increased employment in renewables but that “the transition to employees in the fossil fuel sector must be well planned.”
Learning from other coal communities
Significant job losses have occurred in other parts of Australia, such as In Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, when a local power station shut down.
The Victorian government assisted these workers in trying to transition to new jobs, but a similar scheme was not offered to Lithgow by the NSW government.
Julie Favell of the Lithgow Environmental Group said the time left to move away from the coal-based economy was nearly running out.
“Not necessarily 2040, I think we’ll be looking more at 2030,” Favell said.
The city was home to two power plants before the nearby Wallerawang Power Plant was retired in 2014.
Cr Thompson said that along with the closure of a local mine, Angus Place Colliery, about 800 jobs have been lost in the area.
“Almost none of these jobs have been replaced,” he said.
Renewable energy described for the region
Liz Westcott, chief operating officer of EnergyAustralia, said Mt Piper will continue to provide a basic level of energy, which the system still requires from coal, as it prepares for the future without it.
Ms Westcott said the company planned to work with approximately 250 employees at Mt Piper before closing the plant to help ensure they had “opportunities beyond Mt Piper”.
She said EnergyAustralia is “committed to the region,” which is evident in its plan to convert the artificial Lake Lille, which supplies water to Piper Mountain, into a hydropumping station.