The Junction

Valley life after coal is a power struggle

The+now+dormant+Hazelwood+Power+Station.+Photo%3A+Andrew+Dodd+
The now dormant Hazelwood Power Station. Photo: Andrew Dodd

The now dormant Hazelwood Power Station. Photo: Andrew Dodd

The now dormant Hazelwood Power Station. Photo: Andrew Dodd

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In the marginal seat of Morwell, in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley, the pre-election debate is all about power generation and the region’s future role as the state’s energy provider. University of Melbourne students, Jess Bassano, Gerard Cockburn, Brittany Flamik, Jenina Ibañez and Silvi Vann-Wall report from the electorate. 

At 6am, Eric Andreazzi steps into his family’s bakery. His father, Tiziano, has already been there for three hours, kneading, shaping and baking bread to be sold throughout the day. Right now, it’s just the two of them, working side by side to prepare for the breakfast rush.

In 2008, when Eric was just 10 years old, his father uprooted the family, moving them halfway across the world to run a bakery in the rural Victorian town of Morwell. It was a long way from their former life in Italy, but when the Andreazzis arrived in the Latrobe Valley, it felt like home.

A decade on, Morwell has lost its status as one of the major centres of the Victorian coal belt following the closure of Hazelwood Power Station in March 2017.

Since the closure, Eric has felt a change in the community. When he began working in his father’s bakery four years ago, he found he could start a conversation with anyone, but now he finds the atmosphere colder.

“The main decline was when the main power station shut down. A lot of people that were coming in to get breakfast went off and didn’t come back,” he said.

“It’s starting to get a bit unfriendly. A lot of people just don’t want to talk to you.”

Eric’s sentiment reflects a divided community – a neighbourhood torn between coal and a renewable future, struggling with its identity.  

Eric Andreazzi in his family’s bakery. Photo: Brittany Flamik

Morwell could be crucial in determining who is in government after November 24. Once a firmly held Nationals seat, this marginal electorate currently sits on a swing of 1.8 per cent, and a litter of candidates have put their hat in the ring.

The political candidates are just as split as the locals. Ricky Muir from Shooters, Fishers & Farmers voted against fast tracking the valley to renewable energy. Labor candidate Mark Richards and independent Ray Burgess had plenty to say about the area’s future, while Nationals candidate Sheridan Bond, Liberal candidate Dale Harriman and the incumbent MP Russell Northe, (who is yet to say if he will re-contest the seat) declined to offer their thoughts on energy policy, despite the nearing election.

The red-brick bakery sits in Morwell’s main shopping centre, between a tattoo parlour and cycling store. It’s the only area in town where you’re guaranteed to spot some liveliness as residents shop for their groceries.

Customers wander into Eric’s Bakery from the Coles across the carpark eager for a loaf of bread, a couple of pastries or the bestseller: a cheese and bacon pie. But move up the street and the city centre is dotted with empty buildings, and foot traffic is low.

And yet, behind the sleepy exterior, a high-stakes energy debate rages on, affecting not only this community but the nation. 

Energy policy was big enough to bring down a prime minister in the recent leadership spill, but in the heart of the coal-centric Latrobe Valley, locals are mainly concerned about job stability.

Residents are still reeling from the closure of Hazelwood, and the state election is a chance for them to decide how to move forward as a community dealing with high unemployment and pollution-related health concerns.

Will the Latrobe Valley continue to be a symbol for traditional approaches to power policy, or will it be the nation’s first step towards a long-term energy solution?

BLUE SKIES AHEAD?

Despite a tense political battle unfolding, many Morwellians are unaware of the election, much less the candidates for this marginal seat.

Shoe store owner Janice Rowley said she was likely to support independent candidate Ray Burgess. “I would vote for him because he’s very knowledgeable on what’s going around, and he’s been in Morwell for a long, long time,” she said.

But when asked which of his policies she particularly liked, she admitted that she was not familiar with his political stance. 

Janice Rowley in her shoe store. Photo Gerard Cockburn

Employment consultant Jessica Teni, like many disenchanted Morwellians, was apathetic towards politics in general.

“I feel like it doesn’t matter what we think, cause they get ousted out anyway, it makes you lose a bit of faith in it I think,” she said.

The Liberal leadership spill, following the conflict and scrapping of the National Energy Guarantee, has further cemented Morwellians’ indignation with government.

And they are not alone.

Some 10 kilometres away in the Latrobe Valley, Traralgon resident and jewellery store owner Judy Orchard is concerned that regional areas as a whole are being left behind.

“There’s been lots of promises for many, many years but nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening at all,” she said.

“Since Hazelwood power station has closed there’s a lot of people who have left the area and unemployment has really grown, unfortunately, and particularly for the youth. There isn’t [sic] any jobs for young people. We really need some new projects in the area to stimulate employment.”

She didn’t mind whether investment was made into a coal plant or renewable energy, as long as it yielded jobs.

Florist Con Versluis (left). Photo: Gerard Cockburn

In Moe, florist Con Versluis believes that technology can make coal more sustainable and efficient.

“I think the technology is out there to make it a lot cleaner, which maybe was not possible with the old power stations. As long as they implement the green clean coal-fired power stations, I think it is a good idea.”

SOMETHING IN THE AIR

On February 9, 2014, a bushfire swept through Gippsland. Strong winds blew embers across the M1 freeway to hectares of ready-made ignition: the Hazelwood open-cut mine.

That infamous fire would rage on for over a month. Local brigades were sent in at first, but the fire proved overwhelming. Forces from as far as Mildura in Victoria’s northwest eventually added support to try and quench the flames. In the end, battling the fire cost the state over $32 million.

As ash and smoke blanketed Morwell, thick clouds spread toxic particulate matter across greater Gippsland. Nearly five years later, the pollution effects of the fire still have an impact on the community’s health and wellbeing.

In November 2014, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services commissioned the Hazelwood Health Study in response to public health concerns. Initial reports confirmed that after the fire, cases of lung-related issues sharply rose, as well as doctor’s visits—including mental health consultations. Hospital admissions for respiratory issues also increased during the fire. The study confirmed a high rate of mesothelioma cases in the region, the only known cause of which is asbestos exposure.

But many residents of the Latrobe Valley, especially power station workers, see health risks as par for the course with their location or career. For many, the study’s results have been far from a revelation.

“Everything here creates pollution,” said Judy Orchard. “Certainly the fire probably increased the level of pollution, but I don’t think it was wholly and solely the reason why some people got sick.”

The study plans to keep releasing findings for at least another ten years.

THE FALL OF A COAL GIANT

Last year, following safety concerns that could no longer be put off, Hazelwood’s parent company Engie decommissioned the power plant. The giant chimneys that had puffed billowing clouds on the Morwell horizon for most or all of the residents’ lives now lay dormant.

Brown coal was an integral part of the Latrobe Valley for almost a century and was historically the major power source for the Victorian electricity grid. Hazelwood generated almost 25 per cent of Victoria’s electricity for 50 years.

The Hazelwood plant was commissioned by the State Electricity Commission (SEC) in 1959. It became the second largest employer in the valley after the Latrobe Valley regional hospital. 

“The SEC was a very patriarchal organisation, very fatherly,” said independent candidate for Morwell Ray Burgess, who was a supervisor at the SEC in the 1990s. “Kids worked there, their fathers worked there and in some cases their grandfathers worked there. There was a very big trainee apprenticeship program, over 500 young people in training.”

In 2001 the SEC was privatised, creating the first controversy to strike the station. In the span of a decade, 7000 jobs were reduced to 2000. It was a big blow to the Morwell community. The privatisation saw an exodus of people, particularly youths, from the valley in search of work elsewhere.

With the recent and sudden closure of Hazelwood at the hands of Engie – who saw reducing Co2emissions as imperative – valley families have had to adjust. Fly-in-fly-out work is the new normal.

“Dad has been doing back-to-back shifts over Australia. It’s been hard for the family, especially mum. The money’s there but it does make it difficult,” said Tommy Brock employee Sam, whose father lost his job at Hazelwood last year.

According to the 2016 census, the electorate of Morwell has an unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent, higher than the state average of 6.6 per cent.

The closed plant, for some in the community, felt like a loss in the family. Now, the plant looms over the town as a ghostly reminder of Morwell’s former industrial glory. 

FROM HARD HATS TO HANDOUTS

After the closure of Hazelwood, the Latrobe Valley Worker Transfer Scheme was initiated by the Andrews government to transfer displaced workers to new jobs, with a goal of creating 150 jobs. A small concession to the 750 direct employees and another 2000 workers in the supply chain who lost work.

Small business owners have also directly suffered from the exodus of workers, like Asian specialty shop owner Aileen Formaran.

Matilda Lappin in her shop “the bee & the spider” Photo: Gerard Cockburn

“It’s slow, it’s really slow,” she said. “We don’t make enough for living. We make just a small amount. Of course that’s obviously affecting us.”

Still, there are optimists. Lifelong Morwellian Matilda Lappin opened her shop, the Bee and the Spider, four months ago, and thinks the Hazelwood closure strengthened the community by bringing it together in the face of change.

“I think there’s a real resilience to Morwellians, we’ve coped with shopping centres coming up and taking away business, but we’ve still stayed, and we’re still pushing through.”

Labor candidate Mark Richards, a former Hazelwood worker, praised the transfer scheme. “We’ve had 77 people apply for and get those jobs,” he said. “They’re not all from Hazelwood. Some are from Yallourn power station. What it’s done is it’s put young working families back into the working space.”

WHAT CAN REPLACE COAL IN THE VALLEY?

After years of relying on coal, Morwell is divided on what form of energy they’d like to see in the future, but creating jobs, rather than reducing emissions, is the highest priority.

“People aren’t wedded to coal in this region,” said Mark Richards. “They’re wedded to good jobs, good income, money for their community and money for their sports clubs.”

To revitalise the area, some are advocating for renewables stepping in to take coal’s place.

Resident Lynson Aslan thinks Morwell should embrace renewables. “This area’s been used to having big industry power generation that’s kept us going for quite some time, but it’s 2018,” he said. “[Is there] finance or political will to build a new coal-fired power station? I don’t think so.”

Australian Paper’s waste-to-energy plant

One possible solution is a waste-to-energy plant at the Australian Paper Mill, close to eight-kilometres away in Maryvale. The proposed incinerator, similar to those used across Europe, would generate enough energy to power the mill.

While the incinerator is not a panacea for the energy and employment challenges Morwell faces, it has the potential to create 400 jobs and reduce the amount of rubbish going into landfill.

The plant’s feasibility is under assessment by Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority who are set to provide their findings this year.

Star of the South wind farm

Another contender is Australia’s first offshore wind farm, which began development in 2012 with Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners. The $8 billion ‘’Star of the South’’ will be off the coast of Gippsland, where it can steer clear of creating noise pollution and taking up land area.

The wind farm will be able to produce more power than Hazelwood, delivering up to 8000GWh per year. The project team announced that it’s expected to meet up to 20 per cent of Victoria’s energy needs.

Star of the South is undergoing feasibility studies, and its developers expect to begin operations by 2024. 

HESC goes from coal to hydrogen

Over at the Loy Yang A mine, the Victorian government has put $50 million into the building of a Hydrogen Energy Supply Chain (HESC) that converts coal to hydrogen for export to Japan.

The investment was matched by the Federal government, butmost funding has come from Japan’s Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd, which put $496 million into the project.

Mark Richards has stressed that although the hydrogen won’t be used in Australia (we don’t yet use hydrogen as an energy source), he believes it’s a valuable export industry that will create more jobs for the Latrobe Valley.

“If we look at Australia, there’s 728 years’ worth of brown coal,” he said. “It’s a reserve, I think, we should be utilizing. Countries have gone to war over less.”

Richards also addressed concerns that the HESC project was going to emit uncontrollable Co2and therefore was not environmentally suitable.

“If you’re burning fuels you’re going to have Co2emissions anyway, so better off to capture it,” he said, making reference to a possible Carbon Capture Storage (CCS) project.

Plans are already in place to submerge Co2emissions in Gippsland’s south coast, after a recent survey by CarbonNetrevealed such offshore storage to be possible. The project is still exploring the potential to capture and store up to 5 million tonnes of Co2per year, as the HESCgears up for a pilot phase come 2020.

The Solar Initiative

The Andrews government has pledged a $1.3 billion solar power scheme in the Latrobe Valley, in accordance with its push for renewable energies in Victoria. The scheme is designed to have a greater uptake of rooftop solar by residents and to establish a microgrid.

The microgrid would be designed like the systems seen in South Australia, where energy is created within a series of solar grids and stored via lithium batteries.

The scheme was scheduled to be open to residents in September 2018, and will be rebated up until 2022.

The initiative is being rolled out to other parts of the state, though Ray Burgess believes that the scheme will put the state’s electricity grid at risk, and like many coal lobbyists, believes that first-to-market solar would inherently drive up prices.

“If you have the situation where these providers are waiting for their turn, they will have more power to charge more for the electricity. So what we will be exposed to is higher prices,” he said.

The Victorian Greens, who have only just nominated Dan Caffrey as their Morwell candidate, would like to see a transition to an entirely renewable energy market by 2030, while the Andrews Labor government has set a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Coal dinosaurs at the Coal out of Politics rally held in Melbourne. Photo: Gerard Cockburn

More brown coal?

There are no proposals to construct another brown coal-fired power station to take Hazelwood’s place.

The Latrobe Valley’s abundance of brown coal may look to be an easy energy resource for Victoria, but it’s not always popular or safe. Brown coal is a large source of greenhouse gas emissions, making it unlikely for the Labor government to support another brown coal project.

Ray Burgess, however, was a vocal opponent of Hazelwood’s closure and is still an advocate for using the valley’s brown coal, which he believes is low in sulphur and generates minimal nitrogen dioxide.

“Apart from the Co2, which there is question marks around, it’s the cleanest coal you are going to get anywhere,” he said. “There is a lot to like about utilising the coal.”

Independent candidate Ray Burgess. Photo: Gerard Cockburn

New climate targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would actually require the closure of 12 Australian coal-fired power stations, in order to adequately reduce emissions. That means all of Morwell’s remaining stations would be shut – Yallourn W, Loy Yang A, and Loy Yang B. The latter two are the most polluting in the country.

Closing these stations would be the quickest way of reducing emissions—but naturally comes with the loss of thousands more jobs.As of yet, Morwell has no plans to close these stations.

POWERING UP FOR THE ELECTION

This month, the IPCC released an alarming report that suggested only 12 years were left to make a successful dent in climate change. The report surveyed the emissions reduction targets that all nations agreed to meet in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, and found that the original goal of keeping global warming below 2 per cent was insufficient. The official UN suggestion now stands at 1.5 per cent – an outcome recently dismissed by federal government as “nonsense”.

The sentiments of the UN are evidently in stark comparison to that of Morwell residents.

As the election draws nearer, the Andrews government is working hard to win Latrobe Valley voters. But it’s difficult to know if their efforts will be enough.

Regardless of what happens on November 24, the future of Morwell’s energy – and identity – hangs in the balance.

About the Writer
University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria

The University of Melbourne's Centre for Advancing Journalism offers a Master of Journalism and a Master of International Journalism, as well as a graduate...

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    Greens: Daniel Caffrey

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    The sitting MP: Russell Northe

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    Shooters, Fishers and Farmers: Ricky Muir

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Valley life after coal is a power struggle