The surprise backer of a 50 per cent renewable energy target at the Labor Party’s weekend conference was Australia’s largest coal mining and energy union.
Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) president, Tony Maher, seconded Bill Shorten’s energy policy, on the condition a Labor government provide unprecedented assistance for thousands of workers in traditional coal-fired generators and mines who might lose their jobs.
“We’ve got to face the reality in domestic coal-fired power,” Mr Maher told 7.30.
“The companies, led by AGL and Energy Australia, have announced that they will close their fleet by 2050, one by one. And they won’t be building other ones to replace them, so we have to deal with that.”
The Latrobe Valley, in the heart of Victoria’s brown coal fields, will be one of the communities most affected by the changing electricity industry. It currently generates around 80 per cent of the state’s power.
Even the Valley’s giant coal-fired power station AGL Loy Yang now has a limited future, as Australia’s use of solar rooftop power surges.
Luke Van Der Meulen, president of the CFMEU’s Victorian mining division, lives in the Valley and is very concerned about its future.
“Any change is going to impact on the Latrobe Valley community very hard, because we are a very big coal producer and generator for the Victorian community,” Mr Van Der Meulen said.
The electricity industry agrees there will be major changes.
“We’re going to see job losses in regional communities where power stations are reaching the end of their life,” said Matthew Warren, chief executive of the Energy Supply Association of Australia.
Renewable energy industry quickly overtaking coal
A major driving force behind the transformation has been the rapid take-up of rooftop solar by Australian households.
“You’ve got a Loy Yang power station — the biggest power station in Australia — on top of rooftops of Australian homes,” Tony Maher said.
“That is exceeding expectations and it is having an effect on the market share. That is the reality that we are facing.”
“Ten years ago, we had around 700 households with solar panels. Today, it’s approaching 1.4 million,” Mr Warren said.
“That’s a relatively aggressive technology boom in that sector, and likely to continue, because it’s delivering benefits to consumers who install it.”
But the union believes much of Australia’s coal mining industry still has a secure future.
As much as 80 per cent of the country’s coal is exported and nearly half of that is used to make steel, not generate electricity.
But those mining and working in the coal-fired generators have a less certain future.
“There are many thousands of people that are employed in the electricity generating system, in coal-fired electricity generators and transmission and distribution,” former Australian politician and trade unionist Greg Combet said.
“But it will change over a period of time and jobs will be created in the renewables sector, particularly in large-scale solar and wind power.”
Six-figure wage maintenance for miners
The union has won Labor Party support for a special government agency to ensure income support and priority job placement for those displaced in the industry.
Rather than the dole, the union wants the maintenance of their existing annual wage rate, which is often $100,000 or more.
“We are talking about income support necessary to maintain their standard of living,” Mr Maher said.
“That’s how they did it in Germany — it was income support or early retirement. And it all costs money.
“What we want Labor in government to do is to provide the funding, to do the calculations, to establish the agency and to tell us how they are going to solve the problem,” he told 7.30.
Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is scathing about the new Labor policy, which he said ultimately will cost consumers.
“The Labor Party, when they set up the carbon tax, gave the brown coal generator $5.5 billion. Now what we are seeing is another compensation plan for a policy which they have prepared, nobody can say where it came from and it’s an extraordinary example of policy being fabricated with real-world impacts,” Mr Hunt said.
Mr Warren said the policy debate still needs to be settled.
“What frustrates us is that, at the moment, we’re talking about how we ice the cake, and we haven’t baked the cake,” he said.
“We actually need to see the serious policy structure that delivers the transformation, and then we can talk about how we’re going to deliver the consequences of that, not the other way round.”
But most agree coal is no longer king.
“Just imagine, the coal miners union itself endorsing a policy to increase renewable energy generation,” Mr Combet said.
“These are great people. They know change is coming. They want to be supported in the process of change, but they can see the future.”
According to Mr Warren, the change has already begun.
“In South Australia, we’ve seen 440 full-time jobs going in the township of Port Augusta, and that’s a big hit for that town and that region. So, this is real, and it’s going to keep happening in the next decade and beyond,” he said.
Mr Maher said renewables are now “winning the investment race”.
“And the introduction of battery storage, cheap battery storage in homes is very attractive for consumers,” he said.
“They will vote with their feet and you would be a mug not to see that.”