Jenny Jägerhorn | Melbourne editor

Hazelwood Power station in Victoria. Image: Jenny Jagerhorn

Hazelwood Power station in Victoria. Image: Jenny Jägerhorn

The air is crisp and the clouds over Latrobe Valley are as grey and thick as the smoke spewing out of the pipes of Australia’s most polluting power stations. The mining of the oldest brown coal reserves started in the 1950’s and even the younger power stations, built in the 80s, look like icons from the former Soviet Union, with their toxic green façades.

The brown-coal-fired generation plants in the valley account for 85 per cent of Victoria’s greenhouse contributions. Hazelwood power station produces up to 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, which is almost 15 percent of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, and 3 percent of Australia’s total carbon emissions.

Environmentalists are calling for the closure of Hazelwood by 2012 to be followed by Gippsland’s other brown coal stations.

“Environmentalists have to make a large decision on how they’re going on about it. It’s not just the power stations they’re going to shut down, it’s three major towns [Morwell, Moe and Churchill] within the region and all the people that support the power stations as in workshops and industries that rely on it,” says Phil Bramstedt, who works as a belt technician at the Yallourn mine.

He has been working in the power industry for 25 years and has seen all the commotion around the industry during the past decades.

“There’s nothing they’ve really thought on the community side. Basically, Latrobe Valley has been built over the 70 years as a coal industry,” says Bramstedt.

Once owned by the state

All six power stations, Yallourn Power Station, Hazelwood Power Station, Energy Brix Power Station, Loy Yang Power Stations A & B and Jeeralang Power Station (gas), were once run by the government owned State Electricity Commission (SEC). The height of power production was in 1974, when the SEC employed 26, 000 workers in Latrobe Valley.

The privatisation of the state’s electricity in the 1990’s was commenced by the Kirner Labor government and continued by the Kennett Liberal government, delivering $23 billion dollars to the state coffers.

Hazelwood Power Station and the associated mine were privatised in 1996 and sold for $2.35 billion.

However, the privatisation came as a bombshell in the Latrobe Valley and led to mass layoffs. Jobs went down from 11, 000 in 1989 to only 2, 500 people working in the power industry in Latrobe Valley today, and many never returned. The SEC trained around 500 apprentices a year, but nowadays, the apprenticeships are a fond memory. The Government’s withdrawal wounded both the economy and the psyche of the community. Thriving families spiralled into despair as employment opportunities went up in smoke and social infrastructure failed.

Social problems

Gippsland Trades and Labour Council secretary John Parker says there are two to three generations of families that have lived but haven’t worked in the Latrobe Valley since the privatisation, which has led to major social problems with a lot of drug and alcohol abuse.

In the 15 years to 2005, the population of Latrobe municipality dropped from 75, 000 to 70, 000. More would have left the valley but were unable to because of the plummeting property prices.

“The biggest problem is that we have a market driven economy, but what we need is planning and leadership that work together with the community and the unions,” says Parker.

He sees the Government’s recent decision to postpone the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, which aimed at cutting Australia’s greenhouse gases by making the industry pay for the right to pollute, as unfortunate.

PHOTO GALLERY – Click to enlarge
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“It would have given a certainty to the workers. Companies want to wait until the last minute and then just close everything and give redundancy packages. The rest of Gippsland will collapse around them without the support form the government,” says Parker.

The effects of what happened after the privatisation can still be seen. Many of the small businesses never recovered. Walking down the streets empty shops can be seen all over Morwell.

Bramstedt says the government backing in the Latrobe Valley is virtually zero.

“Every time we set up some sort of scheme to do anything here it’s always moved up to Melbourne or some consultant overseas. We put up the ideas and the next minute they’re moved out. Politicians don’t listen to anybody here,” he says.

One-fifth of local jobs in the valley remain directly related to electricity. Phil Bramstedt believes that closing down the coal business would mean the end for Latrobe Valley.

“This will just be like an American ghost town. I’ve already told my children not to rely on the Latrobe Valley as an employer in the future. My 21-year-old daughter is living and studying in Melbourne and my sons have made plans to move there. It is a very large part of Victoria’s economy that the government has to look at,” he says.

Australian Manufacturing Worker’s Union (AMWU) organizer in the La Trobe Valley, Steve Dodd, has a more positive vision about the future of coal but stresses that there needs to be a just transition to new industries.

He sees a future in coal and believes the power stations need to be retrofitted to make a more pollution-controlled zone, whether it will be in power stations or to put coal in to some other use, such as coaled oil or coal fertilisers.

“There’s got to be a change in the short term, there’s got to be a change in the long term, but it has to be a just transition with all parties involved. That includes not only the business groups but also the union and the community groups. They shouldn’t only be done on the basis on the next election in sight,” Dodd says.

“Heard promises before”

On the opposite side of the street from Loy Yang lies a big hole with a massive amount of the black gold. From here the coal strip goes up to a building that crushes the coal. Conveyer belts then move it further and dump it into the ominous, curved brown boilers. The 150-meter high chimney pumps out 14 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year. The endless, overpowering, signature smell envelops you through the sticky air.

In March 2010, it was announced that the operators of Loy Yang A (Loy Yang Power) signed a contract with Alcoa World Alumina and Chemicals Australia for the supply of electricity to power aluminium smelters at Portland and Point Henry until 2036.

Loy Lang workers Neville Darragh, 53, and Toby Thornton, 50 have both worked in the power industry for more than 25 years and recognize that there has to be a change.

“There will have to be a move away from coal, but the biggest problem is where are we going to take the electricity from,” says Darragh.

They have heard promises by the Government before, assuring that new industries would come into the area, but without seeing it carried through. They fear that the past could be repeated.

“I think there’s a lot of pressure, Hazelwood was due to close 2005 but they’ve extended it to 2031. There isn’t really anything else,“ says Thornton.

“And Morwell power station [Energy Brix Power station] was supposed to shut down in 1996, all the money was set aside to close it down and it’s still running,” says Darragh.

“They’ve known that the plants here are getting old. They’ve had at least 20 years where they could have started looking around building new things.”

Redundancy packages a solution?

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) says that a move away from coal is inevitable, but it believes the transition time would have to be minimum seven years.

Greg Hardy, Victorian secretary of the CFMEU’s mining and energy division says that the average age of the members is 53 years. So a natural or early retirement could be a solution, requiring that the Government supports them. If the power stations were closed gradually the younger employees could be moved to the newer power stations, Hardy suggests.

But the two Loy Lang workers aren’t convinced.

“How are we going to enjoy the life quality, if we don’t have the power? I think the government wouldn’t allow that. Where would they find money for that, when they they’re struggling with building new hospitals and roads,” says Thornton.

Both agree that people would probably look at redundancy packages if they were given enough to sustain their quality of life. But another aspect is that they feel that one needs a sense of wellbeing in the community as a contributor.

“You can’t just sit in the house and do nothing. We’re hands on people. When the SEC sold it off and downsized and gave away packages, people sat at home and the whole society here changed,” Darragh says.

The question remains, even if most of the workers retired earlier what else is there for the Valley?

“Even if they’re going to have these power stations closed, and if new technology would come along, who are they going to get to build it? These people pass on worthwhile skills to the younger generation,” says Thornton.

The Government recognises that the older and dirtier Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations are likely to close over the next ten years although compensation to the generators will slow that process. To combat devastating job losses alternatives need to be found.

Steve Dodd, from the AMWU, believes in developing manufacturing in Latrobe Valley.

“It could be solar hot water heaters or making parts for wind turbines, there could be a whole range of different, manufacturing of things in this region. It needs a bit of backing up from the government and the power stations and business groups.”

“We believe that there are more opportunities in new technology and in new ways of doing things than in the old power stations that haven’t been upgraded. If it would still be in government hands there would be two new power stations more up to date,” he says.

A recent report by Green Energy Markets for Environment Victoria has found that the closure and replacement of Hazelwood power station could be achieved by the end of 2012 for $320 million a year. The report also points out that an early closure of the power station would cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 12 per cent.

Consultants Green Energy Markets found that Hazelwood could be replaced in one of two scenarios.

Firstly, a combination of large-scale gas-fired power of 1800 megawatts and an expanded renewable energy program of 1500 megawatts, mainly from wind.

Secondly, install less gas and introduce a residential and commercial energy efficiency program, wiping out the need for a quarter of Hazelwood’s electricity.

Environment Victoria expects between 1900 to 2500 construction jobs will be created in building the clean energy replacements for Hazelwood.

Another part of the jigsaw of the future may lie in hot rocks.

Professors Rachel Webster and Edwin Van Leeuwen of Melbourne University have discovered that the best site for geothermal power is in the Latrobe Valley. An operational test plant could be running within four years for $100 million.

John Parker questions the capacity of it. The existing coal-fired power plants in Latrobe Valley generate more than 6000 megawatts. Loy Yang A alone has four generating units with a combined capacity of 2200 megawatts.

“That’s a lot of power to replace within a few years. The problem with all of the thermal, carbon capture and solar test plants so far is that all are based on give us some money and we’ll try,” says Parker.

Nuclear power, popular in many countries in the European Union, where it provides around a third of the electricity, has had significant societal barriers to overcome in Australia. But perhaps attitudes will change?

“Nuclear power will come to Australia, we can’t get away from that, because people still want their lives to go on. If a nuclear power station is to be built it needs to be built here because the infrastructure is here. So I believe there will be a mix of energy,” says Darragh.

“Even if we decided to go on nuclear power, there would be another 10-15 years before we would have anything on tap,” says Thornton.

Despite the unhappy past they still have hope for the future.

“It’s got to be positive, there’s a lot of pressure everywhere, so I reckon pressure usually brings good,” says Darragh.

Both find it disappointing that the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong hasn’t been to Latrobe Valley although there were promises to do so. Perhaps if she did, she would see how devastating bad planning could be to a community.

Jenny Jägerhorn is a GEJI exchange student currently at Monash University in Melbourne.

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