The Fifth Estate, by Rose Mary Petrass and Tina Perinotto

When the irrepressible Alice Thompson took a job as chief executive of the Committee for the Hunter, there might have been some people wondering what could have enticed her away from the infrastructure and strategy-heavy work she’d been doing with government and KPMG.

It didn’t take long to find out.

Thomson this week released a powerful new document to lay the groundwork for a new version of the Hunter Valley that challenges the historic view of this coal heavy region that so many rusted on coal industry people were convinced would not change in the current era.

On a recent visit to the Hunter the signs of a powerful coal industry were plentiful. The approach to the key township of Singleton welcomes visitors with a huge billboard, just across the road from the coal train lines, promoting the benefits of coal. In a signal the mining company knows what’s coming though, there’s also a nod to renewable energy in its imagery.

In recent weeks there’s been a slew of news points to transition that’s much quicker than anyone expected.

Origin Energy said it will close Eraring Power Station in the Hunter Valley seven years earlier than expected, in 2025. AGL said it would close Liddell Power Station in 2023 and Bayswater Power Station in 2030. And the signal sent by Mike Cannon-Brookes in his pitch to buy AGL and shut down its coal powered operations altogether, along with help from Brookfield, can’t have gone unnoticed in the region. 

Thompson releasing her committee’s signature document released this week must have been pleased with the serendipity of the timing.

A key message in the document is that diversification is key to outcomes. So too the raising of socio economic indicators for this area.

It’s an opportunity for transformation, she told The Fifth Estate in a telephone interview this week. 

Decarbonisation represents an opportunity – not just a challenge.

“We are at the frontier. We are most exposed, but we have the most to gain.

“NSW commitment to net zero depends completely on what happens in the Hunter region.” 

“We want to position the Hunter region as a global centre for net zero, leveraging our existing capabilities.

“Diversification of the Hunter economy has to be the question for which everything we do is the answer.”

According to the plan, the long-term decline of coal industries will release strategically located and serviced land, transport corridors, water licences and supply chain functions across the region, which can be harnessed to grow industry and new jobs. 

The main task is to attract investment in new clean jobs in sectors of competitive advantage in three key industries of growth: clean energy, defence, knowledge industries and health,  with particular emphasis on becoming a global hydrogen export hub. 

Thompson says the region needs a clear plan to navigate to these goals.

“When we talk about diversification, let’s make no mistake that this is a structural adjustment and an economic transition. We talk about a plan, but no one has identified a light on the hill. The first three steps in the plan are critical to provide that light on the hill and provide clear targets.”

The priority when it comes to the coal power station closures, is jobs.

“In the Hunter you have generations of families who have worked there. Now everyone is staring down the barrel – everyone is concerned about the future of their jobs,” says Ms Thompson.

Treasurer and Energy Minister Matt Kean stated that he “doesn’t know” how many people will lose their jobs with the closure of the Eraring Power Station. 

Thompson says that while businesses have a strong understanding of the disruption ahead, they have not been given a clear pathway or support to help them diversify and protect jobs. The communities are looking for that guidance. 

“The conversation happening locally is far more constructive and pragmatic than the national debate is.”

In response to Eraring’s closure, a jobs package of 3700 roles in clean industries (including 2700 in construction) was announced by the NSW Government to grow the sector and create a “manufacturing renaissance” across the state.

The state will invest $250 million over five years, followed by an additional $300 million over 10 years, to boost local manufacturing of components for the renewables sector such as wind towers, green hydrogen electrolysis and batteries, which the Treasurer said would create a further 500 jobs.

In the committee’s view the job package demonstrates that there is a sense of urgency. 

“We know that job packages usually come in response to an industry going under,” Thompson says. 

“If an experienced and skilled workforce face an uncertain outlook and leave the region to find work, it will get much harder to grow.”

But the Hunter region has the potential to provide three times as many jobs, she says.

“We can afford to be far more efficient than just replacing the coal jobs. The capabilities from coal jobs are only giving us a head start. The travesty will be not if we can make it – but how good can we make it? And that depends upon having a plan.” 

A Plan for the Hunter: Frontier of the New Economy” calls for: 

  • uniting government, business, industry and the community towards economic diversification and away from coal, tripling jobs over the next decade and positioning the Hunter as a centre for Net Zero and clean energy
  • targeting investment into renewable transmission and infrastructure, including a hydrogen hub, and a dedicated investment concierge service towards clean energy businesses and jobs
  • a new educational model to boost the workforce
  • bringing the socio-economic levels of the Hunter region up to par with the Sydney metropolitan area
  • The NSW Royalties for Rejuvenations fund to be expanded to cover the effects of the closure of coal fired power generators and royalty-producing mining communities
  • a strategic approach to the adaptive reuse of ex-mining and power station land, infrastructure and supply chains to support high growth industries

It is a portfolio of projects that will deliver more jobs when combined. 

There is $500 million in infrastructure (mostly transportation) to release more than $20 billion in development, 40,000 homes and 28,000 jobs in the Hunter. 

The multi-purpose Deepwater Terminal and upgrades to the Newcastle Airport will bring a combined 14,000 new jobs to the Hunter region – the equivalent currently employed locally in coal mining. 

The Sydney – Newcastle rail corridor and the $40 million Mandalong Road upgrade is set to boost industry, jobs, homes and liveability in the region. 

Thompson says that decarbonisation is “development to improve the living standards of communities.

“This is a centre for regional significance. This is an opportunity to utilise the land, transport and corridors towards a bright future. These resources are a powerful lever for achieving goals.” 

There are concerns around energy prices and reliability

Businesses in the region, as well as government, are concerned that the closures of power stations in the region will impact on energy prices and reliability. 

The NSW Treasurer Matt Kean and the Australian Energy Market Operator say there is enough generation capacity already in development to cover the gap from these closures and avoid cost, security and reliability risks.

Dr Kerry Schott, former Energy Security Board chair and in December appointed chair  NSW Net Zero Emissions and Clean Economy Board has advised that Eraring’s closure could be managed without causing price spikes and the only immediate upward pressure would be the cost of transmission lines needed to connect new renewables to the grid. 

Kean has also announced battery building plans and commitment to transmission infrastructure under the Hunter-Central Coast Renewable Energy Zone (REZ).

“This requires a collaborative approach across the private sector, owners, government, and councils, to coordinate for far better outcomes for the region and for the NSW economy,” Thompson said.

Commercial interest in response to the Hunter-Central Coast Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) has already emerged, representing almost 40 gigawatts and more than $100 billion of potential investment, showing that the Hunter and Central Coast will continue to be an energy powerhouse in the future. 

It includes: 24 solar energy projects, 13 onshore and seven offshore wind energy projects, 35 large-scale batteries and eight pumped hydro projects.

“These results show that energy investors see the Hunter and Central Coast as some of the best investment destinations anywhere in the country, which will translate into jobs and prosperity for the region,” the Treasurer said. 

“Renewable Energy Zones are vital to ensuring the future reliability and affordability of electricity in NSW as traditional coal fired power stations close down over the coming decades.”

Thompson says that it’s critical for the Hunter to act fast. 

“We must recognise that this is an opportunity. We need to push as hard and fast as possible, to provide an outlook for coal providers and communities.”

“Keep your eyes on the Hunter.”