At the Lochinvar pub in the NSW Hunter Valley, a couple of power industry workers meet for a drink and ponder the future.
“Everybody’s a bit nervous because we are very reliant about coal, coal-fired power,” says Gerard Spinks, who has worked for 39 years in the power stations of the upper Hunter.
“All of our other main industries are gone — our steel, shipbuilding, rail, and textiles — so all we’ve got left is mining and power. Once that goes, we’ve got no idea what the future holds.
“What about our kids! Exactly,” his mate, Carl Kirwin, chimes in.
“I’m fine, Carl’s fine,” Gerard observes. “We are getting near to retirement age, but it’s the generations after that.”
These men are anxious to know: how does the economy transition beyond coal?
A 45-minute drive away, the Bayswater and Liddell power coal-fired stations tower over the landscape near the town of Muswellbrook.
The two ageing plants supply about 35 per cent of the state’s electricity.
Liddell is scheduled to close in 2023; Baywater in 2035.
As Australia’s biggest coal export markets — Japan, South Korea and China — commit to net-zero carbon emissions and shift towards clean energy, the mines of the Hunter appear to be heading for a slow decline.
Most of the Hunter Valley’s mines produce thermal coal, which is burnt to create heat and steam to turn turbines in power stations; for decades the region’s high-quality coal has been the basis of a huge export industry.
Yet the signs of retreat are already apparent; more mines are closing than expanding. Though the end of coal is decades away, now is the time to begin developing new industries that Australia’s coal regions will need to replace the jobs set to disappear.
About 14,000 people work in the mines of the Hunter Valley.
Although that’s a large number, it’s still a small share of overall employment in the region, though there are many thousands more workers and businesses that rely indirectly on the coal industry to make a living.
In the upper Hunter, it’s an acute issue.
According to the region’s local councils, 35 per cent of jobs in the Muswellbrook local government area and more than 50 per cent in the Singleton area flow from the coal industry.
One Nation has made big strides here, but the mayor of Singleton, Sue Moore, bristles at what she sees as a big city assumption that her constituents are all rednecks captured by climate change denialism.
She relates a conversation she had at a conference with a councillor from Sydney.
“I sat down at a lunch break … and his words [to me] were, ‘What do I have to do to convince Singleton people about climate change?'” she says.
“My reply was simple: ‘Tell them where their jobs are going to be.’ It’s not a conversation about climate change, it’s a conversation about jobs, jobs, jobs, and once jobs are solved then other things will flow.”
The good news is, there’s no shortage of groups working on ideas and planning ways that the economy can transition to a future beyond coal — and there are already businesses pointing the way.
MGA Thermal, a start-up born at Newcastle University and now listed on the Australian Securities Exchange, is one of those businesses.
It hopes to revolutionise the storage of energy and accelerate the shift to renewable power.
“This is our lab where our manufacturing currently happens at the University of Newcastle,” MGA Thermal’s Alex Post tells the ABC as he takes us into a workshop in the engineering faculty.
The young engineer has the dual titles of chief technology officer and chief disruption officer at the company.
He’s a protégé of Erich Kisi, a professor of materials science at Newcastle, who pioneered a technology for storing energy as heat in “bricks” made from an alloy of recycled metals.
Alex Post explains a process that’s remarkably simple.
“We stack the bricks up into large energy storage systems; we heat them with waste heat from industry or with electricity from the grid when we have too much solar, and these bricks store all of that energy as heat.
“Six to eight hours later we can use all that stored heat to drive an industrial process or create steam to run a power plant and put energy back onto the grid.”
It’s modular, scalable and carbon emissions free.
The main applications for the technology will be powering factories and providing storage for solar power plants that use concentrated solar thermal power, but it could also be used to turn the turbines in former coal-fired power stations — without burning coal.
It’s the kind of clean technology that groups working on the transition from coal see as the future of this region.
“Our vision is that, by 2030, the Hunter is the electric motor of the Australian economy and possibly the global economy,” says Sam Mella, Hunter engagement lead for the think tank Beyond Zero Emissions.
West of Newcastle, near the collieries of Wallsend, a long-established mining services company is working on ways to move beyond coal.
AMP Control commenced more than 52 years ago as an import-replacement business, making electronics and electrical systems for the mines — and for a long time, it was solely dependent on the mining industry. No longer.
It’s branched out into infrastructure, working on the nation’s biggest road tunnel project, Sydney’s West Connex.
It developed a prototype silent “stealth” electrical boat for police and emergency services, and solar-powered water purification systems for remote communities.
Last year, it ventured into med tech — after answering a mayday call from health authorities.
When the COVID crisis created a global shortage of invasive ventilators, the company turned its knowledge from the mining industry towards making the critical medical devices in collaboration with staff at Newcastle University and the John Hunter Hospital.
“We had about 50 people working on it, and the guys used the knowledge and skills we’ve developed in the infrastructure and mining sectors and applied the same principles,” CEO Rod Henderson explains.
“In 11 days we had a prototype up and running on the bench. Seven days later we had it over at the John Hunter Hospital on their simulator and by early May we were getting into production.”
Fortunately for Australians, success in stemming the spread of the virus meant few ventilators were actually needed — but the work sowed a seed.
“There’s an old saying: if you want a 30-foot tree, you better plant a seed today,” says Rod Henderson. “There’s no use looking for a 30-foot tree in a year’s time when it takes 10 years to grow.
It’s one of many examples of the transition underway.
Another business, Energy Renaissance, is looking at manufacturing large-scale lithium-ion batteries for storing clean energy.
The Hunter Valley has also this week been announced as a centre for the development of hydrogen fuel — a clean energy when generated from renewables — that could become a multi-billion-dollar Australian export to Asia.
Newcastle, the city that was synonymous with BHP’s giant steelworks for decades until it shut down in the late 1990s, is now looking at manufacturing steel again — in blast furnaces powered by renewable energy.
The great legacy of the coal industry and the old power stations is a massive network of electricity transmission infrastructure and a vast rail freight network going directly to a deep-water port.
“We’ll have massive renewable energy industrial precincts making green steel, green aluminium, carbon-free batteries and we’ll be exporting all of this through the port,” says Sam Mella.
Emeritus Professor Roy Green, the former dean of the UTS business school, shares this vision.
He spent many years living in the Hunter Valley and is chairman of the Port of Newcastle, the world’s biggest coal port.
He wants to see a reinvention and revival of manufacturing, with the port facilitating the export of renewable energy in the form of hydrogen and the output of a revived and reinvented manufacturing industry.
“It won’t be manufacturing as we knew it,” he says.
Roy Green says it is “absolutely critical” that the Port of Newcastle diversify and become a container terminal.
But that will require the overturning of a provision put in place when the state’s ports were privatised that requires the Port of Newcastle to pay a prohibitive tariff to the owners of Sydney’s Port Botany if it ships containers.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is currently challenging that restriction in court.
Steve Murphy, the national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, grew up in the Hunter Valley.
His union is now working with environment groups in the Hunter Jobs Alliance on strategies for creating new careers in green industries.
“Walking into workshops that I’ve been to in the past arguing for better wages and conditions, and telling workers we can see the sunset on this industry and we need to start planning for what your next job is going to be, it’s a very difficult conversation,” he says.
“But one that I’m up for.”
One of the concerns is trying to ensure the new jobs are secure and provide a decent living.
“The jobs that we’ve got right now are really well paid,” he says.
“They look after people, they’ve got good conditions, they’ve got the best hours of work and really the best long-service leave, and if we just leave it to the market or to private capital to create these new jobs it’s not going to be good wages and conditions and a good quality of life.”
Workers who’ve spent a life in jobs related to coal mining and coal-fired power are going through “different stages of grief”, he observes.
The reality is that workers paid six figures for driving trucks in mines are unlikely to command that money elsewhere.
Back at the pub, though, Gerard Spinks and Carl Kirwin have moved beyond denial and anger to acceptance.
“The 21st century is going to be a lot different to the 20th century,” says Carl. “Get with the program or get left behind.”
Gerard agrees that a lot of his fellow workers might think renewable energy is a dirty word.
“But reality is renewables are coming,” he says.
“We’re not going to stop that train, so we need to get on board.”