Online opinion: The upside to Hazelwood’s closure

The ongoing speculation that the Hazelwood coal plant will shut down has resulted in the Latrobe Valley community unfairly suffering the threat of unemployment and disruption for too long.

News that Premier Daniel Andrews will personally oversee a taskforce to plan for the Latrobe Valley’s future, which could be known as early as this week, is welcome. Though, hopefully not too late to adequately ensure a smooth industry transition for the region.

Switching off Hazelwood will have an upside.

Phasing out the fine particulate and other pollution from the mining and burning of coal will reduce illness and save lives. Pollution from coal burning contributes to the reduced life expectancy of residents in the Latrobe Valley compared with those in other regions in Gippsland and Victoria overall. Children in the Latrobe Valley are below the state average in key areas of health.

Burning coal is also a major driver of climate change which is already affecting us and we need to take action now- starting with Hazelwood which is the most carbon polluting power station in the country.

Just this week, the CSIRO and Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued their State of the Climate Report for 2016. This report highlights the continued increase in surface air and sea temperatures; the longer fire seasons; the duration, frequency and intensity of extreme heat events; and the rise in surrounding sea levels which amplifies the effects of high tides and storm surges.

However Australia, with the highest emissions per capita in the developed world, is currently seeing its emissions increase even further.

If we do not act, Australia will completely fail in its obligations under the Paris Agreement of 2015 to reduce carbon emissions.​​ We must contribute our part of the global response to keep average temperature increase below 2 degree Celsius which is necessary to avoid accelerating climate change.

Australia with its ample supply of wind and solar has every reason to move towards clean energy, which has no adverse health outcomes.

Despite the clear public benefits, the powerful coal industry and its supporters ignore the evidence and continue peddling hazardous fossil fuel for short-term financial gain.

There are repeated claims that there would be insufficient power should “the sun not shine and the wind not blow”.

However, experience in other regions such as the ACT, in countries such as Germany, and assessments by multiple analysts show that power demands can be fully met by a combination of wind and solar using interconnected networks, with power boosts being supplied by hydro sources, concentrated solar thermal and gas-fired turbines using biofuels.

Reliance on renewables would also be more easily attainable if energy efficiency in homes and offices was pursued more vigorously.

There is justifiable concern about the future of workers in the power industry in the Latrobe Valley.

Awareness of health and social disadvantages within the Valley community were identified in the Inquiries into the Hazelwood coalmine fire of 2014. All these issues can and should be addressed by consultation with industry, unions and the community, all of whom have been aware for years of the limited life-span of the generators. Some workers have already established new industries of their own volition.

Undoubtedly though, there needs to be much thoughtful action to minimise social upheaval. The Latrobe Valley’s inevitable industry transition involves fewer worker numbers than the demise of Kodak in Rochester, USA, hence the eventual survival and growth of that community should be used as an inspiration, as can the survival of the Newcastle community after the steel works were closed.

It has been repeatedly claimed, without any justification, that electricity prices using renewables would increase by anywhere from 10-25%. These estimates are made without any reference to the fact that coal-fired power is heavily subsidised both directly and indirectly.

It is the indirect subsidies, or externalities, that are more insidious and these include the huge health costs to the community from pollution that arises from mining and burning coal.

Wind power is already cheaper and if coal subsidies and externalities are fully accounted for in the cost of electricity, solar would compare favourably with coal power. For Hazelwood alone, health and social costs are estimated to be around $900 million per year.

This money could go a long way towards assisting the Latrobe Valley’s transition to alternative industries whilst focusing on a cleaner energy future.

John Iser is the Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia

First published in Online Opinion on 3 November 2016

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