OPINION: Energy workers want support for safety, jobs and supply

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Worker representatives from Queensland’s coal-fired power stations and domestic thermal coal mines joined with other energy workers from around Australia in February to compare notes on the substantial challenges facing their industries and the need for co-ordinated support.

In an interesting two days of talks in Sydney organised by the Mining and Energy Union, delegates from Milmerran, Callide, Tarong and Gladstone power stations discussed their concerns about jobs for the future, security of energy supply and safety as power stations are slated for closure.

State and Federal Government targets for emissions reduction and renewable share of energy supply are putting enormous pressure on the way our fleet of coal-fired power stations operate, requiring them to ramp up and down as more renewables enter the grid. This leads to power stations operating in ways they weren’t designed for and our members fear it will lead to more disasters like the Callide explosion in 2021 and cooling tower collapse in 2022.

Power station workers all around Australia shared their fears that as closure dates are brought forward, operators are investing less in maintenance which puts them at risk in the workplace.

Another major area of concern discussed was the future of regions where power stations are located and the need for urgent investment in industries that will create real, long-term, well-paid jobs for blue-collar workers. So far, the hype about ‘green jobs’ has been unfounded with renewable projects providing very few long-term jobs and quite rightly leading to cynicism and mistrust about jobs announcements. Communities like Biloela, where power station and mining jobs have underpinned the local economy, deserve to know what their future is. Members say to me: we know there’s a transition, but what are we transitioning to? It’s a fair question that our political representatives must answer.

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One reform that our union is campaigning for is a federal Energy Transition Authority which would have three key roles: ensuring power station closures happen in a co-ordinated manner to protect energy supply and community interests; investing in regional diversification to ensure new industries replace coal power generation; and overseeing a comprehensive worker support program which would include transfer schemes, retraining and redeployment for workers in power stations and domestic thermal coal mines.

As we see across Queensland, our export coal industry is booming – Australian thermal and metallurgical coal is still in high demand globally – but our domestic coal power industry is facing accelerated change with closures on the horizon.

An important and interesting element of our national energy delegates meeting was hearing from experts in coal-related technologies including hydrogen and carbon capture utilisation and storage (CCUS). Our members fear that because ‘coal’ is perceived as a dirty word, we are not seeing the investment we need in new technologies that can support our heavy industries and make use of our coal resources even as our economy decarbonises. We should be using every technology available to reduce emissions as well as support the industries that have supported our regional, state and national economies for many decades.

Energy transition is an issue that dominates the newspaper and political debate; however we don’t hear enough from the workers who keep the grid running and whose livelihoods are at stake.

Three-quarters of Queensland’s electricity is generated by coal power. We rely on our power station workers to keep the lights on in household and industry. Let’s give them a voice in the energy debate.

Stephen Smyth

Mining and Energy Union Queensland District President

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