Powering North Queensland: How to swap coal for renewables in LNP heartland | RenewEconomy

Powering North Queensland: How to swap coal for renewables in LNP heartland

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In the short term, the answer for North Queensland might be doing more of the same, but swapping the coal out for renewable energy and redeploying the coal work force.

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Realpolitik – forget the majority, focus at the margin

Opinion polls consistently show that  Australians are in favour of more action on climate change. Roy Morgan finds 78% of Australians are concerned about global warming.

A survey of 1033 people for the left-leaning Australia Institute by YouGov Galaxy Online in January 2020 (when memory of the bushfires was fresh) reported the following results: (I show the table rather than the graph so that readers can look at the numbers carefully.)

Figure 1. Source: TAI

In general, females are more concerned and people over 65 are slightly less concerned.

The bushfire influence may be why “very concerned” is such a strong number in NSW, but a key number for me is the aggregated “very” and “fairly” concerned, around 80% in NSW and Victoria, and around 75% in Queensland and Western Australia.

However, even these state-based numbers don’t get us to the real heart of the story. Missing is the detailed stratified survey in North Queeensland. Better detailed survey research in North Queensland is something TAI, or several other organisations could usefully spend time on. Surveying committed inner city electorates will make you feel good, but it won’t win the federal election for the “let’s act on climate change” strong majority.

Queensland federal election results

The LNP holds 23 out of 30 seats in Queensland, and we could add in the Katter Party seat as well to get 24/30, which is 80%. And that’s despite an ALP state government.  Equally important, but less focused on, is that QLD represent 30% of the LNP federal members and WA another 14%. Essentially QLD, and particularly Northern Qld, is disproportionately represented in government when compared to the total population.

Figure 2. Source: AEC, ABS, TAI

So, as everyone knows, but forgets, national attitudes to climate change are irrelevant. Democracy has produced an Australian government heavily influenced by North Queensland.

Fortress North Queensland

The history of election results in North and Central Queensland suggests that getting a federal government that reflects the national opinion, rather than the regional Qld opinion is going to be difficult.

Figure 3. Source: Griffith University

Of the selected seats 40/47 results since 2004 have gone to some variation of the LNP, and I include the independent in Kennedy in that collection. In the last 10 years the position is worse. Still, plenty of sports teams have faced worse histories than that and found a way to turn things round.

Looking into a tiny bit more detail:

Figure 4. Source: AEC, Griffith university, COFEE

As a general statement, these seats are “battler” seats and in some of them the mining share of the workforce is high. Hinkler is, to my mind, indicative of the issues. The electorate is, on the surface, one of the bottom 20% of the electorates in Australia based on the PDI index.

The index includes …  no post-school qualifications, change in housing vacancy, adults not working, poverty rate, median income ratio, change in employment and change in business establishments. So even allowing for the fact that retirees might bias some of the Hinkler numbers, the picture is that “strugglers” and  “battlers” are over-represented in these electorates.

So swinging those seats probably means offering those voters either opportunity or income, or both. Appealing to science is unlikely to resonate.

To swing all of these seats requires about 90,000 people to vote differently or, leaving out Maranoa, just 70,000. In the combined three electorates, Flynn, Herbert and Leichhardt, only 19,000 people in total have to change their vote to change the result. Of those three, only Flynn has a large mining share of employment.

Renewable energy jobs are possibly not the answer

Total employment in the renewable energy industry in Australia is around 26,000 people. Total employment in coal mining is around 52,000. Both of those numbers were pre-Covid-19, pre the coal price collapse.

ITK estimates around 30,000 of the coal miners are employed in largely central QLD. However, the renewable energy jobs are spread out across Australia, with the majority likely to be rooftop installers in capital cities or large regional population centres.

It’s true that developing a large renewable energy zone in North Queensland would provide a certain number of construction and maintenance jobs, but construction of energy infrastructure is only a short-term employment prospect and many of the more skilled jobs would likely be performed by out-sourced labour based in North Queensland only for the duration.

If ITK was asked, building new health care services, technical education, regional prisons, sports centres, decentralising government departments, are likely to be more successful vote winners. I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to come up with these thought bubbles.

Manufacturing is going to be a struggle

A couple of points about manufacturing:

In general, manufacturing is not a major employer in Australia. Every manufacturing production centre I’ve ever visited has had a focus on employing as few people as possible. If you are going to manufacture clothes, shoes, assemble mobile phones, you are competing in a globally cut throat market.

What is North Queensland going to do better than Vietnam in clothes manufacturing? The concept sound ridiculous and it probably is, yet New Zealand has several clothing companies, eg Icebreaker, that are globally successful. Yet, even for them, the manufacture is done in Vietnam. It’s the marketing and design that are based out of New Zealand, and the wool growing.

Manufacturing typically depends on a network of value-added firms in the one region. Germany’s mittelstand or in Australia agribusiness or the mining services business; lots of medium-size companies that essentially specialize in small bits of an industry.

Let’s say you wanted to put a battery assembly unit into Gladstone, as the premier suggests.

You have to import the cells and other components, assemble the batteries and then ship them to the customers, most of whom will be more than 1500km away. You compete against a much larger Chinese company, that has an integrated cell manufacturing unit serving its domestic market that can ship batteries to Sydney for a lower cost than shipping from North Queensland and can sell them at marginal cost.

Energy-intensive business could work

If it was accepted that renewable energy in North Queensland is a great global resource, both for wind and solar, and that firming can be provided locally, either from hydro, pumped hydro, gas and batteries or from industrial output flex, then conceptually there is a future for industries like aluminium and alumina, copper, zinc and tin; for cement, pulp and paper, basic chemical processing, food processing.

Data processing, cryptocurrency manufacture. It won’t have escaped readers’ attention that many of these businesses already operate in North Queensland. It’s just a matter of developing the renewable energy potential to ensure their long-term survival and growth.

In short, maybe the answer for North Queensland is doing more of the same, but swapping the coal out for renewable energy and redeploying the coal work force. A continuation of the focus on energy-intensive industry plays to the long-term strengths of North Queensland and will provide the confidence to develop the social infrastructure that can support opportunity and income in the area.

From my position in the “peanut gallery,” it’s a recipe for winning elections. But I don’t live there and it’s perfectly obvious that renewable energy needs its QLD champions who live in QLD, even North Queensland, and who think QLD first, second and third.

As a reminder, there is enough VRE potential in North Queensland to power Australia. And using it locally would require a lot less transmission cost.

Figure 5. Source: ISP


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