On Wednesday April 16, Friends of the Earth brought its fact-finding RET Review Road Trip to Morwell, in the heart of Victoria’s coal and energy producing Latrobe Valley.
Morwell offered a clear point of contrast to the first stop in our road trip, the Hepburn Wind farm, but what does it have to do with the review of the Renewable Energy Target?
As the recommendations of the review will shape Australia’s energy future it is essential for the reviewers to have a real understanding of how coal power affects communities. Modeling by IES Advisory shows a weakened Renewable Energy Target will result in 6-9 per cent more coal generation, and up to 16 per cent more gas generation. For towns on the coal face this means the outdated fleet of coal generators will keep polluting.
Our visit also allowed us to understand peoples’ views towards the Renewable Energy Target and their vision for Australia’s energy future.
Morewell shot to national attention earlier in 2014 when residents’ health was put at risk by a fire at the Hazelwood coal mine. The fire, which burned for over forty days, resulted in the evacuation of the Morwell primary school due to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and particulate matter in the air. Authorities distributed some 25,000 face marks to Morwell and Taralgon residents for filtering out coal ash. And after a long delay, the Napthine government urged vulnerable populations—such as the young, elderly, pregnant women, and people with lung conditions—to evacuate the area.
While the Hazelwood coal mine fire’s impact was dramatic, policymakers mustn’t forget that long-term exposure for coal pollution is linked to respiratory illness and other health problems.
Visiting Morwell provides a reality check on the human costs of coal power in Australia. This is why we invited RET Review chair Dick Warburton to join us. After two weeks we finally received correspondence from the review secretariat that Mr Warburton has not accepted our invitation, though the panel will meet with us when in Melbourne.
If Mr Warburton did accept our invite and visited the Latrobe Valley he would have heard from community members like Lorraine Bull.
“The community experienced a huge increase in asthma, throat and eye irritations, headaches as well as an unexplained lethargy,” said Loraine Bull when discussing the impact of the Hazelwood blaze. “For years I’ve noticed widespread brown pollution across the valley. We’d prefer renewables,” said Ms Bull.
For communities who experience pollution from coal power plants, the Renewable Energy Target offers hope of a clean energy future—one free from worrying about how coal ash and carcinogenic particulate matter will affect their health.
There’s another dimension to consider. How can the coal towns transition away from fossil fuels that underpin the local economy?
Dave Kerin of the EarthWorker cooperative has a vision for a just transition for the Latrobe Valley. Kerin’s EarthWorker has proposed to build a solar hot water heater manufacturing plant in Morwell—expanding on two existing facilities now producing units in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Dandenong.
“We want to put Morwell on the map for solar manufacturing,” said Dave Kerin. “The Renewable Energy Target will help us realise that vision.”
The Renewable Energy Target provides incentives for solar hot water systems through the Small-Scale Renewable Energy Scheme. If the target is left alone it will help new cleantech industries such as EarthWorker’s Morwell factory get up and running.
The next stop in the RET Review Road Trip is Keppel Prince Engineering in Portland where wind energy has created hundreds of jobs and stimulated the local economy.
NOTE: Federal member for Gippsland Daren Chester was invited to the Morwell event but unable to attend.