Western Australia’s Labor government has mapped out a plan to transition the state’s premier coal town of Collie away from “emissions-intensive industries” as the fossil fuel goes into decline.
The McGowan government unveiled the ‘Just Transition’ plan for Collie on Wednesday, as the next step in what is expected to be a 10 to 15-year process for the regional centre that is home to a large chunk of the state’s coal generation capacity.
Western Australia’s state-owned utility Synergy operates the ageing, heavily polluting 1,094MW Muja power plant and the 340MW Collie plants near to the town, which is located roughly 200km south-east of Perth, both of which feed coal-fired electricity into state’s the SWIS network.
The fate of the Muja plant was sealed by the McGowan in August 2019, when it announced that two of four operating units at Muja would be retired from October 2022, to protect against higher power bills for households and ensure the state’s electricity supply remained stable.
At the time, the government noted that to keep the two units operating at Muja C beyond these dates would cost W.A. taxpayers in excess of an additional $350 million. “It is no longer viable to keep the units operating,” a statement said at the time.
In a statement this week, W.A. Premier Mark McGowan reiterated this point: “It no longer makes sense to keep the Muja C units operational. They are expensive to run, and demand for electricity from the units is declining dramatically.
“As WA’s energy system shifts from traditional generation to increased reliance on renewable energy and storage, our dependence on coal will naturally decline,” he said.
But the Premier also stressed that his government was “absolutely committed” to supporting Collie through the transition away from coal – and a set of principles outlined to guide the plan suggest his government has perhaps learned from past errors in judgement on this score.
The Just Transition Plan will focus on a five-year period from 2021-2025, with the primary goal of supporting affected workers and communities in the transition from emissions-intensive industries in a coordinated way.
An Action Plan includes a series of grants programs, projects and initiatives with a focus on economic development, job creation, investment attraction, infrastructure growth and sustainability to support the economic transition of the region.
To date, more than $47 million of a total budget of $80 million has been allocated to projects through a number of programs, the Collie Futures Industry Development Fund and Collie Futures Fund (Collie Futures Small Grants Program and Collie Futures Industry Development Fund).
This has included $10 million towards the establishment of adventure bike trails around Collie; $13.4 million for the Koolinup Emergency Services Centre in Collie including an Incident Control Centre, Emergency Driver Training School and regional fleet maintenance; $1.5 million for a ‘mural trail’ project, and; $4.5 million for tourism-readiness projects in Collie.
The transition of Collie has been on the McGowan government’s agenda since it was in opposition back in 2017, when it went to the state election with a $30 million plan to develop a solar farm in the town, as well as a biomass plant.
These plans were ditched in May 2019, in favour of transforming Collie into Australia’s premier “trail adventure town” and underpinning other “future industries,” after it became evident that the community was not quite ready to turn its back on coal and embrace renewables.
The first hint of this sentiment came a year earlier, when Collie Shire Council voted 5-2 against installing rooftop solar on shire buildings because “going into competition with the coal industry” was not considered the right thing to do.
Two years later, the state government says it has developed a transition plan in consultation with industry, community, union and government stakeholders, through the Just Transition Working Group, to ensure the needs of coal industry workers and the broader Collie community are at the forefront of the process.
The plan pledges, among other things, to “recognise, promote and celebrate the history, cultural heritage and invaluable contribution the town of Collie and associated coal and power generation industries have made and continue to make” to the state.
“The Just Transition plan is all about managing the impact this change will have on the local workforce, and the wider community,” McGowan said this week.
“Energy transition is taking place all over the world. Economies are shifting towards new energy sources, changing the economic and employment landscape of communities that have previously sustained the energy sectors.
“The State government commends Collie for taking these steps and is committed to working with the community, workers and industry to deliver a Just Transition, and to create a strong future as the world shifts away from a dependence on coal and coal-fired energy production.”