At a LEAN (Labor Environment Action Network) Zoom meeting recently I was privileged to witness a presentation from Tim Lang, an environmental activist in Newcastle, active through the NSW branch of LEAN and a co-founder of the Hunter Jobs Alliance. This post of 03 November, 2020 on the National LEAN site recorded the Hunter Jobs Alliance Launch:
- UNLIKELY STEP: That’s how AMWU official Cory Wright describes the joining of union and environmental groups to form the Hunter Jobs Alliance. With him from left are Tim Lang, Justin Page and Georgina Woods.
A new alliance of union and environment groups in the Hunter will officially form this week with the aim of ending the failed “jobs versus environment” dynamic that they say is holding the region back. The Alliance has been spearheaded by the NSW Branch of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union, working in partnership with Labor Environment Action Network and state and regional environmental groups.
The Hunter Jobs Alliance is an initiative of thirteen local and statewide unions and environmental advocacy groups in the region and will officially endorse and lodge its constitution in Maitland on Tuesday 3 November.
NSW Secretary of the AMWU, Cory Wright said, “Our union has thought long and hard about how we might intervene effectively in the fractured politics of energy that are short-changing workers, regional communities and future generations.
“We have taken the unlikely step of building a coalition with other trade unions, community and environmental groups to start the long process of advocating for industry and regional investment and the first thing we’ll be pushing for is a local statutory authority that can assist the region in this process.”
At that stage Tim Lang was spokesperson for the NSW branch of LEAN, Justin Page was NSW Secretary of the ETU and Georgina Woods was a Newcastle environmentalist. They already had a Hunter Jobs Alliance declaration and a snapshot of projects, which included converting Tomago aluminium smelter to run on renewable energy, public investment to retrofit 264,000 homes in the Hunter with heat and energy efficiency technology plus solar and batteries over five years, and a concept of making building materials out of 150 million tonnes of fly ash waste.
The founding groups were:
Australian Manufacturing Workers Unions NSW Branch, Electricity Trades Union NSW & ACT Branch (ETU), United Workers’ Union;The Australian, Municipal, Administrative, Clerical and Services Union NSW & ACT Services Branch (ASU), Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU); Teachers Federation NSW Branch, Independent Education Union of Australia NSW/ACT Branch, The New South Wales Nurses and Midwives Association (NMA), Labor Environment Action Network is a Founding Organisation, Lock the Gate Alliance, Hunter Community Environment Centre, The Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales.
The last-mentioned is an umbrella body for environmental groups in NSW.
On origins, a greenleft article assigns the authorship of the Alliance to Steve Murphy “former New South Wales and now national secretary of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU)”.
An interview with Murphy Australia Needs a Working-Class Environmental Movement in Jacobin makes clear that the idea was born at a meeting of AMWU coal mining delegates called by Murphy in 2018. He invited Felicity Wade as a guest speaker. Wade was and is National Co-convenor of LEAN, but was invited in her capacity of NSW LEAN Co-convenor. Wade spoke, inter alia, of the working class roots of Labor, and the Green Bans of the BLF in the 1970s. Over a coffee after the lecture, the Hunter Jobs Alliance movement was born.
Now the Alliance has a very attractive site and a Facebook page. I strongly recommend this December 2020 YouTube Hunter Jobs Alliance, with Steve Murphy and Felicity Wade.
Murphy takes the position that capital’s modus operandi is by nature exploitative, so workers need to take their own action. He says it helps if people act without seeking credit for their action, because when credit is sought the action becomes political at that point.
Wade talks of the need to build social capital and a social licence for green action. Rather than just be granted a seat at the table she wants to create the table.
They have been wonderfully successful. Community groups, local and state government, the university, business and industry have come on board. The State Government has recently chipped in with $25 million from the Royalties for Rejuvenation program.
Now they are seeking the establishment of a ‘Hunter Valley Authority’ to secure the region’s prosperity.
I was stunned that Tomago really is considering using renewable energy when their contract for coal-fired power runs out in 2028. CEO Matt Howell had said repeatedly that baseload power is necessary to run aluminium smelters, and no smelter in the world ran on renewable power.[See Update below]
I had two questions, one about the relevance of Joel Fitzgibbon, the second as to whether Angus Taylor would try to subvert Tomago’s choice of renewable energy.
Lang was diplomatic about Fitzgibbon, but it is clear that he is completely irrelevant to what is happening in the Hunter. Not so to the media, and some in the caucus see some future in coal and gas, a complex issue which I won’t attempt to deal with here.
As to Angus Taylor, he will always intervene to limit renewables and prolong the use of fossil fuels, as Cleantechnica observe in Angus Taylor & His Multiverse of Madness.
That too is for another day but Giles Parkinson at RenewEconomy says After three years, Taylor is finally succeeding in his promise to stop wind and solar
I prefer the take by Tim Nelson and Joel Gilmore from Griffith University As the world battles to slash carbon emissions, Australia considers paying dirty coal stations to stay open longer.
Whichever is nearer the mark, states should beware of an environment minister pretending to cut emissions while prolonging the use of fossil energy, and willing to use the power of the purse.
In summary, transition to a new, more sustainable economy and social relations is clearly happening in the Hunter. For me the big message is that while state actors need to be supportive, initiatives best come from the community itself. The situation in the Hunter is unique, but that is the point. Every community needs to find its own strengths and path forward. Expecting political parties to lay everything out on a platter is impossible and unreasonable.
Update 3.9.21 on Tomago:
During a heatwave on Friday 10 February power supplier AGL turned off the power supply to run the potlines at Tomago smelter in order to avoid wide-spread blackouts, as reported by the ABC. Tomago consumes about 11% of NSW power supply. However, if the potlines shut down for about three hours or more, they gum up or ‘freeze’ and can’t be started again.
In a submission to the Australian Government Review into the Future Security of National Electricity Market Tomago made clear that they saw the intermittency of wind and solar power as fundamentally problematic, together with the need for consistent low-cost pricing instead of the increasing peaking of spot prices since renewable energy entered the NEM (National Electricity Market). At the time the CEO was represented in the media as fundamentally opposed to renewable energy. A closer reading suggests that he identified issues that did indeed need to be resolved.
At the time an AEMO report revealed that the outages in the power system on that afternoon were mainly due to gas and coal plants failing or underperforming.
In November 2017 an Australia Institute report found gas and coal to be a liability in the entire heatwave that rolled over the southeast of the continent. In fact 3600 MW, or 14%, of coal and gas generation failed during the February 2017 heatwave. Solar actually prevented far worse disruption and load-shedding. So the report called for the National Energy Guarantee (NEG) to require “heat safe” back-up for coal and gas plants. Power from renewable sources could be used to support existing coal power.
Then came the kerfuffle over AGL’s plans to close Liddell coal-fired power station and replace it with a portfolio of projects, including 1600 MW of renewable power, 750 MW from high-efficiency gas power, 250 MW from a big battery, and 100 MW from demand response. Kriti Nagrath, Senior Research Consultant, University of Technology Sydney, ran the ruler over the plan and found AGL’s plan to replace Liddell is cheaper and cleaner than keeping it open.
Meanwhile the Federal Government was strenuously trying to keep Liddell open as Josh Frydenberg lobbies AGL board to force Liddell power plant sale.
Also, in May 2017, Snowy 2.0 was announced, so effectively the market had been transformed with the advent of new players, comprising batteries, pumped hydro, gas peakers, and ‘demand response’, where consumers are paid to use less power. Last year Giles Parkinson at RenewEconomy suggested that Australia’s big smelters could also be giant batteries, and go green at same time. Already in Canada and Norway smelters are working on a new business model which continually switches operationally between power supply and smelting according commercial opportunity, so they:
- can make an objective, value-maximising choice between ramping up aluminium production (and using more electricity) when aluminium prices are attractive and curtailing production (and selling surplus electricity) when that provides a better return.
Returns from the power system can be substantial, with spot prices spiking up to the cap of $14,700 MWh. In the case of Tomago, however, significant investment would be required to facilitate switching.
The Commonwealth Government under Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor succeeded in completely disrupting AGL’s plans, and through ownership of Snowy Hydro announced the construction of a gas peaker at Kurri Kurri which could run as little as 2% of the time. The development was welcomed by Tomago to maintain steady power supply, but condemned by others as a shocker because, firstly, firmed renewables are now cheaper than fossil fuel generation, and secondly, the IEA (International Energy Association) and everyone seriously concerned about the planet knows that we should be constructing no new fossil-fired power.
In fact people with a vision looking forward understand that opportunities present for Australia, as one of the world’s best provinces for harnessing renewable energy, should plan for an expansion of minerals processing. LEAN’s Rebuilding Australia pamphlet suggests:
- If we smelted half Australia’s alumina exports, we would require 4 or 5 new aluminium smelters and increase current aluminium production by seven times. We would increase electricity demand nationally by one quarter.4 That’s a lot of build out of solar and wind to keep people in jobs for the next decade.
Tomago has obviously been talking with the people in the Hunter Jobs Alliance before their launch, or it would not have been identified as a project. Looking to use renewable energy when their contract runs out in 2028 is a major step forward. Moving to a new business model by employing demand response could be a vital part of a major pivot towards the reindustrialisation of Australia.