At lunchtime on Monday (October 4) nearly half the state's power generation was coming from renewables.
Of course the other half was coming from coal fired generators but the domestic transition to renewables is well and truly underway and according to a new report From the ground up: A Blueprint for economic diversification in regional Australia it is now critically important to plan for the closure of the remaining coal generators and protect the 10,000 workers at risk in the next decade during this energy transition.
Since 2000, the number of coal-fired generators (nationally) has fallen from 26 to 19. By 2050, only two are expected to remain according to the centre-right think tank Blueprint Institute's report.
Among those power plants set to close is Liddell in 2023 and its owner AGL has plans to turn the site into a renewable energy hub with solar, pump hydro and waste to power options all being considered.
Time is of the essence says Blueprint Regional Researcher Nathan Twibill who says while the thermal coal market is subject to global policies, especially for the Hunter where 90% is exported, it is the rapidly changing outlook for domestic coal power generators that needs immediate attention.
"For workers at coal fired generators and the coal mines that supply these generators they are undergoing the transition right now. These generators are closing as they become unviable," he said.
"Governments and the operators of those power plants and mines need to start planning as soon as possible so regional communities don't miss the opportunity to create new industries and jobs as energy production changes."
Blueprint's report calls for a response from government and the coal industry that is proactive- planned and implemented as early as possible.
"Policies should be coordinated, involving a wide range of impacted stakeholders. They should be targeted to local communities, rather than a one size-fits-all approach. And finally they should be diversified, supporting both labour demand and supply, and multiplicative-drawing in private funding and kick starting growth," concludes the report.
Blueprint calls for governments to support workers in the form of income insurance, early retirement packages, and job search and retraining services-along with short-term wage subsidies as a last resort.
Among the report's other recommendations is the establishment of local coal adaption authorities with each receiving $20 million upfront and ongoing financial support based on 5% of annual coal royalties.
On today's figures of $1.6billion in NSW coal royalties that would be $80m/year for the authorities to invest in local initiatives.
Creating new jobs, attracting new industries and repurposing former power generation and coal mine sites would be the main roles of the authorities as jobs across the coal industry decline as the world shifts to a net-zero future.
Overseas experience in particular in Spain and Germany shows that local job creation is vital in preventing former coal industry dominate regions like the Upper Hunter falling into economic and social decline.
Singleton and Muswellbrook, have been built around coal. Mining generates 58% of economic output and supplies 36% of jobs in the region.
"With proper planning and support both regions can adapt successfully to a different energy future. In Muswellbrook, only around 30% of students complete high school, and the percentage of people receiving government assistance is more than two times the Upper Hunter average. The phasedown of the coal industry, if poorly handled, could have a devastating impact on the community," the report states.
Mr Twibill says coal industry workers would also greatly benefit from recognition of their existing skills.
"We think a certification scheme for their skills, which many have attained from working for decades in the coal industry, is also an important part of the transition planning," he said.
"We need to see operators of the generators and coalmines look after their workers and for that reason we suggest five years before closure the owners have to engage with stakeholders to plan for that day."
In April this year during the Upper Hunter by-election the NSW government announced the Royalties for Rejuvenation program committing $25m/year in coal royalties for local diversification across the state.
Commenting on the progress of the program a spokesperson for Deputy Premier John Barilaro said the NSW Government is committed to introducing an expert panel to oversee the Royalties for Rejuvenation Fund.
"We will work with both experts and community leaders to ensure government has the best advice about the long term future and priorities for coal mining communities," they said.
"Further information will be provided as it becomes available."
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