GREG Dunn, coffee in hand, has just finished a 12-hour night shift at the Hazelwood power station. He is tired, but in his low-key way, he is resigned, too. He rattles off the members of his family who have worked in the electricity industry in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley, a list that almost certainly will end with him.
Dunn’s father worked as a boilermaker in the Valley. His grandfather worked here too, back in gentler days when electricity was thought an essential service for governments to run. In the Valley, it was the responsibility of the State Electricity Commission, the SEC.
“My mother’s father, he was a rigger in the SEC,” says Dunn. “Three of my uncles worked for the SEC. My mother worked for the SEC in the front office, that’s where she met me father.”
Dunn is 47. His life, like that of thousands of people in towns throughout the Valley east of Melbourne, has been defined by an accident of nature — beneath the earth lies one of the world’s largest deposits of brown coal.
He grew up in the SEC town of Yallourn, with planned streets, swimming pool and art deco cinema, the pride of the Valley until it was decided that it should be demolished to dig up the coal beneath the houses. The town was gone by 1983. Dunn is resigned to something similar happening to Valley towns like Morwell, Traralgon, Moe and Churchill, if not physically, then slowly, and perhaps more painfully.
“Once this industry closes, these towns will die, these towns will go,” he says. He is already thinking about moving to find new work, but he’s proud to have worked in the industry for almost 30 years. “I love the fact that I generate electricity. People take it for granted. It’s three in the morning, they get up to go to the toilet, they flick the light on. Someone’s sitting there all night supplying that power.”
Climate change and coal are heated side issues in this election campaign, apart perhaps from the dangers to the Great Barrier Reef. But whatever happens on Saturday, no party will be able to ignore out-of-the-way places like the Latrobe Valley, as well as other coal regions such as the Hunter in NSW and Collie in Western Australia.
Change is imminent. The mayor of the Latrobe Valley, Michael Rossiter, wrote an opinion piece after Labor announced its climate policies that include a process for closing down coal-fired power plants. “The transition away from brown coal is not the thing we fear,” he wrote. “What we fear is being abandoned.”
The reason why the Valley, with its four big power stations and three open cut coal mines, is on the frontline is simple enough. If Australia has any chance of reducing carbon emissions even to the extent that the parties have agreed so far, we must replace our reliance on fossil fuels to produce our electricity, especially coal, with cleaner and renewable energy. This much is not in dispute.
Among those modelling the myriad ways Australia could shift to a clean economy, there is close to a consensus about one thing: we must begin to shut our coal-fired power stations long before they are due to shut.
And it makes sense that the ones that should shut first should be the dirtiest. These are the stations that spew out carbon dioxide, the biggest contributor to global warming, at the greatest intensity, pumping more into the atmosphere for each unit of electricity produced than any other source of power.
These are the brown coal-fired power stations, and all of them are in the Latrobe Valley. There are just four of them – Hazelwood, Yallourn, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B, great hulking things, beautiful in their way, rising from the horizon almost everywhere you look. The mines feed the nearby power stations, and they alone account for about 12 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.
Just one of them, Hazelwood, for years a symbol for protesters, is 50 years-old. Its red “Hazelwood” sign is faded, its maintenance falling away and security men swoop if any journalist stops to take a photograph. Still, it has done good service – it alone provides a quarter of Victoria’s baseload electricity needs. Yet if this single power station closed tomorrow, Australia’s carbon emissions would — at least theoretically — drop by close to 3 per cent. There are rumblings that at least a partial closure will be announced soon.
If elections test what the role of government should be, this is a classic case study. Labor says there is a role for governments in shutting the most polluting stations. “Electricity is an essential service,” Labor’s environment spokesman Mark Butler tells The Citizen. “We are not talking about moving from DVD stores to Netflix here.”
The Greens agree, with a detailed plan listing every coal-fired power station in the country, with a timeframe for their closure. The government is less convinced, saying that renewable energy like wind and solar will pick up the slack as older power stations reach the end of their natural lives, and that cleaner stations will continue to be part of the mix. It has no plans to facilitate closing coal-fired power stations.
And herein lies the problem – the toxic state of Australia’s environmental politics. “The last 10 years have been a roller coaster,” says John Connor, the CEO of the independent research group the Climate Institute. Connor’s position is clear: this is urgent, and governments have a critical role. “We need an actual transition plan for all of the existing coal-fired power stations, and that needs to happen over the next two decades.”
The argument about whether we should be opening new coal mines particularly for export to countries such as China and India is about the black coal mines in Queensland and NSW, and whether the economics of them — let alone their contribution to climate change – stacks up.
At home, coal is king. Fossil fuels provide 85 per cent of the electricity we generate, a huge percentage by international standards. Coal alone provides about 60 per cent, while renewables such as wind and solar account for just 14.9 per cent. There are other industries that pump out carbon dioxide, such as agriculture and transport, but electricity generation is the single biggest challenge, accounting for a third of all emissions — and rising.
Australia’s 16 active black coal power stations provide more of our electricity than brown, but brown is the most polluting. It contains much more moisture, meaning that more of it needs to be burned to produce energy. And it’s as cheap as chips. There’s no export market for it because of its water content and its volatility, so it’s all ours. The coal is easy to dig up, and transport is as simple as sending it up a conveyor belt to the adjacent power stations to burn it and convert it into electricity.
Because they are so cheap to run, and because Australia is in the unique situation of producing more electricity than we need at the moment, they are holding up investment in renewables. “There’s a real log jam now because it’s very hard to build new wind farms or new solar power stations because there’s already so much generating capacity in the system,” says associate professor Mark Diesendorf, of the University of NSW, who has worked on modeling for how renewables could provide our power needs 24 hours a day.
It’s easy to say shut them down, but it’s proved devilishly hard to do. “We have this thing in Australia around power stations,” says Nick Aberle, from Environment Victoria. “They seem to have this sacred status.”
The coalition government joined almost 200 other countries in Paris last year in an historic agreement to keep the increase in global average temperatures to “well below” 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, with the aim of avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. It agreed, too, to shift away from burning fossil fuels, the main contributor to global warming.
The government has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26-to-28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030; a start, but inadequate according to many experts, although it could be ramped up later. Labor has gone further, promising to cut emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 – better, but still not enough, say many experts — and for Australia to have zero net emissions by mid-century. Given the political traumas around climate policy over the past few years, both sides are wary of discussing the details, particularly during an election campaign. Both plan to have “reviews” of policy – but not until after the election.
After the Paris agreement, Connor said that amid the cautious optimism, the “elephant in the room” was old power stations. He says now: “We still have this massive problem of these old hulking coal-burning power stations which are dominating our power system because they’re so cheap to operate.”
It’s not as though we haven’t had time to think about this. Way back in 2010, Victoria’s then-premier, John Brumby, announced that Hazelwood would close. “If you want to tackle greenhouse [emissions], if you want to tackle climate change — you can’t do that without tackling the worst of the coal generators, which is Hazelwood,” he said.
In those days the idea was for governments to buy them out, but Julia Gillard’s government abandoned paying for five high-polluting generators to shut – three of them in Victoria – because the owners wanted too much money. Hazelwood, the dirtiest power station in the country, and Yallourn, almost as bad, chug on.
Why it matters, says Dr Roger Dargaville, a senior energy analyst at the Melbourne Energy Institute, is that if we are to decarbonise our economy by 2050 at the latest – an outcome needed to play our part in limiting global warming – it will need a suite of policies. It needs a market-based limit on carbon emissions by big polluters, a renewable energy target and huge investment in clean energy, and it needs a plan to close coal-fired power stations in an orderly way.
Renewable energy targets are important, he says, but it’s a “sideway step to the ultimate goal” — emissions reduction. If the mix isn’t right, and if each part doesn’t complement the others, strange things can happen.
“Imagine a scenario where you say, ‘Let’s have 50 per cent renewables’ but you could keep all the dirtiest brown coal generators still in the system. Your emissions wouldn’t go down that much,” he said.
The least cost path to a low carbon economy means that “obvious things” need to happen and they need to happen in order. “You phase out brown coal quickly, you phase out black coal reasonably quickly after that. You build a lot of wind in the next couple of decades.” Gas, a cleaner fossil fuel than coal, could be used as an interim measure.
Beyond 2030 or 2040, says Dargaville, it would need a big investment in what’s called “dispatchable renewables” – more controllable than wind and solar, which depend on the wind blowing and the sun shining.
There are many technologies around, and there is optimism about the possibility of large-scale storage of wind and solar power. “The problem is we don’t really know how much any of those are going to cost yet,” says Dargaville. “There’s a lot of uncertainty as to how to get there.” And we need to keep our electricity system smooth and affordable. “It’s a lot more difficult than you think.”
Everything is interconnected. Closing stations overnight in the Latrobe Valley would impact the electricity mix in other states because NSW, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT are connected to a national market, designed to ease problems popping up in any one region.
Yet we could close Hazelwood today with no impact on the reliability of electricity. The authority that manages the national market, the Australian Energy Market Operator, said in 2014 that Australia now had a surplus of electricity generation capacity, a result of reduced demand and the high take-up of rooftop solar. The excess was more than 7000 megawatts — in rough terms, enough to power 120 million 60W light bulbs.
Hazelwood has a capacity of around 1700 megawatts, which is the maximum amount of electricity it can produce at any time. So, shut it today and we wouldn’t notice. But close the other three today and things would start to wobble, particularly on hot summer days when demand soars.
We could assume, or hope, that power stations will shut as they age and that renewables coming on board will pick up the slack, but Dargaville and other experts in this area say that given the complexity, government oversight is needed. Hazelwood’s licence expires in 2034. Yallourn, more than 40 years old, will run out of coal reserves in 2032. Loy Yang A actually pumps out more emissions than Hazelwood – but at less intensity – and is due to shut in 2048. Loy Yang B is the youngest of them all, having begun operations in the 1990s. Why can’t we just sit it out and wait for them to close?
“It’s a bit like grandfather’s axe,” Dargaville says. “You can keep on reconditioning these things and keep them going almost forever.”
Labor agrees. The details of how and when Labor will close stations is not yet clear, and will be reviewed after the election. But Labor is backing an innovative proposal by Frank Jotzo and Salim Mazouz, from the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at the Australian National University. They have come up with a market system to shut them down because the notion that taxpayers would pay for power stations to close offends everyone.
“If nothing is done, then the most likely scenario is that all of these really old power plants are just going to hang on for some years,” Jotzo tells The Citizen. “Then the exit that we will see would most likely be a black coal-fired power plant, which is not as bad in emissions as a brown coal-fired plant.” That’s because cleaner black coal plants are more expensive to run, particularly in the absence of some sort of carbon price – brown coal generation of electricity started to decline under the previous Labor government’s carbon tax, then picked up again after the current government repealed it.
This is how Jotzo’s idea would work. There are four stations owned by three companies. Each would bid competitively on how much money they would accept to shut down straight away. The federal regulator would have a look at the bids, and choose the most cost-effective one. The remaining power stations would pay the winning bidder to shut. There is a brilliance to it – the owners know that at some point several of them will close, but no one wants to be first because it would leave the others to make more profit.
“You can expect that Hazelwood would put in a very competitive bid under that scenario because it is the oldest plant and would have a relatively low remaining lifetime,” says Jotzo. It couldn’t ask for too much money or it might be beaten by another bidder. “It’s not meant as a cure-all or even a medium-to-long-term policy mechanism. It’s meant as a short-term approach to a very particular short-term problem.”
There is real interest in the idea, even among the owners of the power stations. Andrew Vesey, the chief executive of AGL Energy, which owns Loy Yang A, says it has merit. AGL has announced it will get out of the coal-fired electricity business no later than 2050 – too late, according to critics – but an intention at least. Crucially, the company believes that the stalemate over the most polluting power stations is “one of these rare instances” that needs government intervention. Other owners agree: Mark Collette, from Energy Australia, the owner of the Yallourn power station, says “detailed planning” is needed, but “we support an orderly, realistic transition from large, older coal-fired power stations to cleaner forms of energy”.
Labor’s Mark Butler says that if the ALP wins the election, “the clean energy regulator would oversee a tender essentially based on the Jotzo model.” Shutting down the dirtiest stations is a part of its clutch of policies, some of which lack detail so far, including an emission trading scheme for heavy industry, another for the electricity sector, a renewable energy target, tougher standards for vehicles, and a $300 million “just transition” fund for workers and communities impacted by such big change.
There are questions about how much the idea would impact electricity prices, and Butler concedes that “everyone including Frank [Jotzo] has recognised that this model needs a lot more work to develop.” But he says “the fundamental framework is one that we support after talking pretty closely to people in industry about it.”
The government is convinced that, as foreign minister Julie Bishop told reporters after the Paris meeting, “coal-fired power generation is here to stay.” It also has a suite of policies to reduce emissions, including its direct action scheme involving paying companies to pollute less – a costly way of doing it, according to most experts, and as it stands unlikely to meet our long-term commitments. The coalition is committed to a review after the election.
It has a renewable energy target, less than Labor’s, and believes that renewables will gradually replace old stations as they retire, some of them before their natural lifespan. The rest could be cleaned up.
“There are many people who think that there will be dramatic breakthroughs that allow those fuels to be used with extremely low or even approaching zero emissions as we go forward,” Environment Minister Greg Hunt has said. During this election campaign, he has dismissed Labor’s plan to close the dirtiest stations as a “vague aspiration” that could hit consumers with higher bills.
There may not be the same heat in this issue as there was before the last election, when one of Tony Abbott’s core promises was to “scrap the carbon tax”. One reason may be that the mood has shifted as the impacts of climate change have become more obvious and because the coalition’s hostility towards renewable energies has softened under Malcolm Turnbull. An opinion poll of three marginal Victorian seats released this week by Environment Victoria found concern overall about climate change at 78 per cent, and support for shutting Hazelwood “in the next few years” at 77 per cent.
Still, there are hints of old-style politics, with the coalition warning that Labor’s plans will again amount to a “big thumping electricity tax” on families, as Treasurer Scott Morrison has put it, a notion Labor leader Bill Shorten dismissed as a scare campaign.
Resources Minister Josh Frydenberg has demanded the Victorian government reveal how it would meet its ambitious new environment plans, including a 40 per cent target for renewable energy by 2025 (a big jump from the 12 per cent the state gets from renewables now), and “net zero” carbon emissions by mid-century. It would be impossible for those targets to be achieved while the four big stations continue as they are.
“We need to ensure that the transition to increased renewable energy takes place in a smooth and cost-effective way, without interruption to electricity supply,” warned Frydenberg. “With this in mind, coal-fired power plants will continue to play an important role.”
So sensitive is the Victorian government to the politics of this that, despite boasting that the state now “leads the nation” on climate action, it won’t say the obvious about its own power stations, even Hazelwood.
“There are many decision makers on Hazelwood,” said Premier Daniel Andrews. “It’s a private company and the decisions about its future as a business are a matter for them.” Which is odd, because the federal ALP says it will look to close power stations, and it has embraced a plan specifically for the brown-fired ones in Victoria. State ministers declined to be interviewed, but the government is due to release a coal policy later this year, and has said it is looking at “barriers to exit” for the stations.
Victorian Greens MP Ellen Sandell has visited the Valley a half a dozen times to talk to locals and develop the party’s policy, including a visit with national leader Richard Di Natale. Greens policy is based on the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions. It would set limits that would reduce over time, forcing power stations to shut one by one, with a proviso that there would be no impact on reliability.
“Every time I bring it up in parliament Daniel Andrews says, ‘Oh well, it’s not up to us to decide when coal shuts, it’s up to the operators’,” says Sandell. “It’s like, since when? Since when has government thrown up its hands and said ‘We have a huge environmental and social disaster coming down the line and there’s nothing we can do about it’. There is something you can do about it, you’re the government.”
It is the states that issue mining and power station licences, and there are many ways they could shut them down, although nobody suggests that each state should go it alone. The Victorian government could revoke their licences, although that is unlikely because it could raise concerns about future investment. (The UK, however, late last year announced it would close all its coal-fired power stations by 2025 because it was “perverse” to be so reliant on the “dirtiest fossil fuel”.)
It could, as Victoria has recently done, hike further the royalties the companies have to pay and gradually squeeze the stations’ profitability – the companies complained bitterly about the trebling of royalties, although analysis suggested they would still be cheaper to run than interstate black coal stations.
It could, as Canada has done, simply set a lifetime limit – requiring plants to close once they reach a certain age, say 50, which would close Hazelwood (and begin to close some ageing plants in other states, too). Or, it could do what US president Barack Obama has done through America’s Environmental Protection Agency, requiring states to make major cuts to their greenhouse emissions, which would close hundreds of coal-fired power plants. Interestingly, the Victorian government has recently flagged that it will give its EPA the explicit power to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Whichever way it happens, by design or accident, some people will suffer more than others. Brown coal was discovered in the Latrobe Valley in 1873, with the sod turned for its first power station in 1921. That was an earlier version of Yallourn, an Aboriginal word meaning “brown fire”. That fire has been the emotional and economic heart of the Valley ever since. With 500 years’ worth of brown coal still sitting there to be dug up, it’s impossible for many people to imagine a future without it.
There have been rumours about the power stations closing for years but most now accept change is coming. “Transition” is the buzz word, tossed about with optimism, or resignation, or cynicism.
There is an extra layer of anxiety born of experience. In the 1990s, Jeff Kennett’s government privatised the power industry, disbanding the benevolent SEC and selling off the stations to different companies. People say they heard the word “transition” then, too, but it was a hard one to swallow.
“We lost about 15,000 jobs in the Latrobe Valley in a community of 75,000,” says Graeme Middlemiss, a local councillor “born and bred” in the Valley who worked for 30 years in the power industry. “That’s enormous. There were middle-aged people who never worked again. And they slipped in society, their feeling of self-worth, a much higher level of suicide, we had domestic violence. I saw all that happen. We can’t let it happen again.”
The Valley slowly crawled back from that disaster, but it remains disadvantaged. It has higher unemployment and lower education results than the state average. Men and women die earlier, and it has seven times the rate of asbestos disease, partly because of the use of asbestos in the early days of the power stations.
The town of Morwell, just a few hundred metres from the giant Hazelwood coal mine – you can see it if you stand on the southern side of town – is especially disadvantaged. Its 14,000 people suffered severe health problems from a fire that took hold at the Hazelwood mine in 2014, blanketing the area in smoke and ash for 45 days.
There is a sense here that it’s time the Valley was given a leg-up after decades of providing prosperity for others. There won’t be as many jobs to go as there were after privatisation. There are now more people employed in health and social services than in the electricity industry, although it remains the biggest contributor to the local economy.
The mines and the power stations employ a couple of thousand people directly. Then there are contractors who rely on the mine, and towns and businesses that need the workers to spend money every week. The jobs are well paid and the average age of workers is about 54, according to the key union, the CFMEU.
The union’s Victorian mining and energy president, Luke van der Meulen, is 64 and about to retire. He is open about what the union has achieved for power workers. His own salary is $170,000 a year, linked to the average member’s wage, which includes shift work and compensation for danger. There are good conditions for redundancy. Those nearing retirement will be looked after, but he worries about jobs for younger workers, and for teenagers in the valley who will struggle to find jobs. And he fears for the future of the Valley.
“As far as a steady, full time, high-wage group of people who are putting lots of money into the community, when Hazelwood shuts down, there’ll be something like 800 full time jobs that’ll cease to inject money into the community. You’re talking big money.”
He knows the mines will close – his best guess is that Hazelwood will announce at least a partial closure this year. As for transition to something else – new industries, new jobs, new hope – he fears that politicians might make promises, and “there might be shingles here and shingles there. But doing something? No, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot. It’s going to be another sad story.”
Not everyone is so pessimistic. There are ideas popping up all over the place. The state government has pledged $40 million for Valley transition, although there is no detail yet about what the money will be used for, and many locals believe it’s a pittance.
The local council’s motto is “a new energy” and it is preparing a transition plan to be put to the government. It proposes the Valley could be the “engineering capital of Australia”, a centre for education and training. Who knows? Perhaps there could be an “engineering hall of fame and museum”. Or a new chicken meat factory or opportunities in timber manufacturing. Why couldn’t the government shift some department headquarters to the Valley?
But Middlemiss, a councillor as well as a long-time union official, is deeply worried. The Valley’s problem is that it has few natural advantages, he says. Apart from the electricity industry, the region’s big employer is a paper mill, owned by Japanese giant Nippon Paper. The mill has also gone through hard times, and has announced a “turnaround” plan after years of financial struggles. Its maintenance workers recently accepted reduced hours and a wage freeze.
Middlemiss is not arguing against the science of climate change, but he says the truth is that the only future for the Valley lies in its best asset – brown coal. The council’s economic development plan released recently holds to the same faith that brown coal must be part of the solution.
“The best-case scenario is continued research into alternate cleaner uses of brown coal so we can establish manufacturing or processing industry around what is Australia’s second largest source of energy, which is Victoria’s largest source of energy. We’re sitting right on it.”
He’s talking about ideas that have been around for years, such as using brown coal to help produce agricultural fertiliser. “What I’m saying is that it’s an avenue that we neglect at our peril. We’ve got a couple of patches of good soil [for agriculture]. But the Valley is a multi-million-year-old swamp which has turned into brown coal.”
Middlemiss believes that politics has prevented serious research money being put into alternative uses for coal but, whether he is right or not, the promises haven’t been delivered. In 2008, the front page of the local paper, the Latrobe Valley Express, trumpeted a $2 billion project to produce agriculture fertiliser using brown coal. It would create 1000 construction jobs and 180 ongoing roles, and would start operating in 2012.
Company chairman Allan Blood said it would showcase clean coal technology to the world. But a year after it was due to be opened, Blood, a champion of the potential of brown coal for more than a decade, was reported in the paper as stating “very cautiously [that the project] is a long way from a done deal.”
“I don’t want to give false expectations and false hopes that I’ve been accused of contributing to before.” Still, work goes on.
Also in 2013, the Herald Sun reported more hope for the Valley. “Pollution from the Latrobe Valley could be halved and jobs created under a plan to clean up coal-fired power stations,” it said. As well, this “could be one of the first funded by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Direct Action plan to replace the carbon tax.”
The CSIRO was involved with private industry for a “direct-injection carbon engine” that could reduce brown coal emissions by as much as 50 per cent. “It is a potential jobs bonanza as well as a clean energy bonanza for the Latrobe Valley,” Greg Hunt told the paper. Three years on, this has stalled, too, for lack of investment.
A CSIRO source, who declined to be named, said initial work had been done, but the project needed between $30-to-40 million to conduct a full-sized engine trial, and the coal industry was reluctant to commit the money. “It needs investment to take it to the next level and the policy situation isn’t conducive to investment,” said Phil Gurney, of Brown Coal Innovation Australia. There has been no application to get funding through Direct Action because it’s just not ready.
Wendy Farmer has no confidence that brown coal has a future in the Valley – she says she has heard it all before. Farmer had little interest in the politics of coal and climate change, either, until the Hazelwood mine fire in 2014. She set up Voices of the Valley to demand answers about the fire and its impact, especially on people’s health. The environmental disaster politicised her and there is no doubt that the community group had impact. The Labor government re-opened an inquiry into the fire and is pouring millions into monitoring health problems and improving health more generally.
Now, she and a small band of volunteers are shifting their energies into what might replace coal when it goes. “People fear it because we’re talking about transition and you can’t talk about transition because so many people think we’ll have coal forever,” she says. The day before, Hazelwood’s French owners ENGIE flagged that it was withdrawing from coal-fired power generation over time and “we are studying all possible scenarios” for Hazelwood, including closure or a sale. Farmer almost cries when she talks about it.
“It’s just too soon for the community,” she says. “Even three years, if we can get three years before Hazelwood closes, a staged closure. It can’t displace the community more than it’s been displaced already.”
The group has a transition plan before the state government, although Farmer concedes it is tentative, and needs work. It suggests that if the Valley has always been the home of energy in Victoria, why couldn’t it be the centre of renewable energy in some way? It is not the best place in the nation to run wind or solar farms – other places are windier and sunnier – but could it be a centre for innovation, education and research, or perhaps one day a hub for storage or distribution? Because “all lines lead to the Latrobe Valley”, could it play a role in a new, green grid?
Ron Ipsen, also with Voices of the Valley, says the group is sometimes accused of being negative about the power stations, of talking the Valley down. “We don’t want to shut the power stations down,” he said. “The economics will shut them down, the public pressure will shut them down. This ship is dying. Let’s build some lifeboats for our people.”
Middlemiss dismisses the idea of a renewable future for the Valley as “all airy fairy interesting fabulous stuff.” Farmer thinks the council’s obsession with brown coal means it has its head in the sand. But the ideas are starting to be refined, and there’s heat and passion in the debates. “Let’s forget our differences,” says Farmer, “and work towards what we’re going to leave our children and our grandchildren”.
Greg Dunn will start another night shift at Hazelwood at 7pm. He’s not a climate change denier, but is sceptical about the arguments for Hazelwood and other stations being shut. He doesn’t think it will make much difference to global warming overall. “It’s just a token gesture,” he says.
Dunn began his career as an apprentice boilermaker. He has worked his way up and is now a unit manager at Hazelwood – a skilled, technical job that sees him overseeing two of the plant’s eight units. He doesn’t know where he’d find another job, but he wants a good job, a challenging job, not flipping burgers at McDonald’s.
Dunn and his wife, Lisa, are raising two teenage daughters, and he doesn’t want to uproot his family. But he might have to.
“I’m not one to sit on me hands,” he says. “All I see is places closing. Ford’s going, Holden’s going. People won’t hang around if there’s no work, and I won’t hang around.”