A change is coming. In fact, it’s already happening. Across the country, we’re seeing the birth of a new regional industry – renewable energy. Australia is one of the sunniest, windiest places on earth, so it’s no surprise that we’re in the middle of a renewables boom. The transition is bringing with it billions of dollars in investment and hundreds of jobs, often to long-neglected regional areas that were previously reliant on fossil fuel industries.
My town, Port Augusta in South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf, is proof that there is life beyond coal. The last of our brown coal plants closed in 2016 after the operator decided it was no longer economically viable. At the same time, the nearby Whyalla steelworks went into voluntary administration. Hundreds of jobs were lost, and it seemed the lifeblood of the region was trickling away.
Today it’s a different story. Across the region, large-scale renewable energy projects are springing up, from Australia’s largest solar farm, which switched on late last year, through to a 212MW wind farm at Port Lincoln, which is due to go operational this July. We’ve even seen the revitalisation of the Whyalla Steelworks through new owner Sanjeev Gupta, who has vowed to run the massive industrial plant on clean energy and battery storage.
But while we’re seeing a rebirth of industry in our corner of the country, the transition has not been without its challenges. Port Augusta’s reliance on coal, even as its economic viability dwindled, meant that many were left unprepared for the local collapse of the industry. People here did it tough. Some are still doing it tough. Regional areas that depend on fossil fuel industries need to square up to the new reality and plan for a clean energy transition – something that our Federal Government seems to be blind to. With this blinkered national vision, it’s up to local leaders to manage the shift.
As the former mayor of Port Augusta, my advice to leaders of coal- and gas-reliant areas is this – start planning that transition now. By looking ahead and embracing the new employment and investment opportunities of solar and wind energy, this slump can be avoided.
The writing is on the wall for Australia’s coal industry, but we can move towards a prosperous, healthy clean energy future. Be brave. The future of your community depends on it.
Sam Johnson, former mayor of Port Augusta