Engie, the majority owner of the brown coal-fired Hazelwood power station in Victoria’s La Trobe Valley, have said that the plant will close in March next year.
The Hazelwood power station and accompanying coal mine is one of the biggest and dirtiest energy producers in the state, supplying up to 25% of Victoria’s electricity. It was the Hazelwood open cut coal mine that was engulfed in 120 metre flames for nearly a month in 2014, covering Morwell and the surrounding areas in thick, black, poisonous smoke and most likely leading to the major health problems seen in the region since.
The Socialist has long advocated for the closure of the immensely dirty power station as part of a rational transition to the use of safe, clean, renewable energy.
As Beyond Zero Emissions have pointed out, the technology is available to do this. What is missing, however, is the political will to make it happen.
As it stands, energy production is chaotic and the sector is vulnerable to crises. The recent South Australian blackout and the Tasmanian energy storage crisis highlighted this clearly. This is because the energy sector is controlled by private interests, who treat power as just another consumable product to be profited from, rather than as a necessary service that everyone should have the right to access.
On the basis of capitalism plant closures such as the one proposed at Hazelwood can lead to the complete devastation of communities. It is estimated that 1000 jobs will be lost.
If Hazelwood closes, it is likely that the Portland aluminium smelter will also close, resulting in a further 750 direct job losses. Either site closing will lead to many more indirect job losses in the surrounding communities. Gippsland, where the La Trobe Valley is located, already has the highest rate of unemployment in Victoria of over 8%.
But workers and environmentalists don’t need to be at odds. In fact, their interests are intrinsically linked. Unemployment, low pay, unsafe working conditions and the destruction of the environment are all caused by the same profit-driven, capitalist system.
On a socialist basis, we could simultaneously address climate change and provide stable and secure employment for those working in the energy sector.
If the energy sector was brought back into public ownership, and was democratically run by workers and the community, a plan could be developed to close the plant while simultaneously introducing large scale renewable energy production into the Latrobe Valley.
In fact, it has been shown that investment in renewable energy creates nearly four times as many jobs as in the coal industry. So, a planned transition to renewables has the potential to be a boon for the Valley.
Over time Hazelwood workers could be reemployed in well-paid secure jobs in the clean energy sector while being retrained.
New engineering plants and TAFE colleges could be built in the region; this would not only facilitate the transition to renewables but would lead to more jobs being created in construction, manufacturing and teaching.
With the increase in the population that this expansion would bring, there would also need to be investment in housing, schools, hospitals and public transport in the region.
Such a plan would make the La Trobe Valley a safer and healthier place to live and put Victoria at the forefront of the fight against climate change.
But on the basis of capitalism, a rational plan like this is a pipedream. For any of these measures to be sustainable or long lasting, the profit motive needs to be removed from the equation.
This means that any campaign for a transition to renewable energy must be linked to the fight for a democratic socialist society – where resources are collectively owned and controlled by workers, the community and consumers.
By Meredith Jacka