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Breaking new ground: Challenges and opportunities of a changing energy landscape in regional Australia (South-West Queensland)

The emerging clean energy economy offers a window of opportunity for South-West Queensland. Capturing this potential requires a targeted and proactive policy approach that leverages the region’s entrenched advantages and lays the bedrock for sustained prosperity. Communities in South-West Queensland—including those which house our coal-fired generators—have long formed a cornerstone of our economy.

Yet, across the country, a massive change is already underway. Coal-fired generators are facing increased competition, with many set to close—unviable in the face of ever-cheaper renewable energy. And the days of insatiable global demand for our thermal coal exports are also numbered.

Such a shift should be met with optimism—not trepidation—in South-West Queensland. That’s because the region can prosper in the new energy economy. The only question is whether we have the courage and foresight to capitalise on these new opportunities.

Few nations share our combination of sunshine, wind, and access to financial and human capital. In addition, we possess an abundance of rare earth elements and critical minerals such as lithium—an essential input into the production of clean energy assets like batteries and critical technologies like computer chips.

Blueprint’s modelling indicates that approximately 6,200 new jobs in renewable energy projects will be created in South-West Queensland. Of these, nearly 1,000 are permanent, long-term positions. These are new jobs and drawn only from projects that are registered with the regulator, have commenced construction or clear construction dates, and clear funding routes.

Massive wind and solar resources have already attracted the state’s largest operational wind project, the 453MW Coopers Gap Wind Farm, and over 3,300MW committed or proposed in other projects. Workers from Tarong power station could help maintain the new Battery Energy Storage System nearby, while those at Kogan Creek could staff CS Energy’s neighbouring renewable hydrogen demonstration plant. Meanwhile, thousands of new jobs in critical minerals mining around Mount Isa will require skills similar to those already possessed by former coal miners. But to secure enduring prosperity in South-West Queensland, we cannot rely on renewable projects alone—many of the jobs they create are short-term construction jobs, with far fewer long-term stable jobs in maintenance and operations. The diversification of local employment beyond renewables—to areas such as clean industry development, critical minerals mining, auxiliary industries, as well as other emerging sectors—will be necessary to provide meaningful and stable employment to the area’s regional communities.

Lasting economic prosperity in the new energy economy is attainable in South-West Queensland, but it will require broad stakeholder collaboration, and in some cases, targeted government support. The policy required to ensure effective diversification of our regions can be found in Blueprint’s previous report—From the ground up. The report called for:

  • funding for coal adaptation authorities to be established that empower communities;
  • the establishment of a national coalfield and infrastructure renewal and repurpose strategy, in concert with state and local governments, to ensure that existing assets can be used to allow communities to pivot and adapt to new opportunities and;
  • well-designed support for workers through job search and retraining services, income insurance, and where necessary early retirement packages.

Opportunities for a prosperous future for South-West Queensland are there for the taking. Rather than bear the economic cost of our changing electricity grid, regional Australia can lead us into a new era of prosperity. Our polling shows that voters in South-West Queensland are demanding their leaders step up to the plate. We hope that this research helps policymakers to move fast and embrace these opportunities with confidence.

From the ground up: A Blueprint for economic diversification in regional Australia

Coal mining communities, and those that house our coal-fired generators, have long been the backbone of the Australian economy. These communities have supplied power to our homes, provided employment to millions of Australians, and brought foreign capital to our shores.

But in Australia, a massive change is already underway in our regions.

Coal-fired generators are rapidly closing—unviable in the face of competition from cheaper renewable sources of electricity. And globally, the days of insatiable demand for our coal exports are numbered. Though timelines vary by sector, and depend on dynamic global policy settings, jobs in these industries will not survive as the world shifts to a net-zero future.

It’s in no one’s interest to prop up industries that will inevitably fail. But the costs of decarbonisation should not be borne solely by the communities that rely on emissions-intensive industries. Over 50,000 Australian jobs depend directly on coal in the domestic and international market, along with another 120,000 indirectly tied to the industry.

Government has a responsibility to ensure the cost of decarbonisation does not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of regional Australians, because when regional Australia does well, all Australians do well.

Our Blueprint for regional Australia has three components. Australia must:

Empower communities

Establishing coal adaptation authorities, in regions which currently rely on coal mining or coal-fired generators to fuel their local economies, can empower regional Australians to deal with obstacles and seize the opportunities presented by a changing energy landscape. Serious funding can do justice to this effort. We propose providing authorities with $20 million of initial funding and five percent of ongoing coal royalties. With 10,000 workers across Australia at risk during the energy transition over the next decade, beginning to grow funds to support them and their communities represents prudent and cost- effective forward planning.

Renew economies

Developing a national coalfield and infrastructure renewal and repurpose strategy can ensure that regions can adapt and pivot toward new opportunities using their existing assets. Existing infrastructure should benefit communities economically and socially after mines and plants cease operations. Owners and operators must develop innovative regeneration plans for sites, with the Federal Government matching private investment to support adaptation. Other substantive opportunities for these regions exist, including via renewable energy zones, critical minerals, start-up incubators, and expanded finance and market access for regional carbon sequestration.

Support workers

Well-designed income insurance, early retirement packages, and job search and retraining services have been shown to be powerful tools to drive gainful employment for those who have taken the brunt of a shifting energy market. Governments could mandate operators develop proactive plans for worker displacement, which could be coordinated by newly formed coal adaptation authorities. Short-term wage subsidies should also be available as a last resort. Critically important is the way in which these policies are introduced. Lessons from the success and failures of local and international examples are clear. Policies should be proactive—planned and implemented as early as possible. They 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.

Powering the next boom—Climate & Energy

We propose market-based solutions in a bid to depoliticise climate and energy policy. In our 'Powering the next boom' series, we tell an optimistic story about Australia’s future as a renewable energy superpower. We outline and address key challenges the nation will face as the world shifts towards renewables.

Phasing down gracefully: Halving electricity emissions this decade

Net-zero is inevitable, by 2050 or even earlier. To get there, our economy will need to undergo a tremendous structural transformation. The longer we delay, the costlier it will be. Our 2030 emissions target is a critical milestone on the path to net-zero. Relying on the COVID-19 slowdown and uncoordinated state action only to fall short of our Paris target isn’t a promising start.

To begin the transformation, we should commit to halving emissions from coal-fired electricity this decade. Given the states are already committed to forcing renewables into the grid at record pace, we could very well reach our 2030 target without federal action. But this ad-hoc and scattershot process will be unnecessarily costly, and poses significant risks. One only needs to remember the debacles that were Port Augusta and Hazelwood—and imagine them on a national scale—to appreciate the threat we face. Failing to act risks supply shortfalls and price spikes.

We need national leadership to secure certainty for energy communities, workers, consumers, and investors around the inevitable phasedown of coal-fired generation. To that end, the Government should introduce the Coal-Generation Phasedown Mechanism (CPM), to be administered by the Clean Energy Regulator as with the Emissions Reduction Fund and Safeguard Mechanism.

The CPM has five components:

1. ANNOUNCE SECTORAL EMISSIONS TARGETS FOR 2026, 2028, AND BEYOND 2030. Under the Safeguard Mechanism, sectoral emissions caps can be applied to generators down to 50% by 2030 to drive participation in the CPM. A certain stepdown in coal generation would generate a clear market signal, pulling investment in renewables and firming into the grid in advance.

2. OFFER CONTRACTS ACROSS THE THREE TIMEFRAMES FOR EMISSIONS SUMMING TO THE TARGETS. Contracts for emissions (rather than electricity supply) for the three timeframes would be determined simultaneously, favouring less emissions-intensive plants. The contracts wouldn’t only cap emissions, but also guarantee a minimum electricity supply right up to contract expiration.

3. IMPLEMENT A SEALED-BID AUCTION SYSTEM FOR ALLOCATING THE CONTRACTS. Participants would submit their valuations for generating quantities of emissions for each timeframe. The auction system would then allocate contracts and determine relative prices to minimise economic costs, but could also accommodate other factors; e.g., geographic concentration.

4. IMPOSE MUTUAL OBLIGATIONS TO AFFECTED WORKERS UPON EXPIRY OF THE CONTRACTS. In order to participate in the CPM, generators would be required to offer redeployment opportunities for affected workers upon contract expiry. Where this is not possible, retraining and generous remuneration arrangements would be required.

5. ACCOMMODATE A GOVERNMENT FUNDING ALLOCATION (POSITIVE, ZERO, OR NEGATIVE). At one extreme, the CPM could generate revenue to be redirected to local communities. At the other, generators could be fully compensated for their lost profits, though this would come at considerable cost to taxpayers. The CPM can also accommodate any intermediate funding allocation.

What energy communities, workers, consumers, and investors have long desired is the certainty that comes from national leadership. It isn’t about ending coal-fired generation—the plummeting cost of renewables and state policies to push them into the grid have already made that decision. But the last thing anybody wants is an uncontrolled detonation. The Commonwealth’s role is to coordinate an orderly phasedown at minimum economic cost, and to ensure that cost is shared fairly. It’s time to step up.

Powering the next boom

Australia has committed to full decarbonisation by some point this century. But if we don’t commit soon to rapidly decarbonise, the decision may be forced upon us. Japan, South Korea, the UK, and the EU, among others, have already committed to net-zero by 2050. China has pledged net-zero by 2060. The Biden campaign in the US has committed to net-zero by 2050 and $2.4 trillion in climate initiatives. Canada has a nation-wide carbon price. Failing to commit soon to net-zero by 2050 will diminish our international standing, and harm our competitiveness.

But a net-zero commitment isn’t enough. We’re due to reduce our emissions by just 4.2% over the coming decade. On our current trajectory, we will only meet our Paris commitment by using carryover credits from the soon-defunct Kyoto Protocol. We should commit today to meet our Paris target without using our Kyoto credits. This can be achieved by halving our emissions from electricity within 10 years, as the UK did to 2018.

Reforming our energy sector can unlock the economic potential of our abundant natural resources, create new industries, and propel our economy into the future. We will need to overcome barriers to the transition, including disincentives to investment in transmission, the negative impacts on coal communities, and threats to the reliability of our electricity supply. Our goal should be to transition at minimum economic cost.

This consultation paper launches Blueprint Institute’s new energy policy initiative—Powering the next boom. It sets out the decarbonisation challenge we face in the decades ahead, and how we can confront it.

We canvas five topics critical to this effort:

  • AUSTRALIA’S INTERNATIONAL STANDING. To protect our reputation and trade prospects, we should meet our Paris targets without Kyoto credits, and commit to net-zero by 2050.
  • TRANSMISSION. We should remove the impediments to new transmission investment that exist, and accelerate projects that enable reliable decarbonisation.
  • A FAIR TRANSITION FOR COAL COMMUNITIES. A path to net-zero must receive broad community support, which means supporting those harmed by the transition.
  • CLEANTECH FINANCE. Further support for energy RD&D and commercialisation can help accelerate global decarbonisation, drive economic growth, and foster new industries.
  • GREEN HYDROGEN. To unlock our natural advantage in green hydrogen, the Government should advance feasibility studies, pilot projects, and green aluminium and steel.

Electricity is the low-hanging fruit of decarbonisation. The path to net-zero extends far beyond the electricity sector. The Government should also consider investments to support decarbonisation through soil carbon, the lithium value chain, electric vehicles, energy IT, energy efficiency, and conservation and restoration, among others. Our future research will produce evidence-based recommendations to advance these solutions at lowest cost.