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Climate campaigners planning new protests

4 May 2010 4 Comments
By Jenny Jägerhorn | Melbourne Editor

power hazelwood

Described as the 'dirtiest power station in Australia,' protesters are fighting for its closure. Image: Courtesy of Greenpeace/Hunt

With state and federal elections looming, the campaign by environmental activists to close Hazelwood, Australia’s dirtiest power station, is set to intensify with a demonstration planned for Thursday.

Environment Victoria, the state’s peak non-government environment organization, has been lobbying for closure since a demonstration last September in which 22 people were arrested amid ugly scenes.

Replace Hazelwood campaigners say Victoria must change the way it gets its energy supplies and the number one priority is to replace Hazelwood power station.

“It’s old, it’s inefficient and it’s time for it to be replaced. We have got this opportunity now because the owners have signalled that they will be willing to shut down, so there is a big opportunity for the government to step in and close Hazelwood and subsidize clean energy,” Environment Victoria climate change campaigner Victoria McKenzie-McHarg said.

Environment Victoria says the demonstration, scheduled to take place on May 6 on the steps of Parliament House in Melbourne, is for those wanting “real action to slash Victoria’s greenhouse pollution.”

The organisations behind the campaign to close Hazelwood power station are pressing the state and federal governments to negotiate with owners International Power to close it by 2012.

Environment Victoria feels optimistic it can negotiate closure.

In interviews with Reportage-Enviro, the union agrees that closure is inevitable, although it believes several years will be required, and the operator says it may agree to close the plant so long as compensation is paid.

Meanwhile, the Victorian government prolonged Hazelwood power station’s contract. It was scheduled to close down in 2005, but the Labor Government extended its contract until 2030.

Hazelwood burns brown coal, which is one of the dirtiest energy forms and is, according to Environment Victoria, responsible for 15 per cent of Victoria’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. According to a report commissioned by Environment Victoria – Victoria’s Energy Mix 2000-2009, Victoria’s reliance on coal fired electricity has increased in the last decade with both electricity generation and greenhouse pollution from coal increasing by nine percent since 2000.

Ms McKenzie-McHarg said that the Victorian government was under real pressure with an election looming and that seats could go to the Greens.

“People… will be watching very closely to see what the government decides to do on this issue,” she said.

“No plans to close within years”

Hazelwood’s owner International Power says the company itself decides when to close and has no plans to do it for years.

“It won’t be any union’s, it won’t be any environmental group’s, neither the state or federal Government’s decision. We will decide when it closes,” said Mr Neil Lawson, Public Affairs Manager at International Power Hazelwood.

He said that if governments were “wanting to phase out all the coal-fired power stations then there is a process to go through it, it is not a statement of closing down Hazelwood within a certain period of time.”

“We are not prepared to do anything until we see some certainty in the carbon policy direction of the Federal government,“ said Mr Lawson.

The Australian Government has claimed it is strongly committed to reducing carbon pollution with a goal of reducing emissions by 25 percent below 2000 levels by 2020.

But last week Prime Minster Kevin Rudd delayed plans until the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012.

International power shares a vision with the both state and federal governments that coal will form the majority of the energy-mix in Australia for “some time to come.” The power station claims there is no replacement for efficient based coal power in this country at this point of time.

Minimum seven years transition

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union recognises that moving away from coal is inevitable but believes that the transition time needs to be at least seven years. The average age of its members is 53 years, so it believes a natural or early retirement could be a solution.

“Our members want security in the employment for the duration of their working life. The government will obviously have to play a significant role, because they will need to mandate that companies that are closing down will shift their younger employees across to power companies that are going to hang around for a while, because you can only close them down at a certain phase,” said Greg Hardy, Victorian secretary of the CFMEU’s mining and energy division.

After the privatisation of Hazelwood Power station in 1996, there were a lot of job losses in La Trobe Valley and, according to Mr Hardy, the workers got little help from the government. There is still a lot of mistrust in the Government.

“Both sides of politics in Victoria have been the enemy in La Trobe Valley for quite some time and I can’t see that suddenly changing. The Government does not talk to our union. They treat us like second-class citizens, but they seem to have lunches with the power industry bosses on a regular basis. Whether or not that will change, who knows,” said Mr Hardy.

In terms of the elections, Mr Hardy does not see much choice for the public because the major parties implement similar politics; they are both pro-coal.

“It’s the companies they look after and obviously for companies who aren’t presently set up in our industry that makes it very difficult for them, because it’s the big existing companies that get listened to, when their setting policy, not the future companies,” said Mr Hardy.

“In terms of the future of coal I think the future lays in alternate usage for it. But that is along way off,” said Mr Hardy.

Options to coal

Environment Victoria’s wants to reduce electricity demand in Victoria through energy efficiency measures.

It also supports new gas-fired power stations in Western Victoria as part of a transition, while building up renewable energy sources.

“La Trobe Valley is a manufacturing heart and we could be renewable energy and green technology there, but we need the Governments support for that,” said Ms McKenzie-McHarg.

Mr Hardy from CFMEU agrees that demand management is needed and believes it is possible through government regulation.

“You need base load renewable energy and the only one that seems to have the runs on the board at this stage is the solar thermal, with large scale storage. We would probably also need to have some sort of interim period where a bit more gas was used, but either way it would take a while to replace our older stations so that you progressively shut down an older station and whilst you’re doing that you’re commissioning new cleaner plants,” said Mr Hardy.

Professors Rachel Webster and Edwin Van Leeuwen of Melbourne University are working on a project called the Victorian Geothermal Assessment Report, on Geothermal power. They have discovered that the best site on earth for this is the Latrobe Valley, a prospective geothermal site with a vast amount of brown-coal needed for the process. An operational test plant could be running within four years for $100 million.

The next report will be published later this year.

Jenny Jägerhorn is a GEJI exchange student currently at Monash University in Melbourne.

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