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Renewing the regions with post-COVID-19 recovery

Every day seems to bring a new statement from here and around the world about a ‘green recovery’. There is a growing consensus that we can fix the climate crisis while stimulating the economy and building ourselves out of a COVID-19 recession. The tweet above lists just some of these voices - from governments, businesses, think tanks, academics, including the IMF, World Bank and businesses like BP and BHP. It's hard to think of time when so many disparate voices have come together to advocate for such major changes and improvements to society. 

As many of them point out, much of the jobs benefit will flow in regional and rural communities. This is clearly the case in Australia where we have a once in a generation opportunity to support regional and rural communities with new renewable energy and transmission projects. While agriculture has continued to thrive, unemployment and underemployment has risen sharply in regional Australia during the COVID-19 shutdown. New jobs are as important as ever. Governments can do a number of things to drive renewable energy projects as a key plank of the COVID-19 recovery, create regional jobs and lock in cheaper energy for regional businesses.

The Australian Wind Alliance has shown previously with the Building Stronger Communities report that the recent boom in wind energy construction delivered an economic boost of $5.1 billion to regional areas. As the Reserve Bank of Australia recently noted, “renewable energy investment has supported activity and employment, particularly in regional areas where large-scale renewable generators tend to be located.”

These benefits can be enhanced with targeted measures included in the post-Covid 19 economic recovery.

Manufacturing and local jobs 

Renewable energy projects boost local economies in two ways - by directly employing people in renewable energy construction and operations and by providing cheaper power for local businesses, helping them to thrive and employ more people.

In Victoria, the state government can create regional jobs by supporting new wind and solar farms by bringing forward the second round of the Victorian Renewable Energy Target (VRET). 

The first VRET saw the creation of a wind assembly plant at the Geelong Ford factory and the growth of Portland’s wind tower manufacturer, Keppel Price. A similar emphasis on local content and manufacturing in the second VRET would build on these results. 

The Australia Institute highlights the need for government leadership, both at the state and federal levels, to leverage cheap renewable energy to create new manufacturing jobs in their report, ‘Powering Onwards: Australia’s Opportunity to Reinvigorate Manufacturing through Renewable Energy.’

Moreover, over time those savings would get even larger – because the cost of renewable energy production is falling rapidly and steadily. By 2050, such a transition would save manufacturers $2.2 billion per year (in constant dollar terms), or 33% of their energy bills. 

...a renewables- focused strategy for revitalising Australian manufacturing would also feature ambitious plans to promote the domestic production of manufactured goods with a direct connection to the coming renewable energy revolution." 

There’s an opportunity for local manufacturing, cheaper prices and also direct jobs through construction and operations. The Clean Energy Council has identified that 50,000 new direct jobs can be created if there’s a clean energy led recovery.

Already, renewable energy projects are moving in this direction, with the newly-announced Central Queensland Power Project planning to align new wind, solar and battery developments with a green and just transition that retains jobs in Gladstone’s traditional heavy industries.

Get on with building 21st century transmission

The single biggest roadblock to new renewable energy projects in Australia is the lack of adequate transmission infrastructure. We’ve had a successful Renewable Energy Target that has built enough wind and solar to secure 23% of our power by this year, but there hasn’t been sufficient work done on the grid we need to quickly connect all the new plants. This is leading to delays in connection and uncertainty about where new plants can go.

For instance, there are 8,000 megawatts of new wind farm projects currently committed or proposed to be built in Victoria, but transmission, particularly in the north-west of the state, needs to be modernised to accommodate it. Work is now underway on a new link to connect Western and North Western Victoria to the main load centre in Melbourne. Energy Connect, building a link between South Australia and New South Wales is also underway, though both projects will take at least two years to complete.

Another exciting project in the works is Copperstring, a connection from Townsville, west to the mining region around Mount Isa, unlocking a huge solar and wind resource to power industry across Northern Queensland. It was recently granted state government funding to kick along project development.

The challenge is to move these projects along as quickly as possible.

Both new renewable projects and transmission offer opportunities to engage and to create community benefits programs that empower regional communities. The Australian Wind Alliance has pioneered community benefit approaches that can apply to the next wave of infrastructure and energy assets and we’re keen to explore how this can be extended to transmission projects.

Cumulative benefits 

We can renew our regions by renewing our energy systems. Bringing together a number of wind and solar plants in the one area can bring cumulative benefits by coordinating community benefit programs across projects to enhance communities and the local environment. As development begins to focus on Renewable Energy Zones there is a need to create mechanisms to unlock large scale legacy social and community projects.

Co-ownership and co-investment

Co-ownership, co-investment and community ownership are ways energy can benefit local communities. Co-ownership has not been explored much in Australia but is common in Denmark and Germany. Windlab has implemented Australia’s first co-ownership model at its Coonooer Bridge Wind Farm and later at the Kiata Wind Farm. The Sapphire Wind Farm in NSW has allowed the public to invest via a public offer. There are some proposed wind farms such as Delburn and Golden Plains that offer some forms of co-ownership/co-investment. Benefit sharing options are explored in more depth in the AWA’s Building Stronger Communities report and the Clean Energy Council’s guide ‘Benefit Sharing Options for Renewable Energy Projects.’

Unlocking Offshore Wind and Hydrogen

The Australian Wind Alliance has identified the need for offshore wind and green hydrogen to play a part in the economic recovery. There needs to be less heel-dragging from the federal government in developing a legislative framework for offshore wind to unlock the job potential it offers. Offshore wind in regions moving away from coal, such as Gippsland, can play a part in a just transition. Star of the South has approval pending and is a $10 billion project. Hydrogen could help Australia reach 700% renewables according to chief scientist Alan Finkel. Australia is exceptionally well placed to benefit from moving away from fossil fuels.

Civil society working together 

Ross Garnaut sees Australia as well placed to benefit from taking action on climate change. He recently told the AWA, “get it all right and Australia is naturally the energy super power of the future zero emission world economy.”  With the right policy support, these are benefits that can accrue to regional Australia and regional and rural workers.

While fossil fuel interests may make similar claims, regional Australia needs to focus on the industries that will thrive into the future, which we know will be carbon-constrained. Gas and coal will continue to decline as the world moves to lower emissions. Investments now in these carbon-intensive industries will be money wasted and lead to the risk of stranded assets and shock job losses. Making sure today’s investments deliver for future generations is a task civil society will need to work together as a coalition to achieve like never before. 

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