Opinion | Navigating regional transition | Anthea Bill

PANEL DISCUSSION: Professor Richard Bush, the University of Newcastle’s Global Innovation Chair in the International Centre for Balanced Land Use, in Muswellbrook.
PANEL DISCUSSION: Professor Richard Bush, the University of Newcastle’s Global Innovation Chair in the International Centre for Balanced Land Use, in Muswellbrook.

The future of energy and the region were the focus of the Hunter Research Foundation Centre’s Upper Hunter economic breakfast held last week in Muswellbrook.

Presentations and a panel session at the breakfast highlighted some of the challenges that the region faces as we continue to undergo an economic transition.

It also showcased some exciting opportunities for transitioning our region to a more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future.

AGL Macquarie’s general manager, Kate Coates, addressed the planned closure of Liddell and Bayswater power stations in 2022 and 2035, respectively.

Ms Coates joined Professor Richard Bush, the University of Newcastle’s Global Innovation Chair in the International Centre for Balanced Land Use, in a panel discussion on the future of energy and the Hunter.

Other panelists were Geoff Doherty, PhD, Senior Biotechnologist for Ethanol Technologies (Ethtec) and Pat Conroy, MP, Deputy Chair of the Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy.

Ethtec, the University and Muswellbrook Shire Council have been working towards transformation of the Upper Hunter region into a national bio-renewables hub. Ethtec are leading a project to build a demonstration facility in the Upper Hunter. The facility will employ a novel process to turn agricultural wastes into valuable fuels, such as ethanol, and chemical feedstocks. 

Professor Bush said that such ventures could enable the Hunter to become a national and international exemplar in the transition to clean energy and sustainable technologies.

We have competitive advantages with our research-intensive university, industrial capability and supply chains, and natural resources. The only significant hurdle is the prosperity of our past, hampering us from opening our minds to new opportunities. 

The HRF Centre’s Upper Hunter economic indicators show continued business and consumer confidence in the Upper Hunter economy in the first half of 2017.

Our data show that confidence in the long term among businesses and consumers remains above the lows experienced in 2014 and 2015.

Renewed confidence is likely a result of higher prices for thermal coal. They were sustained over the first half of the year. That has boosted activity and employment in the Upper Hunter mining sector.

While coal prices have picked up since August last year, it is uncertain whether demand will be sustained in the decades ahead. The near-term economic imperative to transition away from coal is not strong. 

Proving the longer-term economic case for pursuing bio-renewables remains a challenge for the energy companies, our university colleagues, and other researchers.

The HRF Centre will continue to monitor the Upper Hunter economy through our surveys and research.

By providing greater understanding of economic trends, we plan to continue to contribute to what we hope will be the region’s successful transition in coming years.

Dr Anthea Bill is Lead Economist with the Hunter Research Foundation Centre