Tomago firm Ampcontrol says solar project will grow jobs but can't see a future without coal

RIDING THE CRESTS: Ampcontrol CEO and managing director Rod Henderson talks about mining's booms and busts. Picture: Sam Norris
RIDING THE CRESTS: Ampcontrol CEO and managing director Rod Henderson talks about mining's booms and busts. Picture: Sam Norris

Tomago electrical engineering firm Ampcontrol has revealed it will start a solar energy project before the end of the year, which it believes will create more jobs.

Ampcontrol managing director and CEO Rod Henderson said two 30 megawatt solar plants were destined for southern NSW and Victoria, to augment supply in the national electricity grid.

“We’re not a retailer but people will be able to buy supply from the likes of Origin and Energy Australia,” he said. “This will result in a lot more jobs here in the Port Stephens workshop. In the next six months we’ll be well into the workshop side of [the project].”

The plans form part of the privately owned company’s foray into renewable energy solutions. 

Ampcontrol has specialised in the mining industry since 1968. Mr Henderson spoke at Port Stephens Council’s July Business Leaders Luncheon about how the company had responded since 2014 to the industry’s downturn: about 200 Tomago workers were let go and Ampcontrol has only revisited wage increases this year.

Mr Henderson said his challenge had been to diversify and grow the company in sustainable ways since then.

“We were smacked with a massive workload during 2011,” he said of the mining boom. “We had more work in 18 months than we would normally see in five years. We had nine longwall mine orders in three months alone.”

Despite a long tail of work, the crunch came in 2014.

“There were some sleepless nights in 2014-15, we did lose 200 jobs at Tomago and there were some hard decisions and we saved 600 jobs,” he said. “At the same time we started developing a longer-term strategic plan.”

It has since invested more in tunnelling infrastructure after successes with one of the Brisbane motorways and the $1 billion Harbour Area Treatment Scheme in Hong Kong.

While solar will form part of the Ampcontrol’s new business model, not even Mr Henderson could see renewables replacing coal entirely.

“Yes, renewables are part of the solution but its not the [single] solution,” he said.

His assessment came but days after Tesla’s Elon Musk and the South Australian government said they would build the world’s largest lithium-ion battery. “If we think that battery storage holds the solution we are going to have a lot of hot and cold nights,” Mr Henderson said. “There will always be a need for coal despite what The Greens say.

“There are 45 new coal fired power plants under construction in Japan alone.” 

Mr Henderson estimated Ampcontrol’s solar project would boost employment by about 10 per cent – or between another 30 to 40 jobs – to 400 people employed in Hunter operations.