Opinion | Embracing energy transition in the Hunter

BIOMASS POWER STATION: Yorkshire, UK, has transitioned from an economy underpinned by coal fired power generation to a bioeconomy.
BIOMASS POWER STATION: Yorkshire, UK, has transitioned from an economy underpinned by coal fired power generation to a bioeconomy.

The Hunter Valley has become a national focal point in the discussion about Australia’s energy transition. While this focus is justified given the Hunter’s position as the nation’s energy powerhouse, public debate has tended to evoke fear about the impact on jobs and growth without proper consideration of the immense opportunities on offer.

The challenge is to move from a polarising debate to a discussion that embraces the opportunities and enables the Hunter to be part of the global shift to a sustainable and low-carbon economy.

From the University of Newcastle’s global work on regional transitions, we have observed the successful transformation of local economies, communities and environments. We have walked through former ‘regions in decline’ that now thrive through planned and innovative approaches to change. We have witnessed job creation from transition to clean technology in the UK and the industrial modernisation driving economic growth in The Netherlands. We have visited bio-innovation facilities in Sweden and seen green industries converting waste into energy and high-value products in Finland.

Yorkshire, in northern England, has many similarities to the Hunter when you compare the proud history of coal and steel production.  Their economy was historically underpinned by coal fired power generation. In the past few decades, it has managed a transition to a bioeconomy, an economy deriving high-value products from bio-renewable resources. It  has lifted itself from an uncertain future with high unemployment to an exemplar of green innovation and investment.

The evidence is compelling. The jobs are real, the technologies are advanced, and the environmental improvement is tangible. Industries that are thinking long-term, embracing transitions and investing in innovation are critically important for achieving these outcomes. The good news is – the Hunter is preparing now.

Across the globe, successful transitions have been characterised by common themes: Government policies that support innovation and investment in new industries and technologies;  collaboration across national, state and local governments and between communities, industries and policymakers; transparent processes for public-private investment;  access to enabling infrastructure and high quality research and education services;  government support for new business models and an agreed vision that finds a balance between social, economic and environmental outcomes

The seeds of energy transitions in the Hunter have been planted. The deputy premier has announced the state’s first major funded initiative under the Growing Regional Economies scheme, a $4.6 million grant to develop a bioenergy refinery to convert waste to energy and high-value bio-based products. This is a collaboration between governments, industry and The University of Newcastle. Elsewhere in the valley, the closure of Liddell Power Station in 2022 and the associated clean energy initiatives of AGL are sending a clear signal that a transition is underway. 

It is now the responsibility of government, industry and the Hunter’s diverse communities to plot a path through the transition and to capitalise on the opportunities for our economy, our people and our natural environment. 

Professor Richard Bush is Global Innovation Chair, International Centre for Balanced Land Use, The University of Newcastle