Thousands of workers in fossil fuel-related jobs are worried about their future employment as governments start the transition to renewable energy. This is particularly true for those working in the coal industry, as several countries aim to shut down their existing coal plants over the next decade, potentially leaving hundreds of thousands unemployed.
The latest in a long line of worldwide coal plant closures came this week as Australia announced it has plans to shut down its biggest coal factory in 2025, seven years ahead of schedule. Eraring station in New South Wales, operated by Origin Energy, said it plans to turn the power off on the 2,880MW black coal generator due to changing conditions.
CEO of Origin Energy, Frank Calabria, explained of the decision, “The reality is the economics of coal-fired power stations are being put under increasing, unsustainable pressure by cleaner and lower-cost generation, including solar, wind and batteries.”
Several other energy companies in Australia have stated plans to close their coal operations early over the last year. AGL is planning to close its Bayswater generator in 2033 rather than 2035, and its brown coal-fired Loy Yang A plant in 2045 as opposed to 2048. EnergyAustralia has also brought forward its Yallourn power plant closure from 2032 to 2028.
This has led many Australian coal workers to fear for their employment prospects heading forward. There are around 400 workers at the Eraring plant that will lose their jobs and more in the supply chain that will be affected. While the green transition and the move away from coal has been a long time coming, calls from coal-reliant towns have gone unanswered by the government. Despite the news of the early closure, the workers were told nothing about their severance package or the transition plan at the time of the announcement, leaving many worried about the future.
The Independent party politician for the region, Greg Piper, explains, “I have always supported a move away from coal but the fact is, the workers and this power station have been the heavy lifters in giving energy security to NSW.”
This is a sentiment felt by many as the world transitions away from fossil fuels. While it may be important to consider the environmental impact of our energy, the prospects of the workers that have been helping to supply energy for decades should not be overlooked. The Centre for Policy Development released a report in January suggesting that achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 could lead to the cutting of 300,000 jobs in Australia alone.
To avoid catastrophe, governments around the world must consider the future of fossil fuel workers in their energy transition strategies. Not only will this help prevent soaring unemployment, but it could also help support the renewable energy industry through the retraining of workers to transition to green energy jobs.
Matt Kean, New South Wales’ treasurer, has suggested just this. He announced last week, the creation of 3,700 roles in clean industries in response to the plant closure. In addition, the state plans to invest $250 million in the next half a decade to increase local manufacturing for components to be used in renewable energy projects, from wind towers to electrolyzers and batteries, creating a further 500 jobs.
Other countries are experiencing similar challenges as they strive for a green transition. In India, new coal mines continue to be being built in response to the country’s growing population and increasing energy demand. Several companies are asking people across India to give up their land in return for a job in a new plant. But whereas these jobs used to be permanent many are now temporary, as the number of jobs in the new plants outweighs the number of people losing land. Formal employment in the mining industry has become scarcer, with many across the country left without an income as they lose their land and have no long-term job to fall back on.
Many of the coal job cuts worldwide were spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic which saw a high number of job losses across the fossil fuel industry as operations shut down. The U.S. fossil fuel industry is thought to have reduced its workforce by between 10 and 24 percent during 2020. At the same time, renewable energy projects picked up the pace, with wind, electric vehicles, hybrid vehicles, and battery storage operations profiting from the closure of coal and oil projects. As operations resumed the outlook appeared different, with governments, international organizations and environmental activists around the world pushing for a transition away from fossil fuels towards renewable alternatives, meaning an increasing number of job cuts across the industry.
In April last year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $109.5 million in funding for projects that support job creation for communities affected by the energy transition, but this is a drop in the ocean considering the number of jobs being lost every month. As job losses become more commonplace worldwide across the energy sector, governments desperately need to consider how the energy transition will affect the workers.
By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com
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