The small city of Whyalla in South Australia is sitting on the brink of a transition that runs parallel with the world’s swing towards sustainability.
Once known as the “Steel City”, the seaport on the Eyre Peninsula has been labelled as Australia’s potential “first demonstration city of all things green hydrogen” by its mayor Phill Stone.
The $2 billion Hydrogen Headstart Program announced in the recent Federal Budget made specific reference to Whyalla where the South Australian Government has already committed $593 million to the world’s biggest green hydrogen power station, electrolyser, and storage facility.
Whyalla’s cornerstone industry – the steelworks – has also announced it will phase out coal-based steelmaking at the GFG Whyalla plant, and has signed a supply contract for a low carbon emissions electric arc furnace.
It’s a whiplash change for Whyalla that has residents pinching themselves to see if they are dreaming, Whyalla City Council Mayor Cr Stone says.
“I came to Whyalla in 1974 for what I thought would be three years – I never was good at maths,” he jokes.
“It’s still very hard to come to grips with the fact that in the last five years, Whyalla has become the name on the tip of everyone’s tongue with what is happening.
“For decades when we had down times, we wondered what could we do – how could we attract anything?
“Often big announcements fall through. But I know it’s going to happen. It’s just a waiting game now.”
The first concrete move Whyalla is likely to see is the announcement of the successful developer for the new hydrogen power plant – expected to be open by December 2025 – in the next few months.
“There is no doubt this is a really fantastic opportunity for South Australia to seize first-mover advantage in developing a green hydrogen industry, just as we did with energy storage when we built the original big battery – a move that has now been widely emulated,” Office of Hydrogen Power SA CEO Sam Crafter says.
“Last year’s market sounding process, which called for proposals from industry on the technical, system and commercial project approaches for the hydrogen facility, saw about 60 expressions of interest received, and to now have received almost 30 formal proposals shows the level of interest and excitement in Australia and from around the world about the South Australian Government’s plans.”
But Why Whyalla?
Whyalla’s location as the home of the steelworks has made it a specific focus for hydrogen-based industry.
The existing Port Bonython hydrocarbon-based export terminal, 16km from Whyalla, is under evaluation as South Australia’s first large-scale export terminal for green and blue hydrogen.
The $593 million hydrogen hub plan, which includes a 250MW electrolyser and a 200MW hydrogen-fuelled power station, continues to be contentious.
Grattan Institute energy program director Tony Wood has said governments owning hydrogen plants comes at a big risk and pits the government against the deep pockets of the private sector.
Upper House SA MP Frank Pangallo has also raised concerns the hydrogen hub could pose a risk to the protected habitat of the giant cuttlefish.
Stone says between the Council and the State Government, there is still significant land available for growth in Whyalla and room for infrastructure, but there are big challenges ahead.
With a two to three-year construction timeframe, Whyalla could be looking at a population surge, both during construction and beyond.
“One of our big problems will be accommodation,” Stone says.
“It’s all very well to have all these jobs and the opportunities that will come, but a lot of our infrastructure goes back to the ‘60s and is getting past its used-by date. It needs upgrading.
“We are working with government and asking ‘What are your plans? Do you see Whyalla as critical to the state of the nation and what are your plans to improve our liveability’?”
In the meantime, Stone says, it is a time of “renaissance” in the city of Whyalla, with renewed pride stemming from projects such as the one-of-a-kind Circular Jetty, and from a greener-looking hinterland.
“I am genuinely excited about our future and for the biggest change we have since the opening of the steelworks in the ‘60s,” he says. “Whyalla is in the process of turning the corner.”
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.