An ambitious zero-emission pilot project in regional NSW could inform the nation – if not the world – about converting climate ambition into reality.
What does it take for regional and fringe communities to combat climate change? Time. Investment. Huge savings. Oh, and electricians. Lots of them.
The CSIRO, the University of Newcastle and Fulbright Australia have detailed what it would take to create a Zero Emission Community Pilot project in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley.
It’s a proof of concept; an idea that pulls industry, communities and governments together. The purpose is to come up with a 20-year plan. The science is in. Enough engineering has been done to make a difference. Now it’s a matter of implementation.
“I do believe that this is an incredible opportunity,” says engineer and founder of Rewiring Australia, Dr Saul Griffith. “This is globally significant. If you could have this running in 2023 or 2024 – in Australia – you’re starting to prove the economics. You’re proving the social licence. You will bring the whole world’s climate ambition forward by five or 10 years. This is probably worth a couple of points of degrees Celsius.”
Change is coming, whether we want it or not. NSW has again been deluged. The United States west coast is all but dried out. Fires are ravaging Siberia. Europe is experiencing unprecedented heat waves.
Meanwhile, the Netherlands has banned new natural gas devices in homes from 2025. New York State is set to do the same. Norway won’t allow fossil-fuelled cars to be sold after 2025. And that’s just a sampler.
“So the future is happening – it’s just not all happening in one place,” says Griffith. “The idea of the pilot is let’s do all those things in one place and be the lighthouse project, as they say, for the whole world.”
The NSW State Government has plans to convert the Hunter and Central Coast into renewable energy zones. It’s received submissions for solar, wind and battery projects capable of supplying 40 gigawatts of electricity to local industry, towns and suburbs.
And green energy prices are plummeting, even as the cost of fossil fuels soar. Raw economics is building up a head of steam to drive Australia into the future.
Griffith says the most practical pathway to decarbonise the planet is through the electrification of everything.
“It eliminates 10% of total existing energy usage by simply removing the need to haul fossil fuels across the country,” he told a public gathering at the CSIRO Energy Centre in Mayfield West, in Newcastle, NSW.
But small businesses and households will be the most significant contributors. About 42% of Australia’s carbon emissions come from its households. An additional 25% is commercial.
“That’s restaurants, hardware stores, and all the other shops you have in your area,” Griffiths says. “They actually have very similar loads. They have cars and vehicles. They have heating systems and appliances.”
And their pace of change needs only follow a natural pace.
“They’ve all got a water heater,” Griffiths says. “Those last about 10 years each. Same for our space heaters. Everyone in this room will buy one or two vehicles in the next 20 years anyway.
“So when your Volvo or your Toyota kicks the bucket, that’s the right moment to get an electric vehicle. The next time your water heater fails, it’s time to get an electric water heater. And on and on.”
“There are 100 million small machines in the Australian economy that run on fossil fuels that need to be switched out,” Griffith says. “They are our cars and vans, our gas stoves…”
Replacements need to be built, distributed, sold, installed – and powered.
“Then there are about one million big machines. These are diesel locomotives. These are steel mills. These are things that run on long capital cycles. And we’ve got to be cautious as a country about this. I think you can’t suddenly take those 4,000 jobs away, or bet the whole city on a technology that hasn’t been proven at scale yet.”
Electrification doesn’t mean fewer jobs. Just a change in where power comes from.
“I think, for some people though, it could be a little overwhelming, especially in the Hunter,” says University of Newcastle electrochemical engineer Dr Jessica Allen. “They have a lot of community built around coal.”
And the enormous Hunter Valley steel industry is seeking a new energy source – as is much of the world. But the cost and lead times are equally huge.
“We’re not going to shut down coal tomorrow,” says Griffith. “It’s going to take a full 10 to 20 years or more. I think, pragmatically, you can be reassured of that.”
That means big and small businesses, regional towns, and fringe suburbs have plenty of time to plan for change. “So it’s not a matter of losing your job tomorrow. It’s a matter of not training your daughter to be a miner,” he adds.
Instead, she’ll want to become an electrician.
“When you do the numbers on the demand side, electrification – that’s fancy for replacing our kitchens and water heaters – will probably need 50,000 or 100,000 installers nationwide,” Griffith says. “For every 1,000 households, it looks like you’ll create five jobs for tradies just in the extra installation and maintenance of new electrical hardware.
“People, these are not going to be PhDs and university graduates. This is the biggest job generator for tradies Australia’s ever seen.”
The manager of planning and policy for the Energy Corporation of NSW, Adam Clarke, told the Mayfield gathering that lessons had been learnt from the 1999 closure of BHP’s steelworks in Newcastle.
“It’s getting on the front foot early,” he says. “So it’s not actually waiting for things to start to fall apart. It’s understanding that we need to have things in place. We need to start to plan out what the next decade, what the next two decades, look like […] and getting those sort of structures in place to make sure that we’re providing opportunity for new technology and new industries.”
CSIRO energy economist Dr Jenny Hayward says plans to build 40 gigawatts of renewable power generation in the Hunter will need 100,000 construction workers. Once they’re done, the number of operators and maintenance workers required would exceed the number currently employed in the region’s coal industry, she adds.
“You’ve got machinery operators and drivers right up to managers,” Hayward explains. “There’s some variation between the different types of technologies, but basically, many of the jobs are roughly the same.”
But coal must be replaced. And that means coal ports need an alternative cargo.
“So we looked at exporting zero-emission hydrogen and green steel, but also different products leading up to green steel,” says Hayward. “So that’s hot briquette iron, crude steel, and then hot rolled steel.”
Not everywhere enjoys Australia’s sunshine. So that means bulk – renewable produced – hydrogen will be needed in places such as Japan and Europe.
“To make that, you need 22 terawatt-hours of electricity,” Hayward adds. “So this is the hydrogen production path. And to get that amount of green electricity for the hydrogen plus the steel, it means another 10 gigawatts will have to be installed. Which again means more jobs…”
For most Australians, seeing is believing. And that’s why the country needs a “lighthouse” community project to prove electrifying everything can be done successfully – and save big money at the same time.
“With petrol vehicles, 80% of its energy is lost out the tailpipe or through an engine block’s heat,” Griffith says. “Even your cooking – when you go to electric induction cooking, studies now show it’s about 50% of the energy of gas to heat the same meal.”
Before the Ukraine war, Australians spent an average of $5,000 each year on energy. Griffith says we can expect that to reach $7,000 this year.
“But we know renewable energy prices are falling so quickly that – particularly in Australia with very cheap rooftop solar – we will go through a transition point in 2024 or 2025, where it gets cheaper for every household to be all-electric.”
He says an average $80,000-a-year household will save about $3000 yearly. It’s a similar story for small businesses.
“In fact, regional communities will save more because they drive more in typically larger cars,” says Griffith. “So, in fact, the pro-rata savings are even better in the Hunter than they are in Sydney.”
He adds that half of that money will end up back in the regional community.
“And so if you take 1000 households and 55% of their $3000, it actually creates something like 70 jobs in the local economy. That will be every aspect of the economy – at the grocer, restaurants, hardware store…”
City of Maitland representative Catherine Pepper says the challenge is getting developers, builders and communities together on the same page.
“When we’re thinking about what we need to be achieving in 2025, we need to think about what we’re building right now,” she says. “So somewhere between 500 to 1,000 homes get delivered in Maitland every year.”
Multiply that by almost every regional centre and fringe suburb across Australia, and you get about a million new homes.
“So for us, one of the critical things to do in this next stage is work with project home builders to demonstrate on small pilots,” Pepper says. “How is a renewable project home a better choice for consumers? How does it reduce their energy bills? Really practical on-the-ground-stuff that can be delivered in a fringe suburb that looks like ours.”
What’s needed, Griffith says, is an understanding of what climate change mitigation entails.
“It’s an investment, not a cost,” he says. “You’ll end up saving a huge amount of money. In fact, in Australia, we would be saving about $40 billion a year by the end of the decade if we go down this electrification route.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance journalist based in Adelaide.
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.