The forgotten valley

Yallourn W Power Station, where Moe resident Peter Stephens has worked for 37 years. All pictures by Caitlin Henderson

By CAITLIN HENDERSON

On February 9 this year, lifelong Latrobe Valley resident Wendy Farmer tuned into the news and started to cry.

The date might not ring a bell for many Australians, but the image will: Treasurer Scott Morrison lugging a hunk of coal into Parliament and waving it about dramatically like a piece of punctuation.

The coal was quickly handed off to giggling MPs as he admonished the opposition’s “coalophobia”. It was a novelty, a humorous prop – something that illustrated precisely how absurd it was to demonise this small, unthreatening rock.

“This is coal. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be scared. It won’t hurt you,” Mr Morrison said.

Now that the Federal Government has announced its National Energy Guarantee (NEG) and dropped the Clean Energy Target recommended by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, intermittent solar and wind energy has been cast as a shadowy antagonist to the dependable, embattled fossil fuels.

Wendy Farmer, president of community advocacy group Voices of the Valley, gets her hands dirty with a lump of brown coal.

The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet Australia’s commitment to the Paris Agreement has been acknowledged but quietly sidelined. The new agenda is avoiding summer blackouts and bringing down the price of electricity.

But the real price of the Government’s reluctance to let go of coal power could be highest for those who generate it.

For Latrobe Valley residents, February 9 was a day that painted the words of the Treasurer with a distinct and bitter irony. It was the third anniversary of the Hazelwood coal mine fire – a blaze that raged for 45 days, choking parts of the Latrobe Valley with an oppressive smoke that caused evacuations, health complications, and was implicated in the deaths of 11 people.

Ms Farmer, president of community advocacy group Voices of the Valley, found the stunt hard to swallow.

“It was terrible … I was like, you’ve got to be joking. Is that how much you care about our community?” she says.

Mr Morrison’s coal, it turns out, wasn’t even the real deal. She digs out her own lump of coal from the shed to demonstrate.

Her own hands were instantly smeared with coal residue – the prop rock in Parliament had some protective coating.

“If you touch coal, you have black hands, you cannot prevent getting black hands. It was highly polished coal.”

As an advocate for the Latrobe Valley’s transition into industries of the future, Ms Farmer lauds the recent approach of Premier Daniel Andrews, whose Victorian Renewable Energy Targets (VRET) is now ideologically incompatible with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s NEG.

The cooling tower at Yallourn W Power Station.

The Victorian Government has legislated a renewable energy target of 40 per cent by 2025, providing a boon for renewable investment and the potential to create “thousands of jobs”.

Jobs that, as far as Ms Farmer can see, should come in droves to the Latrobe Valley.

“Companies will go where there’s incentive to go … [and] we have the transmission lines,” she says.

This is by no means a popular view in the valley, where the uglier side of living with coal is a topic of hot dispute. For Ms Farmer and those she grew up with, the mines and power plants have not only been a fact of life, they’ve been “family”. 

And “you don’t blame the family”.

“We would go to Yallourn [power station] on school visits twice a year and they would tell us how that was only steam coming out of the stacks. We’d do a tour of the mine, and your dad works there, your grandfather works there,” Ms Farmer says.

“When it hit me was actually 2014, we went to China, and one of the girls on the tour said ‘No, no, no – that’s not smog, it’s fog. We’re low-lying and we’re taught at school it’s fog’.”

“It hit me like, that’s exactly what we’re being taught. We accept it.”

Moe resident Jenny Stephens says criticisms of the power plants are oversimplifications.

“My older brother had severe asthma as a child. In this town alone we had textile mills … people’s yards would just be covered in cotton fibres,” Ms Stephens says.

“Everybody’s very quick to bung it on the power stations.”

The problems faced by the Latrobe Valley are certainly not simple. The tangled network leading from a heart of brown coal has, props in Parliament notwithstanding, been left exposed to global economic realities.

Moe locals Jenny and Peter Stephens installed 12 solar panels on their home to offset the rising cost of electricity.

The mood of the Latrobe Valley has been especially bleak since French-owned company Engie suddenly closed the Hazelwood Power Station in March this year, stating that the plant was “no longer economic to operate”. It put hundreds of people out of work.

The closure came to a region already battling one of the highest unemployment rates in Victoria.

It was the latest blow in what reads as an endless series of hard knocks for the coal-dependent region, which the residents say began when the role of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria was privatised in 1993. The move set off a decline in prosperity from which the valley has never recovered.

Drive down the streets and you’ll see more than a few “For Lease” signs plastered over empty shopfronts.

Hope in the community is palpably absent.

Peter Stephens lives with his wife in Moe and has worked at Yallourn W Power Station for 37 years. When the sting of privatisation came to the valley, he could be considered one of the lucky ones.

“There were 64 of us but we done everything. The crane driving, rigging, cleaning, everything,” Mr Stephens says.

“Within three months there was two of us.”

On this spring day, the town of Moe has a relaxed country charm. Blue sky stretches out over wide roads and neat houses, interrupted by a few wispy clouds – all natural but for the two steady puffs rising from Yallourn Power Station.

The Stephens family lives under this dual cloud, in a house decked out with solar panels. If it seems like a contradiction, especially for a man who calls climate change  “crap” and pins Latrobe’s problems on the “greenies”, there’s the financial lure of sidestepping high electricity prices to consider.

Still, the foray into renewable energy has been a disappointment for the couple – a large investment for too little return – leaving them certain coal will play a leading role for a few hundred years to come.

“Leaving it up to the State Government to consider the future is a really scary thing,” Ms Stephens says.

​One of the two wind turbines installed by Hepburn Wind on Leonards Hill, outside Daylesford.

As skeptics of both climate science and the health dangers of living by the power plants, it’s easy to see why the Stephenses and many of their peers expect the industry to continue until the last coal is dug from the ground.

It’s an outlook not necessarily refuted by the Federal Government’s technology-agnostic NEG, which drops no hints about the longevity of coal to those who need it most.

Without a clear plan to transition away from coal, Mr Stephens believes Yallourn W will continue far beyond its planned expiry date. It’s an expectation both at odds with, and driven by, the loss of Hazelwood, which generated up to 25 per cent of Victoria’s electricity.

“By 2032 they reckon Yallourn will be closed. It won’t,” Mr Stephens says.

Ms Stephens agrees. “They can’t afford to,” she says.

Looking globally, reports on the global trends in the energy industry paint a vastly different picture. According to an April report by UN Environment, Frankfurt School and Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the cost of renewables is falling at an unprecedented rate while investment continues to rise.

Climate aside, coal may soon be priced out of the market.

It’s a forecast upheld up by the Latrobe Valley’s two major energy companies, with Australia’s largest power company AGL Energy seeing “no appetite” for future investment in coal, and Energy Australia backing a transition to cheap renewables.

The politics of coal are certainly murky, but some Victorians are already making the change.

Hepburn Wind is a community-owned, two-turbine wind farm just outside Daylesford. The novel project combined local investment with State Government grants, powering up in 2011 and now feeding clean energy back into the grid.

“The transition is happening,” says community manager Taryn Lane.

“It’s more about who is going to benefit, who is going to get a slice of the pie along the way.”

If that’s true, then the Latrobe Valley is in danger of losing the entire pie.

Mr Stephens might not be sold on the “greenie” agenda, but he’ll take what he can get if it means keeping the lights on in the Latrobe Valley.

If you can power Moe cheaply with renewables, he says, then do it. “Build your power station, and your wind farms. Get building them now.” 

Ms Stephens agrees that some kind of action needs to be taken.

“I’m not short-sighted enough to suggest that our actions now won’t have an effect on the future,” she says.

“You can mine it for 400 years, but then what are you left with?”

Mr Stephens answers. “A big hole,” he says.