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A manufactured outrage – Op-ed by Daniel Walton, AWU National Secretary

December 1, 2020

The hard switch to renewables being pushed by green activists would decimate our ability to make things.

If you reached for the airconditioning over the weekend and it mercifully kicked in straight away, you can thank the Tomago aluminium smelter.

The energy-hungry factory in the Hunter sucks up about 10 per cent of the total power used in NSW. On a scorching weekend, that doesn’t sound like it’s being much of a help.

But by ramping its power usage up and down to respond to the grid’s demands, Tomago plays a vital role in smoothing the peaks and troughs, which prevents power outages.

Tomago is a great example of how the energy truth can be more complicated than your gut might initially indicate.

It’s a lesson those agitating for a hard and immediate switch to renewables would do well to consider.

A rapid mass transition to renewable energy is an attractive idea. In practice, however, such a switch would not only be a disaster for jobs and the economy — it would also be a shocker for the environment.

How so? Well, it’s another case of reality failing to conform to a moralistic ideological position.

The green activists arguing Australia is ready for a hard switch to renewables might be right if the most power-hungry thing we had to worry about was their MacBooks.

It’s true that we’re rapidly approaching a point where rooftop solar, combined with battery tech and other renewable sources feeding into the grid, could probably be sufficient for most households.

The problem is that’s not much comfort if you’re one of 900,000 Australians working in the manufacturing sector.
Australia makes steel, aluminium, cement, copper, timber, packaging, food processing, fertilisers, plastics, chemicals, building products, and much more.
These factories are power hungry. More importantly though, they require power reliability.

You hear a lot about how renewable energy is the cheapest form of generation, but this doesn’t price in reliability and firming factors that are critical to industry.

You can’t generally switch factories on and off.

They need to run through the night when the sun isn’t shining and the wind may not blow. In many cases a power outage doesn’t mean inconvenience, it means catastrophic equipment failure and closure.

Battery tech is progressing, but it’s nowhere near ready to keep thousands of factories running through the night.

Currently batteries dispatch 0.08 per cent of Australia’s total electricity generation.
One day, hydrogen may fill the gap but the most optimistic researchers don’t expect it to be ready for decades.

Which means if we want Australian manufacturing — especially heavy manufacturing — to endure, we will need to transition to renewables deliberately and carefully.

I know this position marks me a Captain Planet supervillain to those proselytising for a hard switch to renewables. For them the moral thing to do is to change to pure renewables as quickly as possible and let the chips fall where they may. If that means the rapid shutdown of manufacturing so be it.

In fact, many green activists would probably cheer this development as a bonus instead of a cost.

Making materials like steel and aluminium is dirty and energy intensive. Better for Australia to get out of these polluting industries now and transition to something more pleasant.

And this is where I believe they lose the ethical plot entirely.

I understand that de-industrialising Australia might feel like the right thing to do. You could raze the Tomago aluminium smelter and plant a native forest as a bird sanctuary. You could knock down BlueScope steel in the Illawarra and replace it with a walking track. You could shut down OI glass in Penrith and establish an eco-farmers market. It would all feel great.

But here’s the thing: the climate doesn’t care about our feelings. The world would still demand aluminium and steel — in part to build renewable energy equipment like solar panels and wind turbines.

So every factory we shut down will likely be a factory built in China, a place where green activists are given less room to move (often literally).

So here’s what I consider to be the genuinely moral position. Call it the realist’s guide to actual environmentalism.

One day, Australia can and should become the world’s first zero net emission manufacturing superpower. If we want to reach that day, however, we will need to hang on to the manufacturing capacity we already have and build on it.

We can’t burn our manufacturing capacity to the ground and hope to rebuild it when renewable technology allows.

To survive today, Tomago and BlueScope and every other manufacturing site in the country will need abundant, affordable, reliable power. That means a measured schedule for coal-power closures.

And critically it also means we need to use gas to shore up the gaps left as we wait for renewable technology to improve.

So the tension that supposedly exists between blue collar workers and the environment is a fiction.

We can look after the interests of both if we tread sensibly.

Dan Walton is National & NSW Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union

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