Communities in the New South Wales Hunter Valley need to apply more pressure to speed-up the process of transitioning from coal to renewables sources of energy.
That was message being delivered at a summit held last month in NSW town of Singleton, a week before the announcement of plans to build a new coal-fired power station in the region.
The Hunter Renewal Forum, organised by environmental activist group Lock The Gate on February 20, was attended by 100 people from government, business and the general community.
Stewart Ewen from the Hunter Wine Tourism Board said major parties needed to lift their game around policies on renewable energy sources.
“The trouble we have now is that both parties, and a lot of politicians, are only looking at a three-year period of employment, through their political seats,” Mr Ewen said.
“We need people that have got a long-term view of what’s needed over the next 20 to 50 years.”
Mr Ewen said the challenges of transitioning to a post-coal economy were more difficult in the region, where the coal industry was a huge employer with a strong export market.
“State governments see it very much as a revenue situation and they have for years,” he said.
“Back in the 1980s they really promoted the whole concept of mining as being one of co-existence, and it’s been well proven now over the last 30 years that co-existence doesn’t work.
“We’ve got a lot of very good industries in the Hunter and wine tourism is probably one of the most exciting.”
Wine tourism ‘remarkable’ for region
Daryll Hull, co-director of the Centre For Workforce Futures at Macquarie University, told the summit that wine tourism is a major contributor to the economy.
In his study, commissioned by Hunter Valley winemakers, Professor Hull estimated that wine tourism accounts for $500 million worth of total goods and services produced in the region in a year.
He told attendees at the summit that wine tourism created 2,800 jobs in the region.
“We get 2.5 million [visitor nights] a year from people outside the Hunter Valley who’ve come up to be in the region and stay overnight,” Professor Hull said.
“That is a remarkable number and the Valley soaks them up.”
Hunter vigneron and speaker, Robert Lusby, said the open-cut mines were incompatible with what visitors to the region were seeking in a destination.
“We’re not selling wine, we’re selling the experience, we’re selling the golf courses, we’re selling all these things that go on around the valley,” Professor Lusby said.
“People come and enjoy the natural and manmade views and there’s a sense of history.
“Look at the destruction of the countryside with the open-cut mines. We don’t want to see that.”
Professor Hull pointed to recent concerts by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and upcoming shows by Sir Elton John as example of events that brought significant dollars to the region.
“Twenty thousand people are coming up for the weekend to the Red Hot Chilli peppers,” he said.
“They booked out 20,000 for the first [Elton John] concert in five minutes; they put on a second concert, that got booked out in 10 minutes and got another 20,000.”
Half of the $21 billion Australian wine industry comes from wine tourism, Professor Hull said, citing figures from Destination NSW and Tourism Australia.
“[That is] more than half of the contribution of wine to the GDP [gross domestic product], and therefore to employment and local industry, not from grapes and wine making, but from tourists who come to the area.”
Communities building economic diversity
Amanda Cahill, an economist and chief executive with The Next Economy, said communities around the world were being proactive about making the transition.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty, but there’s also a lot of positive stuff that’s starting to happen in terms of communities not waiting for government anymore,” Dr Cahill said.
“Communities are starting to look at how they can make their regional economies diversified and resilient, and start looking at how they transition so they’re not so dependent on just one industry.”
Dr Cahill said miners and guest speakers Scott and Carl Shoupe, from the Appalachia region of Kentucky, spoke of what happened when the mining companies pulled out of their coal-dependant community.
“That’s an example of where we don’t want to go,” Dr Cahill said.
“Where they don’t have any type of good government policies in place to support the expansion of renewable energy or diversification of regional economies.”
Dr Cahill said the region needed to learn from the Kentucky experience “while we still have mining royalties coming in”.
“These tiny little places [were] completely dependent on the coal mining industry,” she said.
“They were very isolated, and so the community had no choice but to finally face that well after the coal industry was gone.
“They haven’t recovered from the 2012 fall of the coal prices and so they’re really working from scratch.”
Dr Cahill said recent reports of a global downturn in mining investment pointed to the “inevitable” rise of renewable energy sources.
“Everyone disagrees about the timing of it, but everyone knows that things are changing,” she said.
“We’re talking about transitioning an entire industry, so we need to start now, especially when you’re talking about complex processes around diversifying regional economies.”