Boilermaker Shaun Fisher is bucking the trend by ditching his coal mining job for one in the renewables sector. (NRRT: Caitlyn Gribbin)
Energy policy has divided Australians for years as debate rages about how we should reduce carbon emissions.
The push by some for a transition from coal-fired power to renewables has caused angst in coal mining communities and played a key role in the federal election result.
But, in Queensland’s coal country, some change is already happening — and it is not because of government intervention.
‘The energy from the sun goes to waste’: former coal miner
Shaun Fisher insisted he is not a greenie.
“No, of course not!” he said.
“I kill fish, I eat ’em, I do all that kind of stuff. Definitely not a greenie, no.”
But some may mistake the boilermaker for an environmental crusader.
Recently, he ditched his job in the central Queensland coal mines, trading it in for one in renewables.
“The energy that the sun produces every day, it just goes to waste and it hits the pocket for everybody,” Mr Fisher said.
“Our power is a shitload, it’s a big expense. And it comes for free from the sun.”
Mr Fisher is one of 80 people, including many former coal miners, who now work for a company focusing on solar in a region that has relied on coal for economic security.
For the boilermaker, the job transition was a no-brainer.
“Have you ever been out to the coal mines? Anyone that works out there, you’re black, you’re black by the end of the day, you’re covered in it,” he said.
“We’re clean at the end of the day. We’re not sucking that shit in. Live longer doing this kind of work.”
Convincing coal mines to switch to solar
In the suburb of Paget in Mackay, which is home to a massive industrial estate, a mining hub has been set up specifically to service the coal sector.
Contractors have based themselves in Paget because it has easy access to the Peak Downs Highway, the main road to the coal towns of Moranbah, Dysart, and Clermont.
But Jason Sharam’s north Queensland business is far from a standard operation in the industrial park.
Mackay businessman Jason Sharam is taking solar power to coal mines — and poaching their staff. (NRRT: Caitlyn Gribbin)
In the coal heartland, he has been promoting renewables.
“People don’t quite understand it,” Mr Sharam said.
“I guess people are coming to the realisation that the beauty is in the genius of ‘and’, so mining and renewables, as opposed to the tyranny of ‘or’. It’s not one or the other; it’s both together.”
His company, Linked Group Services, has been employing tradies, like Mr Fisher, who make products for coal mining companies.
Lighting towers, carports, even a direct replacement for a diesel generator, are all solar powered.
“We’re trying to educate the miners, as much as anything, in regards to the opportunity to utilise renewables to drive down costs,” Mr Sharam said.
“There’s definitely an appetite for that and that appetite is growing.”
Hardly a popular view in the region, but Mr Sharam said he believed coal would eventually have to come to an end.
“When that is, who knows? It could be 20 years, could be 50 years, may even be 100 years before we stop using coal to generate energy. But it’s going to stop,” he said.
But the self-labelled “pseudo-greenie” does not want state or federal politicians pushing for premature change.
“I think it just needs to be a slow transition that needs to take place on its own accord,” Mr Sharam said.
“It doesn’t need to be forced by any government policies, as such.
“Let the economy drive it and let technology drive it.”
A future without coal in mining towns
In the Isaac Regional Council in central Queensland’s Bowen Basin coal is king and the biggest employer in the region.
But Mayor Anne Baker has conceded it would be “very naïve to not look to the future”.
“The debate and the energy needs to work towards a balance,” Cr Baker said.
Isaac Regional Council Mayor Anne Baker says the renewables industry could never come close to providing the same number of jobs that coal does. (NRRT: Caitlyn Gribbin)
The council has already been trying to work towards that balance, with 11 renewable energy projects on its books and approval of “one of the largest wind farms in the country”.
But the mayor said that industry could never bring anywhere near the same number of jobs to her region as coal.
“A mining project in construction can bring in anything from 800 to 1,000 employees, and once they move into operations numbers can be from 300 to 500,” Cr Baker said.
“Renewable projects in construction can be approximately from 50 to 100. In operation, the renewable projects are two to five people.”
Cr Baker said the campaign against coal-fired power was “very ill-informed and very disappointing”, warning the future of her shire would be grim without the industry.
“I don’t think there would be much to look at if coal was completely shut down.”
‘Breathing into a paper bag’: coal business
The thought of another mining bust was terrifying for Clermont publican, Leanne Appleton.
She grew up in the 3,000-person town, almost four hours’ drive west of Mackay, and said she knows many of its residents by name.
Ms Appleton said the Grand Hotel, which she and husband Kelvin part-own, looked “a bit like a spaceship” because it was plastered with solar panels.
“It’s very hurtful that it is said we don’t look out for the environment because we do,” she said.
“Everyone wants a better future for their children and no-one wants to see land just demolished.”
Clermont publican Leanne Appleton says she can’t bear the prospect of coal mining ending in her small town. (NRRT: Caitlyn Gribbin)
But Ms Appleton said, for her coal-mining family and friends, jobs always came first.
The publican and former coal mine employee has felt the ups and downs of the industry and cannot fathom another bust in Clermont.
“There were times you’re breathing into a brown paper bag thinking, ‘Oh my God’,” she said.
“To get people saying that these mines should be shut or they’re not going to open the mines is just a kick in the guts for all these hard workers out here.”
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