23. October 2021

Glimpses of a low carbon future amid Port Kembla’s coal and steel


For South Coast Labour Council secretary Arthur Rorris, intensifying debate over what a low-carbon future might imply for Australia’s industrial centres is a sign the remaining of the nation might lastly have caught up with the Illawarra.

Standing beneath a towering smokestack at Port Kembla’s BlueScope steelworks final week, Rorris says the area’s unions concluded in 2009 that local weather change was taking place and that there was only one query they wanted to reply.

‘It’s going to be massive’ if the steelworks were to close: Arthur Rorris, co-convener of Recharge Illawarra, at Bluescope’s facilities at Port Kembla.

‘It’s going to be large’ if the steelworks had been to shut: Arthur Rorris, co-convener of Recharge Illawarra, at Bluescope’s amenities at Port Kembla.Credit:Janie Barrett


“That’s whether we are going to share in the jobs created by the coming revolution, ” he says. “Or will we stand on the sidelines and watch the rest of the world take them?”

Often neglected of discussions about a so-called transition off fossil fuels, the world round Wollongong hosts the nation’s largest steelworks, fed by coal mined in a hinterland that additionally consists of a number of dams serving larger Sydney.

Boasting a deepwater port and heavy trade with two centuries of heritage, the Illawarra rivals the NSW Hunter and Victoria’s Latrobe Valley as a area with essentially the most at stake – and maybe most to achieve – if Australia can do its share of the decarbonisation wanted to curb international heating. So far, there isn’t a nationwide effort to steer such a shift.

“If steel goes, forget the town,” Rorris says. “It’s going to be massive.”

The future, although, might not be as gritty because the previous and current. Across the delivery canal, not removed from the place Rorris stands, preparations are underneath approach for a gasoline and doubtlessly hydrogen processing web site being developed by billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest.


Still, navigating from the recognized will want extra braveness and co-ordination than is at present on show.

Take BlueScope’s steelworks, which produce about 3.2 million tonnes of the steel a 12 months over a sprawling campus that has 4 railway stations and its personal postcode. It generates about 1 per cent of the state’s financial output and one-tenth of the Illawarra’s.

The firm earned $1.2 billion in its newest monetary 12 months, a 13-fold improve on a 12 months earlier. BlueScope plans to pour $800 million into relining a conventional blast furnace, and has declared will probably be a “fast follower” moderately than a chief within the rising “green steel” trade that substitutes hydrogen for coking coal.

A BlueScope worker sits at the front of one of the company’s “torpedoes”, a wagon that takes 180 tonnes of molten iron per tube from the blast furnace to a steel-processing plant.

A BlueScope employee sits on the entrance of one of the corporate’s “torpedoes”, a wagon that takes 180 tonnes of molten iron per tube from the blast furnace to a steel-processing plant.Credit:Janie Barrett

Chris Page, head of future applied sciences and a 28-year BlueScope veteran, doesn’t suppose the risk is imminent. Sweden’s HYBRIT, which final month claimed to have produced the world’s first coal-free steel, took three months to make 100 tonnes of it, he says.


Although modest on a international scale, the Port Kembla web site alone makes about 8000 tonnes of steel a day.

“We’ve got to learn how to use hydrogen,” Page says. “That’s why the timeframe is decades, not months.”

The firm plans to spend $150 million over 5 years to chop greenhouse gasoline emissions, however solely on the annual charge of 1 per cent to 2030.

However, extra proximate challenges for Illawarra’s workforce and even BlueScope may come from disruptions to the area’s coal provides.

Opposition to the extraction of the fossil gas has been rising not solely from local weather change activists but additionally these fearing long-term harm to Greater Sydney’s water catchment from mine subsidence.

Climate change activists (from left) Naia Webb, Claire Rogers, and Tatianna Hatzopoulos, outside Russell Vale colliery near Wollongong, which has received approval to expand underground mining.

Climate change activists (from left) Naia Webb, Claire Rogers, and Tatianna Hatzopoulos, exterior Russell Vale colliery close to Wollongong, which has acquired approval to broaden underground mining. Credit:Janie Barrett

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley neglected these worries solely this month when she accepted Wollongong Coal’s plan to reopen its Russell Vale colliery so it may extract 3.7 million tonnes of coal over 5 years.

A panel exterior the mine notes European colonists first recognized the uncovered gas in a close by rock face when shipwrecked sailors stumbled ashore in 1797 at what they promptly if unimaginatively named Coalcliff.

Naia Webb, a 20-year-old legislation and artistic arts scholar, and a member of the Illawarra Climate Coalition, says her grandfather had labored in coal mines. Even so, their days ought to be numbered.

“You can be proud of your history and all that, but also recognise that it’s not the future and we have to move on,” Webb says, earlier than unveiling a protest poster as vehicles rumble in and out of the Russell Vale pit web site as preparations for a reopening collect tempo.

An aerial view of the mine head at Wollongong Coal, where preparations to reopen the Russell Vale mine are gathering pace.

An aerial view of the mine head at Wollongong Coal, the place preparations to reopen the Russell Vale mine are gathering tempo.Credit:Janie Barrett

High pay for some mine employee make the roles “crazily appealing”, she says, including, although, that these jobs could be solely short-lived if local weather motion goes to be critical.


“It is important that we protect our local community from being left behind in this global transition away from coal,” Webb says.

Another close by battle over coal is brewing. In February, NSW’s Independent Planning Commission rejected plans by ASX-listed South32 to increase the Dendrobium mine out to 2048, citing its potential to “significantly impact” the water catchment among the many causes.

The $956 million mission would have created jobs however the additional 78 million tonnes of coal would even have resulted in about 250 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent (CO2-e).

Kaye Osborn from Protect Our Water Alliance says Sydney’s Special Areas “are off-limits to the public to protect them from degradation and contamination. They should be off limits to extractive industries also”.

“Greater Sydney is the largest city in the driest inhabited continent on earth and yet we are the only city that allows coal mining this close to its water storages,” she says, noting Dendrobium’s proximity to Avon and Cordeaux reservoirs.

South32 has launched a judicial assessment of the IPC verdict within the NSW Land and Environment Court, whereas additionally assessing choices to revise its mine plan.

A spokesman mentioned: “The Dendrobium Mine Extension Project received widespread support from community, government and industry throughout the approvals process. We have a long history of operating safely and responsibly in the Illawarra region and the proposed [extension] would provide major economic and social benefits for the Illawarra region and NSW.”

The mine offers an vital supply of coal for BlueScope however the IPC additionally famous South 32 had opted to prioritise digging coal from the Bulli seam, pushing again the Wongawilli mix sought by the steelmaker to 2043. The Planning fee mentioned: “The commission does not accept the suggested dependence of BlueScope Steelworks on ongoing access to the Wongawilli Seam Coal from this Project.″⁣

Page says: “If Dendrobium doesn’t get up, beyond about 2025 we’ll have to look at alternative supplies.″⁣

Academics, though, are not impressed by BlueScope’s emissions-cutting ambitions, which run at about 10.5 million tonnes CO2-e a year.

Says Australian National University College of Engineering associate professor John Pye: “That decision to build a new blast furnace is a fork in that road’s College of Engineering. It doesn’t seem they are going to be on the side of pushing it as fast as possible”, as solely about 15 per cent discount is feasible with restricted hydrogen use.

As Europe plans its carbon border adjustment mechanism to place a tax on steel imports from nations with weak local weather insurance policies by 2030, inexperienced steel might get extra international impetus. Pye says: “It’s going to give everyone a kick along.″⁣

BlueScope’s No.5 blast furnace. The company is betting existing technology has a few decades to run.

BlueScope’s No.5 blast furnace. The company is betting existing technology has a few decades to run.Credit:Janie Barrett

University of Wollongong’s Energy Futures Network director Ty Christopher says hydrogen isn’t the only alternative for BlueScope to ditch coal.


“There are alternatives to the use of coking coal that are less carbon-intensive and that don’t require mining. The use of biochar is one of those technologies,” he says. “It’s the focus of our research at the moment and it’s at a critical stage.”

Politicians from each main events perceive that change within the Illawarra is inevitable.

NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean says: “You’ve got to diversify the economies in the Illawarra and the Hunter.″⁣

Both regions have a competitive advantage to develop a hydrogen-based economy, including “a natural use for it”, given their heavy trade, ports and an obtainable expert workforce, he says.

“Both the Hunter and the Illawarra are poised to become green hydrogen production and export powerhouses, which is why they have been declared the first hydrogen hubs in NSW.”

NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean says the government will release its hydrogen strategy soon to try to ensure investors pick places like the Illawarra in the future.

NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean says the federal government will launch its hydrogen technique quickly to strive to make sure traders choose locations just like the Illawarra within the future.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Kean says he held current talks with Forrest, together with on the prospect of growing large renewable power crops within the Wagga Wagga area to energy a inexperienced hydrogen manufacturing course of within the Illawarra.

The authorities has additionally dedicated $70 million from its Net-Zero Industry and Innovation Program for hydrogen within the Illawarra and the Hunter. That dietary supplements the $78 million NSW has tipped into a $300 million Tallawarra B gasoline plant enlargement by EnergyAustralia in order that it may possibly take at the least 200 tonnes of inexperienced hydrogen yearly from 2025.


Kean says: “We are currently finalising our Hydrogen Strategy, which will put NSW in pole position to produce and export one of the most critical technologies needed to reach net zero by 2050, green hydrogen.″⁣

Forrest’s Squadron Energy unit, meanwhile, is working on a 635MW Port Kembla power station that would initially burn gas imported at a new terminal with the aim of converting entirely to hydrogen produced with renewables by 2030.

Squadron says, noting the plant aims to begin operating by 2023-24 after it secured so-called Critical State Significant Infrastructure from the state government last month: “It is hoped the potential demand for green hydrogen from the Port Kembla power station will help drive the development of a new industry in the Illawarra..

Paul Scully, state Labor MP for Wollongong and a former chief operating officer of the Australian Institute for Innovative Materials at the University of Wollongong, says that “just as the economy evolves, steelmaking must evolve, too”.

Labor MP Paul Scully

Labor MP Paul ScullyCredit:Janie Barrett


Three many years in the past, his former college had 3000 college students and BlueScope had 20,000 staff. Now, pre-COVID, the college counted 36,000 home and worldwide college students and BlueScope has 3000 direct workers.

The Illawarra’s way of life may additionally lure residents who would possibly in any other case choose Penrith or Camden in Sydney’s western and southern fringes to shell out for a related $750,000 first residence. “[Here], you’re 10 minutes to the beach,” Scully says.

The authorities expanded its renewable power zones to incorporate the Illawarra partially as a result of of urging by Labor.

One investor within the wings is Oceanex Energy chief government officer Andy Evans. His firm is eyeing three wind farm tasks off the NSW coast, together with a $10 billion two-gigawatt mission to be positioned about 20 to 30 kilometres east of Wollongong.

BlueScope employees (from left) Chris Page, Michael Reay, and Craig Nealon walk past part of the blast furnace operating at Port Kembla.

BlueScope workers (from left) Chris Page, Michael Reay, and Craig Nealon stroll previous half of the blast furnace working at Port Kembla.Credit:Janie Barrett

Evans says of the Illawarra, given its power demand and its proximity to a main transmission line: “You almost couldn’t script it any better for offshore wind.″⁣

The company aims to tether more than 100 floating turbines of 15-megawatt capacity each with blade heights reaching 200 metres.

“We’ve sought to reduce any visibility,” says Evans, who predicts the generators will seem solely as “small dots” on the horizon.

Significantly, the steel-hungry wind towers may use 35 to 65 per cent native content material, doubtlessly creating a main new buyer for BlueScope.


Ken Baldwin, a physics professor and director of ANU’s Grand Challenge: Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific, says the Illawarra is just not assured a massive function in renewables.

“You have to ask, what is the competition?” Baldwin says. The Pilbara, with “the sheer economies of scale” of its wealthy photo voltaic and wind assets, is a main various for a hydrogen manufacturing hub. Western NSW, too, might be a robust rival if transmission hyperlinks are constructed.

Still, the Illawarra does provide an ecosystem with the present know-how and infrastructure that might be aggressive if companies and governments pull in the identical course.

The challenges level “to a role for governments as industries shift and change”, Baldwin says. “[They] can corral individual players in the right combination. That’s an important role.

“We don’t want a repeat of the industrial revolution, during which governments did nothing for planning and co-ordination,” he says. “The rust belts [in the US and elsewhere] are a microcosm and an example of what can go wrong.”

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