Hazelwood Power Station in the Latrobe Valley

24 July 2012  – Is there life after brown coal?  The Latrobe Valley in Victoria,  with 20 per cent of its workforce directly employed by the industry , is about to launch an international competition to find out.

The competition, to be launched on 11 September, will target the revitalisation of small towns, potentially rehabilitated mines and associated infrastructure.

RMIT University’s School of Architecture and Design’s Office of Urban Transformations Research Laboratory, Latrobe City Council, the State Department of Primary Industries Clean Coal Victoria Unit and the Gippsland Climate Change Network are sponsoring the $120,000 project.

RMIT Landscape Architecture associate professor Rosalea Monacella said the competition was just first stage of a five-year project to assist the area.

Dr Monacella said the competition was looking for innovative entries that “pushed the boundaries” and was based on “ideas not implementation”.

“We are after candy store ideas,” she said.

“We want people to visualise their ideas and think about how they will fit in with the environment and produce innovative strategies which we can then pull apart.”

Dr Monacella said the first stage included the competition, a publication which captured all submissions, an exhibition of them in Melbourne and the Latrobe Valley and a symposium which would “open up ideas of solutions”.

The second stage was looking at case studies, which would take between a year and 18 months, and the third stage was developing a design masterplan, she said.

Dr Monacella said while there had been talk over recent years of transitioning the Latrobe Valley the timing was now right, with issues like the carbon tax and global concern about climate change.

Latrobe City Mayor Ed Vermeulen said the competition would place an international spotlight on the Latrobe Valley and generate important “ideas and enthusiasm”.

“It is such an unusual time you need an open mind and it’s vital to look at ideas – there’s a lot we can learn from other areas,” he said.

Cr Vermeulen said part of the council’s “whole proactive approach” to a low carbon transition involved “bringing the community with us”.

“Our residents and ratepayers are as well informed as anybody,” he said. “Many have lived here a long time and have been thinking about what we need to do for the future.

“I think we’ve got a special population here (and) we have the attention of the state and federal ministers so we’re getting a lot of help too.”

Cr Vermeulen said while the Latrobe Valley was often seen as the “bad guy”, because of its coal industry, he believed there was still a future for brown coal.

“I always say coal’s not the problem, the emissions are, and once we’ve got that licked, we’re fine. Although that’s a medium to long-term issue.”

Meanwhile, Keith Williams Real Estate agent Grant Williams said Latrobe Valley residents were “deep down” interested in a low carbon future as long as there was still work available.

“There needs to be a two-way street – we need to push harder at getting the coal treated,” he said.

“Round here, the carbon tax and emissions is all just hot air. You can work on it, and change all your light globes, and be a bit smarter, but we need to try and make coal more user-friendly.

“Down here there is no money, and if you haven’t got work, and you haven’t got industry, what are you going to do?”

Mr Williams said the competition’s $120,000 was “not a lot of money to start putting some concepts together”.

“And we’ve got some smart cookies here.”

The Latrobe Valley is a 70-minute drive west of Melbourne and home to 75,000 people.

Coal reserves cover 40 per cent of the Latrobe City Council land area and directly or indirectly employ 20 per cent of its population with electricity generated from brown coal mined in the area representing 90 per cent of all electricity generated in Victoria.

Competition winners will be announced on 29 November.