The clean energy industry needs to do more to communicate its vision for gold class, secure jobs with attractive salaries to cultivate worker confidence in the industry, according to union leader Michele O’Neill.
Speaking at a Clean Energy Council event along with Dr Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, Dr Rebecca Huntley and other experts, the president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions called on the renewable energy industry to do more to bring workers along for the ride.
“What’s your vision to make renewables the best place to work in the country, to attract workers with high paying conditions, to build confidence that workers can rely on these jobs into the future?” O’Neill pressed the panel.
“The renewable energy industry needs workers in its corner to achieve the scale it needs to solve the climate crisis.”
She said job security remains a concern for the industry, with the unions aware of large scale solar projects ending construction midway through and notifying employees of their dismissal via text message. This is not to say that there aren’t well paying, secure jobs in the industry, she said, including inside the publicly owned energy utilities in Queensland, Tasmania and Western Australia.
“…there are wins in apprenticeships, and apprentices getting experience on solar and wind farms.”
She alluded to “really promising” yet-to-be released research that has found exporting green steel, green hydrogen and ammonia, critical minerals, battery manufacturing, technical expertise, and other green economy goods and services, could replace Australia’s lucrative fossil fuel exports. Importantly, much of the economic activity will flow to communities that currently rely on emissions intensive industries.
O’Neill also noted that more needs to be done to identify and foster the skills needed for the clean energy transition, pointing to the experience of a highly skilled power station operator at a closing Queensland coal power station looking for opportunities in the renewable energy industry.
She said workers like him had 80 per cent of the skills to operate a wind power station instead but there was no bridging training or support to upskill in the final 20 per cent of skills.
“There’s a clear missing link that we need to work out how to fill,” she said, adding that the “deep distress” in the tertiary sector and a “completely run down” TAFE sector won’t do much to help.
“Without government developed and funded transition plans we’re asking workers to take a huge leap of faith and that’s an unreasonable ask.”
People are still doubtful about the job creating potential of renewables
Acclaimed social researcher and author Dr Rebecca Huntley also noted that when it comes to public perceptions of renewables, the job-creating potential of clean energy is “where we get stuck a bit”.
Detailing her findings from some focus group research on the subject, Huntley noted there is “scepticism around how many jobs they will produce and whether those jobs are ongoing and as well paid and well protected as fossil fuel jobs.”
She said that people fail to see the ancillary jobs created by the renewable energy transition, such as jobs in pharmacies and cafes. For many, the link between a coal mine and local job creation is clearer.
“Some would talk about renewables as only a creator of upfront jobs, such as people who install solar.”
“The thinking is these aren’t jobs that create communities. This isn’t true but we have trouble communicating this to people.”
Huntley said the renewables industry will need to show the full spectrum of jobs the clean energy transition will create.
“Not everybody will be hanging from a wind turbine and fixing it. We need to make these other jobs visible.”
Huntley added the focus group also doubted the ability for low carbon manufacturing and renewable exports to replace fossil fuels as the engine room of the Australian economy.
“Clean energy will drive our economy. The community recognises the importance of rooftop solar. We again have an economic argument that clean energy can build a prosperous and happy Australia as sheep, wheat and fossil fuels have.”
According to iron ore billionaire Twiggy Forrest, the opportunity is immense: in his address, he said that the renewable hydrogen industry alone could grow to $16 trillion by 2050, amounting to “way more than any industry that exists today”.
He also outlined his target to produce 15 million tonnes of renewable energy hydrogen by 2030 through a subsidiary of iron ore company, Fortescue Future Industries.
“I don’t stand before you pretending I’m not a polluter but we can lead by our own example.”
Forrest announced his foray into green electricity, green hydrogen and green ammonia projects in January, outlining his plans to help decarbonise other emissions-intensive industries such as fertiliser and steel, includes building a pilot plant this year in the Pilbara to trial different ways of making low emissions steel.
Forrest also took the opportunity to criticise other forms of hydrogen made without renewable energy.
“Blue, grey, pink, yellow hydrogen is not renewable green hydrogen… clean hydrogen…has as much accuracy as “clean coal” or “healthy smoking”. And don’t get me started on the smokescreen of sequestration.”