If Adani was a wind farm

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(Image via @TheAusInstitute)

If the Adani Carmichael coal mine was a wind farm there would be 4.7 times more Aussie jobs.

It’s a big statement to make and a strange comparison too.

In Australia, there is a large focus on which industries provide jobs and a stable economy. The old trusty coal is central in this debate as we are scared to close old power stations and governments struggle to stop the development of new mines.

Adani’s Carmichael mine has been one of the most talked about mines in recent history, with many protests and campaigns looking to halt its progress. It was also used as a symbol in the 2019 Federal Election; creating a divide in our population on what matters more —  jobs or the environment? We do not have to decide between the two.

A coal mine can be simplified into just being an energy project that provides construction and operating jobs. Unfortunately, the coal from the Carmichael mine is expected to be sold to Adani’s coal power plants in India.

One downside of this is the lack of prosperity in India’s coal industry, considering that the Indian Government has said that no new coal plants will be needed after 2022, or 2027 at the latest.

Another downside is that none of the jobs and revenue from burning the coal power plants will be in Australia. This allows us to look at the mine as just another infrastructure project.

What if there was a type of investment where more jobs could be created in a larger range of locations whilst helping our grid and the environment? Wind power is a simple example of such an option.

Can we compare a coal mine to a wind farm?

We will need to find some likeness between them that is not just cost per job. A thermal coal mine has the end goal of making electricity, which can be measured in gigawatt hours (GWh).

The Carmichael mine is expected to produce ten million tonnes of thermal coal each year, which is equivalent to roughly 25,000 GWh of energy each year. People love converting these values to lightbulbs or other household appliances but this is enough energy to easily power Hungary, Ecuador or Syria for a year. This is an impressive amount of power for just one of the proposed nine mines in the Galilee Basin by Adani. It has been estimated that the total capacity will rise to 320 million tonnes if all mines were made fully operational, but let’s just focus on the ten million for now.

Originally, the Carmichael mine was expected to create 10,000 jobs. In recent months, this value has been estimated to be as low as 800, however, the most common number currently in the media is 1,400 construction jobs and 100 operating jobs. From this, we can expect roughly 0.06 jobs in construction and 0.004 jobs in operation per GWh of energy produced each year by the mine. This construction figure includes the investment in ports, roads and rail for the project.

Renewables produce more jobs than coal, especially in Adani’s case, but why do we still associate job creation to coal? 

According to the Clean Energy Council:

At the end of 2018, 24 wind farms with a combined capacity of 5.69 GW were under construction or financially committed nationally, representing more than $8 billion of investment and creating almost 5,000 jobs.

The capacity of a power plant or farm is the amount of power it is expected to produce at maximum capacity. The capacity factor is the percentage of the time it is running at full capacity. Assuming a capacity factor of 35% for a wind farm, we can work out the yearly energy production for these farms to be almost 17,500 GWh.

We can then expect there to be 0.287 jobs per GWh for the construction phase. This is 4.7 times more than for Adani’s mine, for the same energy output. According to Senvion – a German wind power company – you can expect roughly six jobs per 100 MW of capacity. Doing a similar conversion as before can find 0.02 jobs per GWh of energy — which is 4.8 times more than Adani’s mine.

What types of jobs does wind power create?

Like coal mining, there will be direct and indirect jobs associated with wind farms. The direct jobs will come from the employment associated with project development, construction of foundations and hardstands, construction of access roads between all turbines, erecting wind turbines.

There will also be jobs created by the wind turbine manufacturing companies — sub-contractors who develop the turbine components and those who transport the equipment.

But I thought coal mines were good at creating jobs?

There is no doubt that many Australian jobs come from the coal mining industry.

According to ABS data, coal mining employs 37,800 Australians and the whole coal industry is expected to employ 50,000 people. Notably, the coal industry supplies 60% of Australia’s electricity so we should expect it to be employing more people than the renewable energy industry.

ABS data shows that 17,740 people are employed by the renewable energy industry and this value has grown by 28% in the last year. This is all happening from an industry that is producing around 19% of our electricity. This shows that for the same electricity generation, renewables on average will produce more jobs. This trend is more obvious for Adani’s case as most of the jobs associated with processing the coal will be off Australian soil.

According to the most recent Clean Energy Report:

More than 10,800 direct jobs were created from the large-scale renewable energy construction boom in 2018 — with another 3,000 in operations and maintenance.

This is a reminder that we need to look at data in a critical way. 1,500 jobs may seem like a lot when comparing it to the size of a small regional town but very small when seeing how big this mine and investment actually is. Data always requires proportional values or comparisons to understand the data’s significance.

Renewables produce more jobs than coal, especially in Adani’s case, but why do we still associate job creation to coal? Is it because we imagine it like it used to be, with miners working with their pickaxes and their bare hands? Is it because we hear about country towns that are completely reliant on the jobs from coal mines? Or is it because we associate money with jobs? Each industry has its own processes, which will have different levels of worker involvement.

We continue to frame coal and mining as the epicentre for Australian jobs and just look at renewables as a green or environmentally conscious decision. If we continue to do this, people will continue to assume there must be a trade-off with jobs or cost.

In these decisions, the focus should be on jobs, economic prosperity and the stability of the grid. Like any problem of this size, the solutions will be complex and have depth. This depth will go deeper than merely deciding between jobs and the environment.

Edward Treloar is an engineering student at Australian National University, majoring in renewable energy systems.

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