Renewable energy can zap some life into regional Oz
Done right, Australia’s imminent renewable energy boom could provide the biggest boost many regional communities have seen in decades, providing secure, skilled, well paid work in areas where many youngsters are forced to move to the ‘big smoke’ to make a decent living.
Done wrong, the next decade could see chronic skills shortages that slow development, cripple roll-out, hamper productivity, and result in skilled jobs being taken by an army of fly-in-fly-out workers or overseas based tradies.
The question is not ‘if’ this shift towards sustainable energy will occur, but when, thanks in a large part to the fact that Australia has the potential to generate vast amounts of renewable energy due to an abundance of natural resources distributed around the country.
In the ’07/’08 financial year, renewable energy made up just 5.8 per cent of electricity generated for public consumption, however even without any new policy changes in response to climate change, this figure will jump to 20 per cent under the Federal Government’s Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET).
For government appointed industry skills councils like EE-Oz Training Standards, which covers the electrical, communications and energy sectors, our job is a bit like a ‘skills psychic’ who has to look five or ten years into the future to see what emerging technologies will come online, what skills will be needed, then liaise with training providers to make it happen.
What our analysis has shown is quite simple. Regional communities stand to benefit most from the shift to distributed renewable generation, not just because they are home to most of the potential sources of energy, but also because local generation has significant efficiency benefits over our current network that often relies on distant plants to provide power.
Providing energy security to regional communities, many of which are particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change on the viability of local agriculture, not only delivers cleaner power to the grid, it ensures sustainable, long-term jobs that can deliver a brighter future for these communities.
But this shift is going to require substantial investment to upgrade the national transmission networks, particularly in relation to smart electricity grids which are required to adapt to locally generated energy. Infrastructure investment of this nature poses serious challenges. At a time where we are experiencing a return to the resources boom and the rollout of Australia’s largest ever infrastructure project in the National Broadband Network, demand for skilled workers is increasing, with looming skills shortages already apparent.
Investment in skills development will be as important in investment in infrastructure, with the speed, cost and effectiveness of these new sources of power generation directly linked to the availability of skilled workers. Without access to the appropriate skills in the economy, renewable generation will simply be unable to expand capacity.
New technologies also require the development of a whole new workforce with new skills, requiring industry, government and training providers needing to work together to identify the precise skill sets needed to ensure they are available as soon as the technologies become viable.
One of the big challenges facing regional communities is due to population density, with ‘thin’ markets in many areas meaning there are insufficient students to warrant the establishment of permanent training facilities.
We need to make sure the skills are available in regional communities to construct and maintain these renewable installations, which means looking at flexible new ways to deliver required training to the areas it is most needed.
Overcoming this skills problem will likely require a mix of solutions. Some options include providing incentives for suitably qualified technicians to move to regional communities, but they also require a shift to more flexible, industry focused training models with increased use of multimedia and new technology to deliver blended learning solutions. There will also inevitably be a requirement for fly-in-fly-out positions to fill specialist gaps, however the extensiveness of this costly technique will be directly proportional to the investment in skills training.
Lots of public attention is being given to the role of a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme, but while setting a price on carbon would certainly be a significant move by giving cleaner energy sources a comparative pricing advantage, this in itself is insufficient to deliver a viable renewable energy sector in regional areas if there is not the workforce available.
There are plenty of challenges, which is why broad industry consultations should begin in earnest as soon as possible to ensure that the full benefits of this shift are realised and training outcomes are focused on the creation of sustainable long term jobs for regional Australia.
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