The inevitable march towards renewable energy presents an interesting challenge in the Dharawal/Illawarra region, aka the coal coast, where coal extraction and export and steel-making have a deep and proud history.
This region has already been declared a Renewable Energy Zone and one of the state’s first hydrogen hubs by the NSW Government.
Support for initiatives such as Electrify 2515 suggests a community keen on a renewable future, yet undeniably the community was built up around coal.
It’s a realisation that dawned on actress and Bulli local Yael Stone after moving here in 2016.
“I have always been passionate about the environment and having a positive future for our kids, but I was somewhat naive about the coal and steel history,” she says.
“Through interacting with friends and the local community and attending university locally, I learned about the proud industrial history here and how important the coal industry has been in shaping the local culture and infrastructure.
“I started to see this divide potentially happening here – you have folks who want action on climate change and folks passionate about jobs, who are proud of their history in steel and coal jobs and want to ensure jobs for their kids.”
Yael set about devising a way to build a bridge between these priorities and reduce the divide between them.
Her “win-win-win” solution is Hi Neighbour, a volunteer-led organisation providing training scholarships for locals to move into low-carbon jobs.
“The move towards a low-carbon economy is coming but the transition is important because it’s not successful until it includes everyone,” Yael points out.
“We can get everyone electric appliances and solar panels, but if we don’t have locals with the ability to economically benefit from all that activity and leave behind those who have defined our region for so long, we will lose the heart and soul of this place.”
Hi Neighbour will lend money to businesses to undertake sustainability measures such as installing rooftop solar panels.
Repayments will work like a regular loan, including both principal and interest repayments, but the latter will be funnelled into scholarship funds to help train locals in renewable energy industries.
“That supercharges those interest dollars because they go towards upskilling locals rather than to a bank where they’ll just benefit shareholders,” Yael explains.
Yael says initiatives like Hi Neighbour and Electrify 2515, which is the brainchild of Thirroul-based high-profile engineer and founder of Rewiring Australia Saul Griffith, are part of a movement occurring in our little corner of the world.
“We’re set to have a revolution here,” she says.
The Hi Neighbour model only officially launched yesterday (23 April) and has already gained traction, having signed up its first partner company, Bellambi business Buckaroo Belts, which fashions high-quality tool belts and has been known to supply tradies and coalminers specifically.
Hi Neighbour also announced its debut scholarship round: $20,000 courtesy of climate action organisation Groundswell will go to 10 scholarships for local electricians to upskill for domestic electrification, providing support for the Electrify 2515 initiative.
“This round allows us to change 10 lives right away,” Yael says.
“Ten might not seem like a lot, but with the community’s support we’ll double it, triple it, quadruple it…”
The organisation’s members themselves represent a nice crossover of supporters, including former Port Kembla Steelworks metallurgist of 39 years Greg Knight, and recently retired lifetime coal miner Darryl Best.
It all helps ensure the initiative makes good on an essential feature of its mission – to embrace the strength of the area.
“This is not some sort of handout. We have a proud industrial history and that places us perfectly to be the industrial powerhouse of the nation going forward,” Yael says.
“There’s a lot of talk about wind energy generation, hydrogen, how to run a green steel mill. This is a population with incredible industrial skill. With thoughtful training, we have a workforce that could remain a powerful asset.”
For more information, visit Hi Neighbour.