STEPHEN CENATIEMPO, HOST: For the last time in 2020, we are about to catch up with Joel Fitzgibbon, the Labor Member for Hunter. Joel, good morning.
JOEL FITZGIBBON, MEMBER FOR HUNTER: Good morning, Stephen.
CENATIEMPO: You've been very, very generous in some of your comments towards New South Wales Environment Minister, Matt Kean, particularly regarding the coal industry. I'm a bit surprised because this bloke could make Mark Butler look like a One Nation member.
FITZGIBBON: Well, I am a generous person, Stephen. And I'll accommodate anyone, any minister of any political flavour, who is prepared to come to a coal mine, come to a gas project, come to a manufacturing plant, learn more about the business, and in particular, learn firsthand how proud those coal miners and other workers are for what they do for the country, and what they do to, you know, feed their families. These are good people, doing good work, and they often feel demonised by, you know, parts of our community – those on the left, of course, who have this silly view of the world and believe that we can go to 100 per cent renewables overnight, which of course, is just physically impossible.
CENATIEMPO: Well, Matt Kean I would of have put into that category. How do – do you think his view has changed since the two of you toured the Centennial Coal Mine in the Hunter?
FITZGIBBON: Well, I like to think it was a genuine attempt to better understand the industry, talk to the, certainly, the General Manager and others about the business and, you know, what they're exporting and what they're sending to domestic power generators, the size of their workforce, the average pay of employees, and all of those sorts of things. And of course, their assessment of where the market is, is heading. Some cynics might say that he thinks he's gone a little bit too far to the left, and he needs to re-establish some of these righter-wing credentials, but I wouldn't possibly say that.
CENATIEMPO: Now, he has said that coal will play a really important part in the energy mix for years to come. He's also said that existing coal-fired power stations need to keep running as long as possible. The reality is, though, that particularly the two coal-fired power stations in your electorate really don't have that much life left in them.
FITZGIBBON: Well, that was a really – that was probably the most important thing Matt Kean said, and I give him credit for it. We don't – all of our coal-fired generators will close down between now and 2050. The first – or the next, not the first – but the next in about two or three years, Liddell in my own backyard, and the last a power station, the name of which escapes me just now, in Queensland, which was only commissioned in 2017 – all other things being equal – it will run to 2050. We don't need policies, government policies that accelerate that process because we do need more time to establish the environment which allows us to get more renewables into the grid. And we need more time to develop the new technologies that will play a role too. So, we'll get there eventually, but coal is still 60 per cent of our electricity generation network. We can't get more renewables into the system until we get more firming power in, probably typically gas as the coal generators withdraw. So, you know, we need to be determined to ensure this transition works in a way for people, for prices, and, of course, for the environment.
CENATIEMPO: Yeah, I understand. And I'm not – I'm not one of these people. I'm a big supporter of the coal industry, as you know, and I'm certainly an advocate for coal-fired – well, I'm an advocate for nuclear power generation but nobody seems to share that view with me, particularly not in government. But my understanding of the renewables issue is it's not the generation electricity that is the problem, it's the storage of that electricity you generate, which is the technology we need to work on. I have this idea. I just want to float it with you, that if we, if we mandated that every new dwelling in Australia had to have a solar and battery system installed when it's built, surely that would take a bit of pressure off the grid?
FITZGIBBON: Well, yes and no. I mean, mandating is not a bad idea, although householders around Australia have taken to solar rooftop like ducks to water. So, it's been – we've had the highest grade in the world, so we haven't really needed the mandate. Part of the problems with the stability of the grid, which comes as coal-fired generators withdraw, is all this rooftop solar which, of course, is sending electrons the wrong way. And the grid, the grid is not really designed to accommodate that. So, the more we have of it, the more difficult the project becomes. But the bottom line is we can get more renewables into the system as coal-fired generators withdraw without replacing the synchronous baseload or at least peaking-power. That has to come from either gas, hydro – whether it be hydro or pumped hydro – or more battery storage. The problem of battery storage is the technology is not quite there yet. It will be in the not too distant future. The capacity of those batteries is still not enough to stabilise the grid in a way you'd have to, or you need to if more qualified generators withdraw.
CENATIEMPO: If only we could get some of your colleagues to realise that, Joel. It's been great chatting to you this year – well we've been chatting for better part of a decade now – but particularly this year, which has been a difficult one. Thank you for your time throughout the course of 2020. Now, what have you got planned for Christmas? Are all of your family going to be able to get home to you?
FITZGIBBON: They are already home. Three adult children, which is fantastic, because doubt continues to emerge about peoples’ ability to travel. So, they're all safely home. We're very happy about that. And we'll be going nowhere, we'll just be enjoying their company at home. And I say Merry Christmas to you and all of your listeners.
CENATIEMPO: Fantastic Joel, we'll catch up in 2021.
FITZGIBBON: Thanks, Stephen.