Ex-auto workers could boost clean energy industry

By Professor John P. Haisken

Australia’s 100-year-old auto manufacturing industry will finally come to an end later this month, but workers’ skills would translate to the storable electricity industry

By the time the last car rolls off the assembly line at the Holden plant in Elizabeth, near Adelaide, on October 20, Ford, Holden and Toyota will have directly displaced some 7,000 Australian workers. A further 25,000 to 40,000 people employed in the supply chains are also set to lose their jobs.

That’s not to mention the total spin off job loss of 200,000 nationally by the end of 2017, and a permanent GDP loss for Australia of $29 billion. Victoria and South Australia will be the hardest hit. The job growth rate in both states is forecast to effectively halve by the end of the year.

The Holden plant in Elizabeth, South Australia, will close in October 2017. Picture: Getty Images

The effects of job loss can be profound. My research has examined the personal impacts of unemployment through company closure and found dramatic losses in wellbeing – in some cases, akin to someone losing a family member or separating from a partner.

In the past, individual auto workers have been able to rebound from redundancy just like in any other industry. However when an entire industry no longer exists, how do we help displaced people find new jobs?


An in-house survey of GM Holden’s current employees about their aspirations after closure shows the majority are skilled and want to work full time. Given the skill sets of the soon-to-be-unemployed auto workers are concentrated in metropolitan Melbourne and Adelaide, what new growth industry could readily use the labour force as is, to hit the ground running?

Australia has consistently been a clear laggard when it comes to clean energy production and usage, burning far more coal and producing far more greenhouse gasses per capita than the OECD average. In contrast, the price of generating electricity from wind, solar radiation and solar panels is constantly dropping .

Despite recently decommissioning one its dirtiest coal-field power plants, Hazelwood in Victoria, Australia still has a very high reliance on coal for its energy needs. Picture: Wikimedia

In Canada electricity producer, Toronto Hydro is piloting the roll out of an innovative system of lithium ion storage batteries throughout the transmission line network. These batteries, like the ones in your mobile phone or laptop, store the excess electricity typically supplied in the evening overnight, and feed it into the electricity grid the next morning when peak usage starts.

Many workers setting up these systems in Canada are former blue and white collar auto workers, using their technical, organisational and assembly skills to add value in a fast-growing clean energy industry.


If we want to keep high-tech jobs in Victoria and South Australia and expand electric car take-up, then we can embed ‘smarter energy’ technology into technical components such as lithium ion storage control systems.

The fundamental game changer is Tesla’s $5B Gigafactory in Nevada, USA. Production at the facility is already ramping up and at its peak in 2020 it will more than double worldwide output of lithium ion storage batteries. In only its first year of operation it will reduce production costs by 30 per cent.

Tesla is building a huge lithium ion battery facility in South Australia using its Powerpack batteries, to support the state’s renewable energy supply. Picture: Getty Images

Storing electricity has never been less expensive, and is getting cheaper all the time. South Australia has started to embrace these possibilities with its new lithium ion facility in Jamestown, north of Adelaide. The ‘world’s biggest battery’, which is already half completed, will store 129 MWh and combine with a wind turbine farm to produce 100 MWh.


Australia, the sunniest place on Earth with more than 85 per cent of its population within 50km of the coast, should be exploiting solar and wind energy to their fullest potential.

In addition, in Melbourne researchers are investigating new materials set to improve how solar radiation is efficiently converted into electricity. The Australian Renewable Energy Index finds that as soon as planned large-scale wind farms and roof-top solar projects for 2016-17 are completed, the clean energy sector could generate enough power to run 70 per cent of Australian homes. Whereas hydro dams are geography dependent, wind and solar energy generation can be expanded in Australia almost without limit.

While the future of coal is bleak, ‘smarter energy’ is a win-win. It means we keep our employment and technical know-how in Adelaide and Melbourne; we meet our Clean Energy Targets with lower greenhouse gas emissions; we have a better, more sustainable energy supply, and more electricity grid capacity. Victoria and South Australia can energise economic growth and employment with ‘smarter energy’ and maintain our skilled manufacturing profile at the same time.

This article was first published on Pursuit. Read the original article.