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Staying ahead of the learning curve: Local council pivots to sunrise industries
February 29, 2024

Australia’s energy production has flicked the switch to renewables, and a local Council in Victoria’s east is looking to capitalise through meaningful connection with its community.

The State Government has declared Gippsland as one of six Renewable Energy Zones. So begins a shift in Victoria’s foremost energy producing region from traditional power industries to less carbon-intensive electricity generation.

In Gippsland’s centre, Wellington Shire has clear renewable energy advantages; land for installations, an abundance of wind and biomass, a shallow seabed for wind turbines and a close proximity to Latrobe Valley’s existing power transmission capacity.

With $40 billion in planned renewable energy investment across the region, there are considerable opportunities for local businesses, but such a drastic transition doesn’t come without its challenges.

Gippsland is a region subject to multiple economic shocks, including Hazelwood power station closure, prolonged drought, bushfires and COVID-19.

Throw in the state government’s unexpected decision to shut down the native timber harvesting industry 6 years ahead of schedule, as well as the decline of oil and gas – both longstanding economic backbones for Wellington – and it becomes easy for the conversation to dwell on what’s been, rather than what’s next.

What’s more, it can be overwhelming navigating sunrise industries. Transitioning an existing workforce’s focus from the path well-trodden to the unknown can be daunting, and reskilling and retooling can be cumbersome for businesses to contemplate amongst daily operations.

Enter Kirsten Power – Wellington Shire Council’s Economic Development Officer for Defence and Renewable Energy.

Introduced in 2023, Kirsten’s role ensures Wellington’s businesses are well supported to enter supply chains for the renewable energy and Defence sectors.

Kirsten is a valuable information point available to Wellington’s businesses. Among other tasks, she meets with local businesses to assist navigating accreditations, amending business plans and liaising with authorities and agencies to direct people to relevant programs.

Participating in state government forums, Kirsten holds meaningful, two-way engagement, and is a voice for Wellington’s future as well as for businesses that feel left behind.

Kirsten’s role also involves organising the Gippsland New Energy Conference, which annually brings together more than 1,000 people to discuss the future of clean energy in Gippsland.

The position is a by-product of the Council’s decision to officially prioritise climate change and recognise its economy was in transition in 2021.

“We’re lucky locally to have an existing workforce that’s familiar with energy generation. I want to help people see the future, and then prepare for it,” she said.

“I’m trying to make it easier on businesses, so they don’t have to read through 400-page documents to decipher a way forward.

“I’m continually impressed with how versatile our businesses are. Longstanding companies are diversifying to service new industry, and that’s a credit to how resilient our community can be.”

The expansion into renewables has already begun to ripple throughout the community. For instance, TAFE Gippsland, Federation University, Energy Australia Yallourn and Star of the South have co-developed a framework to identify transition opportunities for local workers into clean energy.

While renewable power is a relatively new kid on the block in Wellington, a Royal Australian Air Force Base on the outskirts of Sale has remained a constant in the landscape. While the local aviation sector is already well-established, a recent $385 million redevelopment on base means East Sale is now Australia’s home of basic pilot training for the entire Australian Defence Force.

Kirsten recently supported four small and medium enterprises to meet with the Office of Defence Industry Support, allowing them to engage directly with Defence.

"Ensuring the RAAF is well-supplied means when local servicemen go to work they can do their jobs safely, and be well-equipped to carry out their duty,” she said.

“I know we’ve got some really great businesses here that can, and do, support that.”

Kirsten’s ambition is more than transitioning a local economy – it’s also transitioning a narrative. It’s as much about looking beyond decommissioning to a thriving, growing industry as it is about shifting the community’s attention from the good old days to a brighter future.

“We need to do something to save the planet, and we need to keep the lights on. This is coming, it will be a transformation, and we need to be prepared for it.”

Wellington Shire Council Economic Development Officer for Renewable Energy and Defence Kirsten Power.

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