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Hunter engineering a change of course

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A region on the brink of major change, that’s how Newcastle engineer Steve Adamthwaite sees the Hunter.

Moving away from its heavy metal past, the area famed for its coal and wine, is set to become a hub bursting with new energy. 

And, the future of the region, he says, relies on the success of this shift away from fossil fuels. 

Recently named Newcastle’s 2022 Young Professional Engineer of the Year, the 30-year-old is not afraid to tell it as he sees it. 

“A lot has changed in Newcastle since 2010,” Adamthwaite says. 

“Most of it since 1988 when BHP closed. 

“It’s something like one in three people in Newcastle were employed by, or employed to, BHP when it closed, so you can imagine the economic shock that had on the region.  

“Not only did people’s businesses evaporate, but a lot of people’s livelihood and ability to make money didn’t have a home anymore. 

“You had a lot of highly skilled workers and the need for their skills disappeared. 

“I think we’re going through a very similar thing at the moment, and we’re learning from that past transition.” 

Through his leadership roles within Engineers Australia, Australian Water Association, and WaterAid, Adamthwaite says he is witnessing the change first-hand.   

“Coal and fossil fuels is a huge employer in the Hunter. It’s something like 80% of the revenue generated by the Port of Newcastle,” he told the Newcastle Weekly.

“The move away from fossil fuels, and the way that we are providing economic value as a region, is in the early stage of transitioning. 

“We need to get it right, that will be critical to our future.

“There’s not just a single piece of a puzzle, it’s much bigger and much harder than the BHP transition. 

“I don’t know the details but there’d be about 100,000 people employed within the fossil fuel industry.  

“We need to transition in a way that is good for both our economy and good for our people.” 

His comments are in reference to the impending closure of Eraring Power Station and BHP’s Mt Arthur coal mine.  

Adamthwaite says Eraring’s closure signals a significant shift in the Hunter.

“It’s the largest power station in NSW. It’s one of the cornerstone reasons why we have Tomago Aluminium – it’s that access to reliable, high-quality power,” he said. 

“We’ve got to start transitioning now to get new projects up and running.”  

He suggests the Port of Newcastle would already be considering the future without coal.

“If we don’t start to transition and plan for that change, we’re just going to fall off a cliff, like we were when BHP closed.” 

The Arup Water Business Leader believes engineers will play a vital role in the region’s changeover to clean energy. 

Roads and rail, precinct planning, maritime and energy are all industries relying on the skills found in both specialised and general engineers. 

“Chemical, civil, electrical, and mechanical engineers, they’re all in the process of working on transitioning our region,” Adamthwaite said.

“We have engineers at our port designing terminals and deep-water access, we have people at Hunter Water looking at supplying recycled water to transitioning industries. 

“Engineers are designing our new developments and spaces.

“You only have to look at Newcastle’s skyline to see it has changed immensely in the past 10 years and that’s, in part, thanks to engineers. 

“They’re making sure we’re building structures that are safe and fit for purpose and designed well.” 

The Port of Newcastle exported a total of 158 million tonnes of coal in 2020.

The future will also depend on how well the Hunter manages its other great natural resource – water, Adamthwaite’s true passion. 

Having completed his final University of Newcastle thesis on the topic, H2O is what drives him to find sustainable solutions for delivering service and infrastructure into the future. 

His current role in the water sector means he is also determined to safeguard the region’s natural resource. 

He is convinced the Hunter needs to be looking at ways to become water resilient and climate independent.

“At the moment, we have lots of water, but if we have too much water, like during floods, we don’t actually have water we can reliably drink because the quality you can’t treat, so you have no water,” Adamthwaite said.  

“That’s the same if your dams are dry, you still have no water.

“Just having dams or making bigger dams is not suitable because dams are great if you have water falling from the sky in the right spot that you can catch, but if you don’t then what do you do? 

“That’s when we look at desalinisation or recycled water.”

And, with weather experts warning La Nina has not yet completed its saturation of the region, Adamthwaite says his industry is looking to find ways to adapt. 

“Engineers are looking at integrated solutions for cooler, greener and more liveable cities,” he said.

“If you have access to water, you’re able to create green community spaces that people use. Historically, if you’re not, you end up with Paramatta and Penrith which are concrete jungles you aren’t able to water.

“That’s when you end up with ‘urban heat island effect’, which means it’s really hot in these spaces and you can’t cool them down without greenery in community spaces. 

“It’s not good for health and wellbeing, among other issues.”

Concrete, he says is also really bad for flooding because it doesn’t absorb.

“You need green spaces that naturally supply more run off.” 

Through his work with WaterAid, Steve Adamthwaite assisted in rebuilding Timor’s water supply following cyclone damage in April 2021. Pictured with local schoolgirl.

Adamthwaite knows first-hand the value of fresh water having worked in remote communities with limited access to fresh water.

“These are not that far away either, places like Lightning Ridge, where they use recycled containers and travel hundreds of kilometres to fill up from a municipal area,” he said. 

“And [the water] is not really fit for purpose, it’s supposed to be used for spraying on dusty roads, not drinking.

“One of my favourite lines is ‘what can you get delivered to your door instantly, a ton of it, for $2.50?

“The only answer in the world is water. That’s how much it costs you to have a kilolitre, a ton, of water so you can turn on your tap and you can run your water. 

“And, that’s instant, on demand.”

Maintaining our natural resources into the future will also require skilled workers, Adamthwaite says.

“We have a skills shortage and we can’t meet our aspirations without filling that,” he said.

“Not only today or tomorrow but the next generation.

“I can only speak for my profession and I know we need more engineers.”

Schools, he adds, play a vital role in the region’s future.

In fact, it was through school-based work experience that he commenced his own career journey, working at a mine in his then-hometown Orange.

“The reason I got into engineering was because I was curious, I wanted to know how things worked,” he said. 

“I was one of those kids who asked ‘why?’ at least five times a day.” 

And, for now, his curiosity is paying off. 

Steve Adamthwaite is a finalist in the Engineers Australia Excellence Awards, in the running for the title National Young Engineer of the Year Award. 

The awards will take place in Sydney on 5 October.

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