A shift to clean en­ergy will come but pol­i­tics re­main vile un­til the next elec­tion

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Si­mon Holmes à Court

In a mid-Jan­uary op-ed, for­mer prime min­is­ter Tony Ab­bott gushed about Aus­tralia’s boun­ti­ful “clean coal”. I fired off an email to Ab­bott’s of­fice ask­ing for more in­for­ma­tion about this promis­ing new form of coal — I mean, if “clean coal” ex­ists, all our prob­lems are solved, right? Af­ter send­ing nine po­lite emails over four months, all unan­swered, I called Ab­bott’s of­fice and spoke to a lovely, yet un­der­stand­ably hag­gard, of­fice man­ager, who ex­plained that the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s pri­or­ity was his War­ringah elec­torate. I asked if I could speak with his en­ergy advisor and was told that, as a back­bencher, Tony Ab­bott doesn’t have the lux­ury of an en­ergy advisor.

A fur­ther five emails were ig­nored, and I reached the con­clu­sion that many start with — Tony Ab­bott is not in­ter­ested in ra­tio­nal dis­cus­sion about en­ergy, in­stead pre­fer­ring to lob home-made logic bombs and run.

In an echo of the “cul­tural cringe”, still alive and well in Ab­bott’s cir­cles pre­sum­ably, the “mem­ber for War­ringah” — ap­par­ently too busy with lo­cal con­stituent is­sues to dis­cuss his na­tion­ally pub­lished opin­ions — flew to Lon­don to de­liver the an­nual ad­dress at a cli­mate-science de­nial think­tank and in the process launch a mis­sile di­rectly at its in­tended tar­get, the Aus­tralian en­ergy de­bate.

Ab­bott’s speech is ar­guably the most ide­o­log­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion to our en­ergy de­bate yet, a mix­ture of his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ism (facts and con­sis­tency ir­rel­e­vant), homage to the “tri­umph of the Western lib­eral or­der” and an ex­pres­sion of deep re­gret for the emer­gence of a “post-Chris­tian nos­tal­gia” akin to goat sac­ri­fice by “prim­i­tive peo­ple”. Al­most ev­ery sen­tence is out­ra­geous and one could dis­sect ev­ery one of them in an at­tempt to set the record straight. That, how­ever, would be en­tirely miss­ing the point.

Ab­bott’s bomb — de­signed to shock and de­stroy, not con­trib­ute — landed right on tar­get. In a week when en­ergy min­is­ter Josh Fry­den­berg tried to re­as­sure us that “the good news is that we have learned the lessons of the past, we know where we are go­ing and we have a com­pre­hen­sive plan to get there”, never has it been more ap­par­ent that the Coali­tion has learnt noth­ing, has no idea where it is go­ing and lit­er­ally has no plan.

The big­gest news of the week is not Ab­bott’s speech, but the mes­sage it un­der­scored: that the clean en­ergy tar­get (CET) is dead.

For a brief mo­ment in June there was hope that the Coali­tion and La­bor might find a com­mon ground through chief sci­en­tist pro­fes­sor Alan Finkel’s tech­nol­ogy ag­nos­tic pro­posal to solve the en­ergy trilemma — af­ford­able, re­li­able and lower-emis­sions elec­tric­ity. In the in­ter­ven­ing pe­riod the Coali­tion has de­cided en­ergy will be where they find their point of dif­fer­ence with ”black­out Bill’s” La­bor as we gear up for a pro­longed cam­paign into the next fed­eral elec­tion.

Fry­den­berg’s sig­nalling on Mon­day con­firmed that the chance of bi­par­ti­san en­ergy leg­is­la­tion pass­ing be­fore the next elec­tion just went to zero. With­out long term, sta­ble en­ergy pol­icy, re­new­able in­vest­ment will slow, the fos­sil fuel power in­vest­ment strike will stretch into its sec­ond decade and the un­solved trilemma will bite deeper.

Fry­den­berg and Turn­bull both un­der­stand the en­ergy sys­tem and they know that Finkel got it ba­si­cally right, yet a back­bench with abysmal en­ergy lit­er­acy and ex­tra­or­di­nary power has given them no choice but to drop the Finkel plan, even be­fore an al­ter­na­tive has been put on the ta­ble.

Some­time soon Fry­den­berg will de­liver an “en­ergy in­vest­ment frame­work”. Noth­ing can come of it while the world view of the back­bench — cur­rently more pow­er­ful than cab­i­net — is based on a cou­ple of great big lies.

The first is the mis­con­cep­tion that re­new­able en­ergy is heav­ily sub­sidised, based on gross mis­cal­cu­la­tions (mis­in­for­ma­tion?) driven hard by Aus­tralia’s “mer­chants of doubt”, the Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia and the In­sti­tute of Pub­lic Af­fairs. While there’s now a cho­rus de­mand­ing the end of “re­new­able sub­si­dies”, few un­der­stand that ma­jor re­new­ables projects (in­clud­ing two wind farms to­talling 980 MW) are now be­ing con­tracted with an ef­fec­tive sub­sidy of $0.

Far from no longer be­ing needed, the re­new­able en­ergy tar­get pro­vides the im­pe­tus for re­tail­ers to write long term pur­chase con­tracts, es­sen­tial to se­cur­ing project fi­nance. For an in­creas­ing num­ber of projects, the RET costs re­tail­ers lit­er­ally noth­ing; in fact ev­ery ex­pert anal­y­sis, in­clud­ing the cen­tre­piece of Ab­bott’s War­bur­ton re­view, shows the RET low­ers costs of cap­i­tal and in­tro­duces cheaper en­ergy into the mar­ket to the con­sumer’s ben­e­fit.

For all the same rea­sons, the CET would en­able a lower cost and more or­derly en­ergy tran­si­tion than re­ly­ing solely on ex­treme prices to new sig­nal in­vest­ment.

The sec­ond ma­jor mis­con­cep­tion is that we have a ma­jor re­li­a­bil­ity prob­lem caused by re­new­able en­ergy. We don’t. South Aus­tralia did have a state-wide black­out a lit­tle over a year ago. The wind en­ergy that shut down the grid was not wind tur­bines, but a se­ries of tor­na­dos that top­pled 22 py­lons. Pro­tec­tion equip­ment kicked into ac­tion, yes, some of it at wind farms, and dis­con­nected enough of the grid for it to “col­lapse”. The rea­sons be­hind the col­lapse are of great in­ter­est to power sys­tem en­gi­neers, but it was the fail­ure of the gen­er­a­tors con­tracted to restart the grid in this even­tu­al­ity that im­pacted South Aus­tralians the most. Even with mas­sive net­work dam­age and fail­ure of emer­gency pro­ce­dures, ser­vice was re­stored to many house­holds in just three hours.

But what of all the other black­outs in South Aus­tralia? Apart from a trans­mis­sion line fail­ure in De­cem­ber, storm dam­aged power lines af­ter Christ­mas, gas gen­er­a­tors that sat idle when needed to run in Fe­bru­ary — all mi­nor in­ci­dents blown out of pro­por­tion to suit a nar­ra­tive — re­li­a­bil­ity in SA has been the same as else­where in Aus­tralia: ex­cel­lent.

Try telling a Coali­tion MP that we don’t have a re­li­a­bil­ity cri­sis and they’ll laugh in your face. Pre­sum­ably none are aware that the Aus­tralian En­ergy Mar­ket Op­er­a­tor an­nounced ear­lier this week that the hole left by Hazel­wood’s clo­sure has been filled. We’re en­ter­ing sum­mer bet­ter pre­pared than at any other time in his­tory.

As long as the back­bench’s grasp on the facts is so poor, they will keep fight­ing a bat­tle they can’t win.

Re­new­able en­ergy is wildly pop­u­lar with the pub­lic. 20% of all Aus­tralian house­holds have in­stalled so­lar on their rooftops — the high­est in the world — and the pace of in­stal­la­tion is only in­creas­ing. Poll af­ter poll shows that Aus­tralians, re­gard­less of their po­lit­i­cal stripes, want more re­new­ables.

Yet, oddly, re­new­able en­ergy would ap­pear to have no friends in the Coali­tion. Even among the many in Ab­bott’s party room who can’t stand the man – who within the party has stuck their neck out to counter his lies?

We won’t see another coal fired power sta­tion built in Aus­tralia. Any­one who be­lieves it’s go­ing to hap­pen doesn’t com­pre­hend the eco­nomic, en­gi­neer­ing and po­lit­i­cal bar­ri­ers that stand in the way. Now that the eco­nomic case has been won, the shift to clean en­ergy is locked in; how­ever, it is now cer­tain that pol­i­tics will re­main vile through to the next elec­tion and be­yond.

It is al­most as if the Coali­tion is plant­ing land­mines in front of their own army — this can­not end well for them, or for Aus­tralia. As a young, am­bi­tious min­is­ter, Fry­den­berg must be pray­ing daily for a reshuf­fle.

On en­ergy, the Coali­tion is fight­ing bat­tles on many fronts — against each other, the op­po­si­tion, con­sumers, the facts and the fu­ture.

Re­new­able en­ergy has won the war, but it has yet to win the peace.

Si­mon Holmes à Court is se­nior advisor to the En­ergy Tran­si­tion Hub at Mel­bourne Univer­sity

En­ergy min­is­ter Josh Fry­den­berg and prime min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull dur­ing ques­tion time in the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives in par­lia­ment house, Can­berra 12 Septem­ber 2017. Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers for the Guardian

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