Base power

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - COM­MENT BY RICHARD DEN­NISS

Aus­tralia re­lies more heav­ily on coal for its elec­tric­ity than al­most any other coun­try in the world, yet we have some of the most ex­pen­sive elec­tric­ity in the world. Tony Ab­bott blamed the car­bon tax for the rapid in­crease in the price of elec­tric­ity, but its re­moval did noth­ing to stop the whole­sale price of elec­tric­ity from nearly dou­bling.

Aus­tralia is pro­duc­ing record amounts of gas, and soon we will be­come the world’s largest gas ex­porter. Yet the gas in­dus­try has told us that we have a “short­age” of gas. It as­sures us that the only so­lu­tion is to al­low even more frack­ing of coal seam gas on even more farm­land. It’s the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who get the blame for high en­ergy prices.

And de­spite the fact that the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment claims to be both short of cash and com­mit­ted to tack­ling cli­mate change, the Coali­tion plans to sub­sidise Adani’s enor­mous new ex­port coalmine. Why are en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists op­posed to it? You guessed it: be­cause they are try­ing to ruin the econ­omy.

It is of­ten said that the Aus­tralian en­ergy mar­ket is “bro­ken”, but the mar­ket is work­ing just as it was de­signed to. It’s not the mar­ket that is bro­ken but the pol­i­tics of en­ergy.

It was politi­cians who sold the state-owned elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tors. It was politi­cians who ap­proved frack­ing all over Queens­land. And it was politi­cians who ap­proved the enor­mous gas ex­port fa­cil­i­ties that have driven the lo­cal price of gas higher than that paid in the coun­tries we are sell­ing it to. Those de­ci­sions have cost Aus­tralian con­sumers and tax­pay­ers bil­lions of dol­lars. When we blame “the mar­ket” we let the real cul­prits off the hook.

In re­cent years Aus­tralians have been told about the “spikes in de­mand” that place pres­sure on our elec­tric­ity grid, but these events should more ac­cu­rately be called “spikes in prof­its”. Any num­ber of sim­ple changes could be made to the thou­sands of pages of rules that gov­ern our “free mar­ket”, but the big elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies have fought such changes tooth and nail. Then again, you can no more blame the com­pa­nies for fight­ing to re­tain their profit spikes than you could blame the choco­late in­dus­try for fight­ing to re­tain Easter. Politi­cians, not com­pa­nies, are re­spon­si­ble for mar­ket rules, and for as long as politi­cians can blame “the mar­ket” or, even bet­ter, “the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists”, they can get away with both cov­er­ing up their past mis­takes and do­ing noth­ing to ad­dress them. Com­plex­ity is the cloak be­hind which the truth is hid­den from Aus­tralian con­sumers.

Can’t un­der­stand why you get paid a pit­tance for the en­ergy from your so­lar pan­els when the whole­sale price of elec­tric­ity hits $14,000 per megawatt hour? Or why a coun­try that has dou­bled its gas ex­ports may soon have to start im­port­ing gas? Or why Saudi Ara­bia thinks in­vest­ing in large-scale so­lar elec­tric­ity is a good idea but we don’t?

Then you should leave it to the ex­perts. Most of whom hap­pen to work for the en­ergy in­dus­try.

Luck­ily the façade is be­gin­ning to crum­ble. And the big­gest crack came from a most un­ex­pected source. A tweet. What bet­ter way to high­light the ab­surd com­plex­ity of our elec­tric­ity sys­tem than a medium that limits mes­sages to 140 char­ac­ters? After Tesla promised to build the world’s largest bat­tery ar­rays in South Aus­tralia, the Aus­tralian tech bil­lion­aire Mike Can­non-Brookes tweeted, “If I can make the $ hap­pen (& pol­i­tics), can you guar­an­tee the 100MW in 100 days?”

Elon Musk, the man who trans­formed on­line pay­ments via PayPal, the car in­dus­try via Tesla and the space in­dus­try via SpaceX, tweeted back, “Tesla will get the sys­tem in­stalled and work­ing 100 days from con­tract sig­na­ture or it is free. That se­ri­ous enough for you?”

All of a sud­den Aus­tralians saw that change was pos­si­ble, that al­ter­na­tives did ex­ist. Per­haps most im­por­tantly they also saw that one of the main things hold­ing us back was, as Can­non-Brookes put it, “(& pol­i­tics)”. Need­less to say Mal­colm Turn­bull pan­icked.

De­spite hav­ing once helped launch a plan to make Aus­tralia 100% re­new­able, Turn­bull had lost in­ter­est in re­new­able en­ergy. After set­tling into the big chair he ap­par­ently came to re­alise that coal was good for hu­man­ity, that re­new­able en­ergy was un­re­li­able and that the ALP’s sup­port for a 50% re­new­able en­ergy tar­get was proof that they were “ide­o­log­i­cal”. We are told that such views help to ap­pease the right of his party.

But when two of the rich­est, coolest, tech-savvi­est men in the world started tweet­ing about Aus­tralia’s re­new­able en­ergy mar­ket, our prime min­is­ter just couldn’t stand not be­ing in on it with the “in­no­va­tors”. Within days he as­sured us that he too had spo­ken to Musk and that he too was propos­ing his own “bold” stor­age so­lu­tion in the form of Snowy Hy­dro 2.0.

And there’s the rub. The sci­ence, the eco­nomics and the pol­i­tics of re­new­able en­ergy are all evolv­ing far more rapidly than those play­ing pol­i­tics can keep up with. For decades, calls for re­form to the Na­tional Elec­tric­ity Mar­ket’s rules have been met with a know­ing wink and a prom­ise of a good long in­quiry. Now the rapid col­lapse in the cost of re­new­able en­ergy and bat­tery stor­age is al­low­ing in­di­vid­u­als, state pre­miers and bil­lion­aires to get on with things them­selves while the “free mar­ke­teers” in the Coali­tion try to use the en­ergy mar­ket rules to slow them down.

A fur­ther prob­lem for the Coali­tion is that it has con­structed a whole po­lit­i­cal strat­egy around the idea that it is con­ser­va­tives who want to build things and the left who want to block things. In the un­for­get­table words of our deputy prime min­is­ter, Barn­aby Joyce, we need to get “yel­low things push­ing dirt around so we can get this na­tion mov­ing”.

But when the yel­low things are set to move earth for wind tur­bines, so­lar pan­els or large-scale bat­ter­ies, the right gets con­fused. Sud­denly they worry about the birds that might be struck by wind tur­bines, though of course not the birds whose habi­tats are de­stroyed by coalmines. Wind tur­bines are “ut­terly of­fen­sive” and “a blight on the land­scape”, yet few re­mark on the vis­ual ap­peal of Adani’s pro­posal to dig coal pits that, com­bined, will make a scar 40 kilo­me­tres long and 10 kilo­me­tres wide.

Just as the in­dus­trial revo­lu­tion con­founded, and ul­ti­mately de­stroyed, the power base of the English landed gen­try and cre­ated new eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal coali­tions, so too the re­new­able en­ergy revo­lu­tion is de­stroy­ing the power base of the coal, oil and gas in­dus­tries and forg­ing new and un­usual al­liances and lines of ar­gu­ment.

Take the Na­tion­als. Long the self-pro­claimed voice of farm­ers, the party has de­cided to back the coal and gas in­dus­try in­stead of its tra­di­tional base in dis­putes over land use.

The Lib­eral Party, long the cham­pi­ons of free mar­kets and small gov­ern­ment, has de­cided to sup­port bil­lion­dol­lar sub­si­dies for the coal in­dus­try as it scram­bles to build the last new coalmines and coal-fired power sta­tions in the world.

And One Na­tion, rarely sus­pected of hav­ing deep green ten­den­cies, has emerged as one of the loud­est voices stand­ing up to the gas in­dus­try where it seeks to poi­son the earth and pol­lute the wa­ter. But only of course when it’s farm­ers, and not en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists, ring­ing the alarm bells.

The ALP sup­ports both ac­tion on cli­mate change and the Adani mine, but un­like the Lib­eral Party op­poses any sub­si­dies for the pro­ject.

New com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions such as Lock the Gate and Peo­ple for the Plains have built pow­er­ful coali­tions of farm­ers, tourism op­er­a­tors, lo­cal en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and peo­ple who sim­ply don’t want a coalmine as their neigh­bour.

And while the Greens’ sup­port for re­new­able en­ergy has been con­sis­tent for decades, the plum­met­ing cost of re­new­ables has fun­da­men­tally trans­formed the ar­gu­ments and al­lies now avail­able to them. The unan­i­mous Se­nate sup­port for Sarah Han­son-Young’s pro­posal to im­prove Na­tional Elec­tric­ity Mar­ket ef­fi­ciency shows that the Greens can now de­ploy eco­nomic as well as en­vi­ron­men­tal ar­gu­ments to sup­port their case.

The Greens de­mand­ing eco­nomic ef­fi­ciency, the Lib­er­als sup­port­ing sub­si­dies for coal and One Na­tion wor­ried about wa­ter and air pol­lu­tion. What next?

In Fe­bru­ary this year, a for­mer US Repub­li­can con­gress­man, Bob Inglis, spoke at the Na­tional Press Club in Canberra on why he be­lieved tack­ling cli­mate change was not just good eco­nomics but what Je­sus would want us to do. He de­scribed the “spir­i­tual awak­en­ing” that he had while on the Great Bar­rier Reef with cli­mate sci­en­tist Scott Heron, and con­tin­ued, “Snorkelling with Scott, I could tell that we shared a world view be­cause I could see that he was wor­ship­ping God as he showed me the won­ders of the Reef. Af­ter­wards, we had time to talk and he told me about con­ser­va­tion changes he was mak­ing in his life in or­der to love God and love peo­ple … I wanted to be like him, lov­ing God and lov­ing peo­ple. So I went home and in­tro­duced the Raise Wages, Cut Car­bon Act of 2009.”

While Inglis’ com­ments were widely re­ported dur­ing his two-week trip, re­mark­ably the po­lit­i­cal com­men­tariat re­mained largely mute. Many com­men­ta­tors are so ac­cus­tomed to choos­ing be­tween neat boxes la­belled left and right that they are gen­uinely lost for words when some­one they deem cred­i­ble says some­thing im­por­tant that doesn’t fit into their com­fort­able cat­e­gories.

But the prob­lems fac­ing the Coali­tion in en­ergy pol­icy go much deeper than philo­soph­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal con­tra­dic­tions, or whether con­ser­vatism also ap­plies to the en­vi­ron­ment. The bru­tal elec­toral re­al­ity con­fronting Turn­bull is that vot­ers like re­new­able en­ergy and hate the old elec­tric­ity com­pa­nies. A re­cent poll by the Aus­tralia In­sti­tute showed that, after a six-month cam­paign by the prime min­is­ter to blame re­new­able en­ergy for ev­ery­thing from caus­ing South Aus­tralia’s black­outs to forc­ing jobs off­shore, 73% of the pub­lic be­lieved that the Re­new­able En­ergy Tar­get should be in­creased. Even among One Na­tion vot­ers, only 17% op­posed such an ex­pan­sion of “green en­ergy”.

While it is “ac­cepted wis­dom” in Aus­tralia that One Na­tion is to the right of the Coali­tion, a sep­a­rate poll in the Queens­land elec­torate of Daw­son in­di­cated that One Na­tion vot­ers are in fact more sup­port­ive of a “left” is­sue such as re­new­able en­ergy than Coali­tion vot­ers. How can that be?

Put sim­ply, a lot of vot­ers (es­pe­cially “right wing” sur­vival­ists) can’t wait to get off the elec­tric­ity grid, can see that the world is turn­ing away from coal, and would rather sub­sidise the rapid in­stal­la­tion of the en­ergy of the fu­ture than prop up the pol­lut­ing steam en­gines of the past.

For the past 20 years, en­ergy pol­icy has been used as a po­lit­i­cal play­thing as the fos­sil-fuel in­dus­try seeks to drag out the in­cred­i­ble prof­its it makes caus­ing cli­mate change. Try­ing to cat­e­gorise the en­ergy pol­i­tics of the 21st cen­tury into the bi­nary left–right po­lit­i­cal la­bels of the 18th cen­tury is like try­ing to cat­e­gorise fish ac­cord­ing to the num­ber of legs they have. It could keep you busy for years and do noth­ing to ad­vance your un­der­stand­ing of any­thing.

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