COAL MIRED

Mike Sec­combe on Turn­bull’s dou­ble life

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

It is an un­usual dou­ble stan­dard by which Mal­colm Turn­bull lives.

The com­mon com­plaint against politi­cians is that they do not prac­tise what they preach, that their pri­vate be­hav­iour is of a lower stan­dard than what they pub­licly ad­vo­cate. But in Prime Min­is­ter Turn­bull’s case it’s the op­po­site. He prac­tises what he dares not preach.

On his Point Piper man­sion, his of­fice con­firmed this week, Turn­bull has an ar­ray of so­lar pan­els ca­pa­ble of gen­er­at­ing 14.5kW of elec­tric­ity.

That is a pretty big sys­tem. The cur­rent av­er­age ca­pac­ity of new do­mes­tic so­lar sys­tems in New South Wales is about 6kW, but peo­ple can get by with less, pro­vided they are not prof­li­gate with their power.

The leader of the Greens, for ex­am­ple, Se­na­tor Richard Di Natale, runs a house­hold of four peo­ple on 3kW of so­lar-gen­er­at­ing ca­pac­ity with at­tached stor­age, and lives com­pletely off-grid. Oc­ca­sion­ally, dur­ing the bleak­est months of the Vic­to­rian win­ter, he tells us, he aug­ments this with gen­er­a­tor power.

Those who in­stall so­lar sys­tems say a 5kW ar­ray of so­lar pan­els can power a large home of four peo­ple, in­clud­ing 20 plus lights, mul­ti­ple tele­vi­sions, all the usual house­hold ap­pli­ances, large or mul­ti­ple air­con­di­tion­ers, and a swim­ming pool pump.

Con­sid­er­ing that Turn­bull has a so­lar setup al­most five times the size of Di Natale’s, pro­duc­ing about three times as much elec­tric­ity as is con­sumed by an av­er­age home, his house is likely en­ergy self-suf­fi­cient, so long as the sun is shin­ing.

For those times when le gai soleil

– “the happy sun”, in French, which was the name of the man­sion be­fore Turn­bull bought it – is not shin­ing, Turn­bull also has in­stalled 14kWh of battery stor­age, which the ex­perts say is ac­tu­ally on the small side, given the size of his house and his so­lar ar­ray. Such a sys­tem would be enough to al­low a well-in­su­lated, en­ergy-ef­fi­cient av­er­age-sized house to go off-grid, but not one like his.

We can’t know for sure, be­cause his of­fice did not re­spond to our re­quest for fur­ther de­tail, but it’s a fair bet that Turn­bull is more than 50 per cent en­ergy in­de­pen­dent in his home life. Or at least he could be, as­sum­ing a not-tooex­trav­a­gant life­style, which is ad­mit­tedly a brave as­sump­tion.

Good for him. Mal­colm Turn­bull, pri­vate citizen, re­alises the need for ac­tion to com­bat cli­mate change. He has met a pretty am­bi­tious per­sonal re­new­able en­ergy tar­get. He has moved away from reliance on dirty, fos­sil fu­el­gen­er­ated elec­tric­ity and em­braced the fu­ture of clean-en­ergy generation and stor­age. He has also saved him­self money over the long term – or maybe the not so long term, con­sid­er­ing the rate at which prices for grid power are es­ca­lat­ing.

Mal­colm Turn­bull, prime min­is­ter, how­ever, has made quite a dif­fer­ent cal­cu­la­tion – one based ap­par­ently on po­lit­i­cal rather than en­vi­ron­men­tal goals.

Prime Min­is­ter Turn­bull dis­par­ages am­bi­tious re­new­able en­ergy and green­house gas re­duc­tion tar­gets. He em­braces nos­trums such as “clean coal”. He re­jects the no­tion of a mar­ket-based emis­sions re­duc­tion scheme and in­dulges a cam­paign of dis­in­for­ma­tion about the cost and re­li­a­bil­ity of al­ter­na­tive en­ergy sources.

It is not only pub­lic and pri­vate Turn­bull that are in con­tra­dic­tion, though. Even more glar­ingly, the pub­lic Turn­bull of to­day is in con­tra­dic­tion with the pub­lic Turn­bull of seven years ago.

That Turn­bull fea­tured on the ABC’s Four Cor­ners pro­gram of Novem­ber 9, 2009, when he was leader of the op­po­si­tion, and was ad­vo­cat­ing that the Lib­eral and Na­tional par­ties sup­port the Rudd gov­ern­ment’s plan to in­tro­duce an emis­sions trad­ing scheme (ETS).

“I will not lead a party that is not as com­mit­ted to ef­fec­tive ac­tion on cli­mate change as I am,” he fa­mously de­clared.

The same pro­gram also in­ter­viewed the for­mer num­bers man and god­fa­ther of the Lib­eral Party right wing, Se­na­tor Nick Minchin, who con­fi­dently told the reporter, Sarah Fer­gu­son, that a ma­jor­ity of mem­bers of the Lib­eral Party did not even ac­cept that hu­man ac­tiv­ity was caus­ing cli­mate change, let alone the idea that they should sup­port La­bor in do­ing some­thing to ad­dress it.

A few tu­mul­tuous weeks after the show aired, a lead­er­ship spill proved both Minchin and Turn­bull right. The cli­mate de­nial­ist Tony Ab­bott be­came the new op­po­si­tion leader.

A cou­ple of months after that, when La­bor brought its ETS leg­is­la­tion into the par­lia­ment in Fe­bru­ary 2010, newly minted back­bencher Turn­bull crossed the floor to vote against his party. First, how­ever, he gave a very stir­ring speech. It is worth re­fer­ring to at some length, just to see how far Turn­bull has since re­gressed.

Hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change, he said back then, was the “ultimate long-term prob­lem” for Aus­tralia and the world. In­ac­tion would have “catastrophic” con­se­quences.

“We have to make de­ci­sions to­day, bear costs to­day,” he said, “so that ad­verse con­se­quences are avoided, danger­ous con­se­quences, many decades into the fu­ture.”

He did not re­sile from the fact that the ma­jor cost would be a sub­stan­tial in­crease in the price of elec­tric­ity.

Aus­tralia could not wait for the world to act, he said. It had to lead.

“How,” he asked, “can we cred­i­bly ex­pect China, with per capita emis­sions less than a quar­ter of ours, or In­dia with per capita emis­sions less than one-tenth of ours, to take our call for global ac­tion se­ri­ously if we, a wealthy, de­vel­oped, na­tion, are not pre­pared to take ac­tion our­selves?”

And the best mech­a­nism for com­bat­ing cli­mate change, Turn­bull said force­fully, was a mar­ket-based emis­sions trad­ing scheme such as La­bor was propos­ing.

He ex­plained: “An ETS works by set­ting a limit, a cap, on the amount of CO2 which the to­tal cov­ered in­dus­try sec­tors can emit. Th­ese in­dus­tries are re­quired to ac­quire per­mits to emit CO2 within the over­all cap.

“Note: the gov­ern­ment does not set the price of car­bon; it sets the cap on emis­sions and the rules of the scheme, and then it is up to the mar­ket, the laws of sup­ply and de­mand, to set the price.”

Turn­bull dis­missed an al­ter­na­tive pro­posal – hav­ing the gov­ern­ment pay pol­luters to re­duce their emis­sions – as “a slip­pery slope which can only re­sult in higher taxes and more costly and less ef­fec­tive abate­ment of emis­sions”.

He re­ferred specif­i­cally to Aus­tralia’s age­ing, coal-fired elec­tric­ity power sta­tions, not­ing that “tens of bil­lions of dol­lars” would have to be in­vested in new-generation in­fra­struc­ture in the com­ing decades. Only a car­bon price could drive “ma­jor change” to cleaner power, he said.

“Given that the cheap­est fu­els are gen­er­ally the dirt­i­est, in the ab­sence of a clear car­bon price sig­nal, new ca­pac­ity is likely to be coal rather than gas, rather than re­new­ables.”

Ear­lier, he re­ferred to “the farce that the Coali­tion’s pol­icy, or lack of pol­icy, on cli­mate change has de­scended into”.

Of the pol­icy he now ad­vo­cates, he said: “Any sug­ges­tion that you can dra­mat­i­cally cut emis­sions with­out any cost is, to use a favourite term of Mr Ab­bott, ‘bull­shit’. More­over he knows it.”

And fi­nally, fore­bod­ingly:

“Now pol­i­tics is about con­vic­tion and a com­mit­ment to carry out those con­vic­tions. The Lib­eral Party is cur­rently led by peo­ple whose con­vic­tion on cli­mate change is that it is ‘crap’ and you don’t need to do any­thing about it. Any pol­icy that is an­nounced will sim­ply be a con, an en­vi­ron­men­tal fig leaf to cover a de­ter­mi­na­tion to do noth­ing.”

Fast for­ward through sub­se­quent de­vel­op­ments. The ini­tial scheme pro­posed by the Rudd gov­ern­ment did not get up. Un­der Ju­lia Gil­lard, a less sat­is­fac­tory – though still ef­fec­tive – car­bon tax did pass. Then the Ab­bott op­po­si­tion ran a fe­ro­cious scare cam­paign against it, won the 2013 election, and abol­ished it in July 2014. As Ab­bott’s for­mer chief of staff, Peta Credlin, ad­mit­ted this week: “It wasn’t a car­bon tax, as you know. It was many other things in nomen­cla­ture terms, but we made it a car­bon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the en­vi­ron­ment. That was bru­tal re­tail pol­i­tics and it took Ab­bott about six months to cut through and, when he cut through, Gil­lard was gone.”

In­stead of a mar­ket-based scheme, as orig­i­nally pro­posed by La­bor and en­dorsed by Turn­bull, the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the Emis­sions Re­duc­tion Fund, which has paid pol­luters some $2.5 bil­lion for abate­ment. It is ex­actly the kind of pol­icy Turn­bull con­demned in his 2010 speech as “a recipe for fis­cal reck­less­ness on a grand scale”.

And since the Emis­sions Re­duc­tion Fund has been in op­er­a­tion, Aus­tralia’s green­house emis­sions, which de­clined while La­bor’s car­bon tax was in place, have been ris­ing.

The weight of ex­pert opin­ion now holds that un­less the pol­icy changes, there is no way Aus­tralia will meet even the mod­est green­house gas re­duc­tion com­mit­ments it made at the global cli­mate sum­mit in Paris at the end of 2015.

Late last year, though, it briefly ap­peared that the Turn­bull gov­ern­ment was fi­nally go­ing to make that pol­icy change. En­vi­ron­ment and En­ergy Min­is­ter Josh Fry­den­berg an­nounced the terms of ref­er­ence for a re­view of cli­mate and en­ergy pol­icy, in­clud­ing “the role and op­er­a­tion of the Emis­sions Re­duc­tion Fund and its safe­guard mech­a­nism”.

The ex­ist­ing safe­guard mech­a­nism set “base­lines” or lim­its for big pol­luters, which they were sup­posed not to ex­ceed. But as they have op­er­ated to date, they amount to no more than win­dow dress­ing. They are set so high as to be in­ef­fec­tive.

The mech­a­nism could, how­ever, con­vert into a type of emis­sions trad­ing scheme. The base­lines could pro­gres­sively be low­ered, forc­ing dirty in­dus­tries to buy pol­lu­tion per­mits.

This idea has been badged as an “emis­sions in­ten­sity” or “base­line and credit” scheme, but it is es­sen­tially just a vari­ant of the mar­ket-based sys­tem Turn­bull ad­vo­cated so strongly in 2010.

Fry­den­berg made it clear to the me­dia that he was open to the change.

“We know that there’s been a large num­ber of bod­ies that have rec­om­mended an emis­sions in­ten­sity scheme, which is ef­fec­tively a base­line and credit scheme,” he said. “We’ll look at that.”

This sim­ple state­ment brought an im­me­di­ate storm of op­po­si­tion from the cli­mate change deny­ing right wing of the gov­ern­ment. Se­na­tor Cory Bernardi said the con­sid­er­a­tion of any form of car­bon pric­ing was “the dumb­est thing I’ve ever heard”. Tony Ab­bott also con­demned the idea.

That was on Mon­day, De­cem­ber 5. On Tues­day, cab­i­net met and after that Fry­den­berg went on ra­dio to rule out any change.

The day after that, Turn­bull him­self fronted the me­dia and specif­i­cally ruled out an emis­sions in­ten­sity scheme.

“This is about cost of liv­ing. En­ergy prices are high enough al­ready and we should not be do­ing any­thing that in­creases them in the fu­ture,” he said.

“We will not be im­pos­ing a car­bon tax or an emis­sions trad­ing scheme, what­ever it is called.”

Writ­ing about it at the time, the vet­eran po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor Michelle Grat­tan said, in her usual un­der­stated way, that the move was a clear “demon­stra­tion of the power of the con­ser­va­tive forces in the Coali­tion”.

But it was some­thing else, too, as Richard Di Natale told The Satur­day

Pa­per this week.

“It’s sad, ac­tu­ally,” he said. “It’s sad to see some­one who was once pre­pared to stake his lead­er­ship on ad­dress­ing cli­mate change now be­tray all that he once stood for.”

Di Natale’s as­sess­ment is hard to ar­gue with, on the ev­i­dence. Turn­bull has now aban­doned the pol­icy he once ad­vo­cated, and has com­mit­ted him­self to stick­ing with a pol­icy he once con­demned.

Of course, chang­ing cir­cum­stances some­times jus­tify pol­i­cy­mak­ers chang­ing their minds. As the oft-used quote has it, com­monly but not defini­tively at­trib­uted to economist John May­nard Keynes: “When my in­for­ma­tion changes, I al­ter my con­clu­sions. What do you do, sir?”

But in the case of cli­mate change, the data over the past seven years has only ac­cen­tu­ated the need for ac­tion.

In his 2010 speech, Turn­bull cited ris­ing global tem­per­a­ture and sea lev­els, more fre­quent and in­tense heat­waves and fires in Aus­tralia, and “es­pe­cially a hot­ter and drier cli­mate in south­ern Aus­tralia”.

Since then, global tem­per­a­tures and sea lev­els have risen faster. The sci­en­tific ev­i­dence has piled up: glaciers and ice caps melt­ing, coral reefs bleach­ing and dying, mass ex­tinc­tions of species, the spread of trop­i­cal dis­eases.

The 2016 State of the Cli­mate re­port re­leased last Oc­to­ber by the CSIRO and Bureau of Me­te­o­rol­ogy notes that 2015 was the hottest year glob­ally in recorded his­tory and “the last 15 years are among the 16 warm­est years on record”.

In­deed, the re­port is al­ready out of date: newer data shows the world was even hot­ter in 2016, by a con­sid­er­able mar­gin. In Aus­tralia, the re­port says, the fre­quency, in­ten­sity and du­ra­tion of heat­waves is grow­ing. Rain­fall pat­terns are shift­ing. Large ar­eas of arable land are dry­ing out. Bush­fires are be­com­ing more fre­quent and in­tense.

It’s hardly nec­es­sary to read the sci­en­tific re­ports, though. One need only go out­side. Last Fri­day, New South Wales ex­pe­ri­enced a new record hottest Fe­bru­ary day. Never be­fore had the state’s av­er­age max­i­mum gone above 42 de­grees, but on Fri­day it was 42.4 de­grees. And that record was bro­ken again a day later. The av­er­age max­i­mum across the state was 44.02 de­grees.

One should add the usual sci­en­tific caveat: a sin­gle weather event does not prove cli­mate change. But there are few parts of the coun­try that have not ex­pe­ri­enced ex­cep­tional heat this sum­mer. And the State of the Cli­mate re­port shows there is no part – no part

– of Aus­tralia that is not get­ting hot­ter. The whole coun­try, and the ocean that sur­rounds it, have warmed by around one de­gree on av­er­age over the past cen­tury.

The ac­cre­tion of ev­i­dence, here and around the world, is un­de­ni­able. Cli­mate change is a sci­en­tific re­al­ity, not a mat­ter of opin­ion or ide­ol­ogy. Only the ut­terly un­in­formed, the crazily con­spir­a­to­rial could be­lieve oth­er­wise.

The nec­es­sary re­sponse to the prob­lem is con­cep­tu­ally sim­ple: stop pump­ing out the gases, prin­ci­pally car­bon diox­ide, that are caus­ing it, and switch to non-pol­lut­ing en­ergy sources. The prac­ti­cal dif­fi­cul­ties are un­de­ni­ably great but, as Turn­bull said in the 2010 in­car­na­tion of him­self, the need for such ac­tion is ur­gent.

The at­ti­tude of 2017 Turn­bull, how­ever, was summed up by The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald’s eco­nomics ed­i­tor,

Ross Git­tins, thus: “… let’s say we’ve got a pol­icy to deal with it, go to in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ences and make pledges to act, then come home and not do much about it”.

In fact, it’s even more cyn­i­cal than that. The Turn­bull gov­ern­ment has clearly de­cided there is po­lit­i­cal mileage to be made by op­por­tunis­ti­cally cam­paign­ing against al­ter­na­tive en­ergy.

One big op­por­tu­nity for a ma­jor as­sault pre­sented it­self a lit­tle more than four months ago. For once the cir­cum­stances jus­ti­fied the jour­nal­is­tic cliché “a per­fect storm”.

On Septem­ber 28 a once-in-50year storm struck South Aus­tralia, with gale-force winds, an es­ti­mated 80,000 light­ning strikes and sev­eral tor­na­does. The storm took out 23 py­lons sup­port­ing ma­jor transmission lines. About 3.50pm, a cas­cad­ing fail­ure of the grid blacked out most of the state.

South Aus­tralia has the high­est pen­e­tra­tion of re­new­able en­ergy in the coun­try, and also a La­bor gov­ern­ment. Con­ser­va­tives rushed to lay the blame for the black­outs on both. Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Barn­aby Joyce, Aus­tralia’s most po­lit­i­cally se­nior cli­mate change de­nier, led the charge with mul­ti­ple in­ter­views the fol­low­ing morn­ing.

He should have known bet­ter. The rel­e­vant agency, the Aus­tralian En­ergy Mar­ket Op­er­a­tor, had al­ready briefed the gov­ern­ment that the cause of the black­out was an “un­prece­dented” nat­u­ral event as a re­sult of which “transmission lines fell over”.

It is cer­tainly true that there are tech­ni­cal prob­lems with in­te­grat­ing re­new­ables into Aus­tralia’s elec­tric­ity sup­ply net­work, but there also are much big­ger prob­lems the gov­ern­ment – and its me­dia sur­ro­gates – chose not to high­light, be­cause they are com­plex, and it is much eas­ier to blame re­new­ables.

Take the is­sue of cost. The re­li­ably pro-gov­ern­ment anti-re­new­able en­ergy news­pa­per The Aus­tralian pub­lished anal­y­sis this week that found av­er­age elec­tric­ity prices across the coun­try had in­creased 106 per cent since 2007.

The story of­fered no pos­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for the out­ra­geous price hikes, ex­cept the growth of re­new­ables. The state-by-state break­down of the price rises, how­ever, put the lie to that ex­pla­na­tion. It showed Queens­land was the worst-per­form­ing state, hav­ing had a 135 per cent price jump, fol­lowed by Vic­to­ria at 117 per cent, and NSW at 108 per cent.

Yet those three states have the low­est pen­e­tra­tion of re­new­ables. All three get 90 per cent or more of their elec­tric­ity from coal-fired gen­er­a­tors. Con­versely, the states with the great­est pro­por­tion of re­new­ables, South Aus­tralia and Tas­ma­nia, had the small­est in­creases over the decade – al­beit from higher bases.

Clearly other fac­tors are at work, and in a very per­sua­sive piece in The Con­ver­sa­tion this week, Bruce Moun­tain, di­rec­tor of car­bon and en­ergy mar­kets at Vic­to­ria Univer­sity, de­tailed some of them.

Un­til 1999, he noted, Aus­tralian elec­tric­ity was some of the cheap­est in the world. Then the mar­ket was dereg­u­lated. The var­i­ous state elec­tric­ity com­mis­sions were pri­va­tised and joined in a poorly reg­u­lated Na­tional Elec­tric­ity Mar­ket. The ne­olib­eral eco­nomic ide­o­logues of the In­dus­try Com­mis­sion – now the Pro­duc­tiv­ity Com­mis­sion – said com­pe­ti­tion would drive prices down and pro­duc­tiv­ity up. In­stead, bil­lions of dol­lars were spent on un­nec­es­sary net­work in­fra­struc­ture – so-called gold-plat­ing. Pro­duc­tiv­ity fell and prices zoomed. Aus­tralia’s elec­tric­ity is now among the most ex­pen­sive in the world.

Prices also are in­cred­i­bly volatile. Sud­den spikes in the whole­sale price – of­ten to more than 100 times the av­er­age – are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly reg­u­lar across the coun­try. When they hap­pen in South Aus­tralia, they be­come a po­lit­i­cal weapon for con­ser­va­tive politi­cians to bash re­new­ables for their in­ter­mit­tency.

But they ac­tu­ally oc­cur most of­ten in fos­sil fuel-de­pen­dent Queens­land. The av­er­age whole­sale price there in Jan­uary was $198 a megawatt hour, com­pared with South Aus­tralia’s $84.

Why do we not hear the prime min­is­ter sound­ing off in par­lia­ment about this? Per­haps be­cause it does not fit with the sim­plis­tic nar­ra­tive that re­new­able en­ergy is the prob­lem, and that the “ide­o­log­i­cal” com­mit­ments made by state La­bor gov­ern­ments to am­bi­tious re­new­ables tar­gets are driv­ing up the cost of liv­ing.

What is driv­ing up power costs in Queens­land is fos­sil fuel. The state’s bur­geon­ing coal seam gas in­dus­try uses huge amounts of en­ergy for the ex­trac­tion and com­pres­sion of the gas, which is then ex­ported. The Aus­tralian en­ergy reg­u­la­tor is in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether the enor­mous elec­tric­ity price hikes amount to goug­ing.

What­ever the out­come of that in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the fact is the Aus­tralian elec­tric­ity sys­tem is an ex­pen­sive mess. We have an an­ti­quated, dirty fleet of coal­fired power sta­tions. We have in­cred­i­bly ex­pen­sive gas gen­er­a­tors, widely sus­pected of gam­ing the sys­tem to force up prices. And, yes, we have prob­lems in­te­grat­ing wind and so­lar power into the mix.

What to do?

Turn­bull 2017 of­fered his an­swer in an ad­dress to the Na­tional Press Club on Fe­bru­ary 1.

“Stor­age has a very big role to play, that’s true,” he said. “But we will need more syn­chro­nous baseload power and as the world’s largest coal ex­porter, we have a vested in­ter­est in show­ing that we can pro­vide both lower emis­sions and re­li­able baseload power with state-of-the-art clean coal-fired tech­nol­ogy.”

Richard Di Natale was still in­cred­u­lous two weeks after he heard it. “Now he’s spruiking clean coal. Re­ally? We have en­tered the Trump uni­verse of al­ter­na­tive facts. Clean coal. Re­ally?”

Trea­surer Scott Mor­ri­son, In­dus­try Min­is­ter Arthur Sin­odi­nos and Josh Fry­den­berg have sub­se­quently sug­gested the gov­ern­ment might sub­sidise the con­struc­tion of new coal-fired generation.

Matthew Warren, chief ex­ec­u­tive of the peak body rep­re­sent­ing power gen­er­a­tors, the Aus­tralian En­ergy Coun­cil, was taken by sur­prise by the gov­ern­ment’s sud­den en­thu­si­asm for new coal generation. No one had dis­cussed it with him or his mem­bers.

New coal plants, he said, were “un­in­vestable”, even with a sub­sidy.

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of the

Aus­tralian In­dus­try (Ai) Group,

Innes Wil­lox, a for­mer chief of staff to Alexan­der Downer, de­liv­ered the same mes­sage a lit­tle less bluntly. “Right now, ‘clean coal’ doesn’t look like it’s got a place in the Aus­tralian en­ergy mix.”

A more de­tailed anal­y­sis by the Ai Group’s prin­ci­pal ad­viser, Ten­nant Reed, for­merly of the Depart­ment of Prime

“NOW TURN­BULL’S SPRUIKING CLEAN COAL. RE­ALLY? WE HAVE EN­TERED THE TRUMP UNI­VERSE OF AL­TER­NA­TIVE FACTS. CLEAN COAL. RE­ALLY?”

Min­is­ter and Cab­i­net and an en­ergy spe­cial­ist, ex­plained in greater de­tail why it would never hap­pen.

First, clean coal is not ac­tu­ally very clean. Even the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy was in­com­pat­i­ble with meet­ing Aus­tralia’s cur­rent green­house gas re­duc­tion tar­get of 26-28 per cent by 2030, he wrote. Sec­ond, it would be very ex­pen­sive, at $80-$100 a megawatt hour, even with­out a car­bon price. And it was odds-on that a car­bon price would be in­tro­duced at some point in the 30- to 50-year life of such a plant.

There is sim­ply no way “clean coal” can compete with so­lar or wind, on ei­ther eco­nomic or en­vi­ron­men­tal grounds, says Owen Kelp, a prin­ci­pal at ACIL Allen Con­sult­ing, who last year re­ported to the Aus­tralian En­ergy Mar­ket Op­er­a­tor on the fu­ture of the elec­tric­ity mar­ket.

“We’re see­ing mas­sive cost reductions in re­new­ables over re­cent times. The most re­cent one [AGL’s 200-megawatt wind farm] built at Sil­ver­ton in NSW was done at $65 a megawatt hour. We are now see­ing util­i­tyscale so­lar get­ting done at $70-$90. The way costs are com­ing down, you’d be a very brave in­vestor to build a new coal­fired gen­er­a­tor,” says Kelp.

“The fu­ture is in stor­age, prob­a­bly mostly be­hind the meter.”

Mal­colm Turn­bull, pri­vate citizen, un­der­stands that is true, which is why his man­sion has battery stor­age. But Mal­colm Turn­bull, politi­cian, prefers to ob­scure that truth in the hope of wedg­ing his op­po­nents. Just about ev­ery­thing the gov­ern­ment is say­ing to that end is se­lec­tive, mis­lead­ing or straightout false.

It is false to say their green­house re­duc­tion tar­get is am­bi­tious. It is not, given that Aus­tralia’s per capita emis­sions are twice the av­er­age of de­vel­oped coun­tries and four times those of the world as a whole.

It is false to say La­bor’s tar­get of a 50 per cent re­duc­tion in green­house emis­sions by 2030 is “ide­o­log­i­cal”.

In­sin­cere and half-baked, yes.

But not ide­o­log­i­cal. Shadow Trea­surer Chris Bowen now ad­mits the tar­get is an “as­pi­ra­tion” not a pol­icy, and La­bor ap­par­ently has no clue about what it would cost. But it’s ex­actly in the mid­dle of the 40-60 per cent re­duc­tion the gov­ern­ment’s own Cli­mate Change Author­ity ad­vo­cated last year.

A postscript: Dur­ing last week’s heat­wave, the NSW en­ergy grid came per­ilously close to dis­as­ter. Two of four units at the 45-year-old Lid­dell coal power sta­tion had bro­ken down – again. Then two big gas-fired gen­er­a­tors went off. There was not much help com­ing from the in­ter­con­nec­tor with Queens­land, which had its own heat­wave to worry about. Nor much from the Vic­to­rian in­ter­con­nec­tor.

Wind, so­lar and par­tic­u­larly pumped hy­dro­elec­tric power saved the day. But don’t ex­pect to hear too much

• about it from the gov­ern­ment.

MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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