Support for Australia’s 20 per cent renewable-energy target is supposed to be bipartisan – at least that is what the coalition government led by Tony Abbott would have us believe.
Of course, it has been clear for several years now that this is a mirage. Australia’s conservative politicians – be they at a federal or state level – have long railed against renewable energy, usually along the myth-busted lines that they are too expensive, cannot be relied upon, and do nothing to reduce emissions.
In fact, as practical experience has shown in South Australia, with a near world-record 31 per cent of variable renewables in 2013, wind and solar can do the job, can lower the wholesale and retail price of electricity, and can lower emissions.
Other studies show that, despite the pleadings of the incumbent fossil fuel industry, the current RET of 41,000 GWh by 2020 is not expensive. In fact, it is more likely to reduce the cost of electricity to consumers, apart from its happy outcomes of decarbonising the grid and forcing dirty and inefficient coal-fired generation out of the market.
More recently, the rhetoric against wind farms has moved from costs and efficiency to visual amenity, and an insistence that the health impacts are not settled. It seems now that the mere sight of them ruffles the hard-right ideologues, and even some deemed more moderate. It is as though they cannot accept the utility of any technology that might form the centrepiece of Green policy making.
So perhaps it is time for the conservatives to admit that bipartisan support for renewable energy is a myth. Here’s a roll call of the leading players to act as a reminder.
Tony Abbott, prime minister
Talking to 2GB’s Alan Jones last year: ‘If you drive down the Federal Highway from Goulburn to Canberra and you look at Lake George, yes there’s an absolute forest of these things on the other side of the lake near Bungendore. I absolutely understand why people are anxious about these things that are sprouting like mushrooms all over the fields of our country. I absolutely understand the concerns that people have.
‘And I also understand the difficulty because, while renewable power is a very good idea at one level, you’ve gotta have backups because when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, the power doesn’t flow. So this is an obvious problem with renewable energy in the absence of much more sophisticated battery technology than we have right now.’
Abbott’s office has taken control of the review of the renewable-energy target, appointing climate-science sceptic and pro-nuclear advocate Dick Warburton to lead the review.
Joe Hockey, treasurer
Hockey: ‘If I can be a little indulgent: I drive to Canberra to go to Parliament and I must say I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive.’
Hockey: ‘I think they’re just a blight on the landscape.’
Hockey went on to say that the government was unable to pull down existing wind turbines, but could act to limit any future development by dumping the green-energy scheme.
Barnaby Joyce, agriculture minister
‘What is this insane lemming-like desire to go to renewables going to do to our economy?’ Joyce told the Senate last year, before veering off into a rant about wind farms in every back garden, how they were expensive, didn’t work half the time, and would never replace coal, gas, hydro or nuclear.
Andrew Robb, trade minister
Robb has been particularly vocal against the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, saying it would invest in ‘all sorts of wild and wacky proposals that the banks would not touch in a fit’. He added: ‘This fund will be a honeypot to every white-shoe salesman imaginable and it will be controlled by Labor and Bob Brown; give me a break.’ Actually, the CEFC has been a co-investor with the likes of NAB and CBA in numerous schemes that focus on energy efficiency, and promises to not just deliver a profit to the government, but abatement with a net benefit rather than a cost.
The two ministers who should have most influence over renewable-energy policy in the federal government are industry minister Ian Macfarlane, whose portfolio includes energy, and Greg Hunt, the environment minister.
Macfarlane, however, has never been a fan of variable renewables such as wind and solar, pointedly telling the industry in 2012 that they were not up to the job. He prefers ‘baseload’ renewables such as wave energy, although this technology appears a decade away from competing with incumbents.
Macfarlane has been energy minister previously, commissioning a report into the then Mandatory Renewable Energy Target. That review found the MRET should be extended, but Macfarlane instead decided to bring the MRET, which the coalition had proudly launched, to a sudden end, under pressure from fossil-fuel generators.
Hunt, who like Macfarlane is branded a ‘moderate’ (read ‘soft’) by the conservatives’ dominant hard-line faction, is nominally the minister most likely to be supportive of renewables, constantly expressing his support for ‘20 per cent’ renewable energy, but artfully dodging explicit support for the fixed target.
But he also seems to be falling in line, last week disputing figures released by the Clean Energy Council showing that renewable support mechanisms would have a ‘negative’ cost – because of their ability to reduce wholesale prices. Hunt said this did not make sense. We explained here why he was wrong.
And at a state level, the situation looks just as bleak. We don’t have space to report all the comments, but here are a few highlights from some of the key decision makers…
Campbell Newman, Queensland premier
Newman is openly hostile to renewable energy schemes and wants the RET removed altogether. ‘If the RET goes, I can assure people their prices will come down,’ Newman said last year. ‘We’ve had all these crazy schemes, but they actually haven’t cut the nation’s carbon emissions anywhere near what they would need to. In terms of the cost on the economy, we need to see these crazy Labor schemes going.’
Mike Nahan, Western Australia treasurer and energy minister
The former head of the Institute of Public Affairs – now seemingly in de-facto power in Canberra – has a long-held antipathy to renewable energy. Now, as the minister responsible for the heavily subsidised electricity grid in WA, possibly the most unsustainable in the western world, he also wants the RET repealed, and recently suggested that WA should not invest in new renewable-energy projects and just buy certificates for plants being built in other states, instead. He has also dismissed climate science, energy-efficiency schemes, and the cost of solar, and has said nuclear is the only clean energy option – although more recently he has recognised that the cost of renewables has fallen rapidly.
Pru Goward, NSW planning minister
Goward objected to the ACT government’s planned 90 per cent renewable-energy target, and its efforts to contract 200 MW of wind turbines. ‘If Canberra wants wind farms, they should build them here at Red Hill. Instead of looking out of their windows at the beautiful blue Brindabellas with the snow on the mountains [Canberrans] will look out at hideous turbines,’ she told the Canberra Times after joining four other state and federal politicians to oppose the plans.
A few weeks later, Goward was appointed NSW planning minister, with responsibility for wind farm approvals. New premier Mike Baird has not talked much about renewables, although he has appointed good friend and the coalition’s most vocal renewable-energy supporter Rob Stokes to be environment minister and deputy planning minister. That could be progress.
Dennis Napthine, Victoria premier
Napthine has actually declared his admiration of wind farms, and happily opened the 420 MW Macarthur wind farm – the largest in Australia, which is hosted by his electorate, along with one of only two makers of wind towers in the country. Napthine, however, has yet to make any move to unwind the highly restrictive planning laws introduced by his predecessor Ted Baillieu, most likely because of fierce resistance within his own party. Those laws are likely to make many already approved projects redundant, particularly if uncertainty at the federal level means their approvals lapse and they are forced to re-apply.