The Australian political response to the COVID-19 pandemic has proved that governments can act quickly if conditions demand it, even if that means overturning longstanding ideological obstacles.
The relative costs of action versus inaction seem to be much better understood when it comes to this coronavirus than with choices about energy sources, although the stakes are even higher. Can we walk away from fossil fuels before we follow the dinosaurs into extinction?
In recent decades, federal renewables policy has trailed in the wake of energy policy, which has become a dangerous political football. It wasn’t always like this.
In 2001 John Howard’s government introduced a modest Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) equivalent to about five per cent of all energy used in Australia. Incentives put in place by Kevin Rudd helped domestic solar uptake, and utility scale renewable energy targets continued to increase until Tony Abbott threw a spanner in the works with the Warburton Review of 2014, which led to the LRET (Large-scale Renewable Energy Target) going backwards in 2015.
Soon after, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation was ordered to stop investing in wind projects (the industry was supposedly too ‘mature’ to need help).
Things slipped further when Treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lacquered lump of coal into parliament at the behest of the Minerals Council in 2017.
As the technology of renewable energy quickly progressed, it was left to the states and territories to find a way forward politically.
In NSW there were positive noises from the premier and her energy minister about renewables and energy efficiency before the last state election, but little action since, amid reports of private solar and wind operations collapsing in the absence of support from policymakers.
The energy deal struck between the Morrison and Berejiklian governments earlier this year turned out to be mostly about propping up coal and unconventional gas, with vague promises of hydrogen research and pumped-storage hydro in the footnotes.
States taking the initiative
Victoria, by contrast, is well on track to meets its 25 per cent renewables target for this year, and has a 50 per cent target for 2030. Of course that’s about a century in politics.
In 2019 the ACT achieved 100 per cent renewable electricity, with a mix of locally generated and imported green power. Tasmania will soon also be 100 per cent renewable. With its long history of government-subsidised hydro schemes, the island state exports power via BassLink. New wind supply is coming online, and the Gutwein government also plans to export green hydrogen.
South Australia’s forward thinking renewables policies have been falsely blamed for power outages but miraculously survived the last change of government from Labor to Liberal. Their wind-supported Tesla big battery, mocked by Scott Morrison, continues to prop up the interstate grid, return profits and spawn imitators. Geothermal energy also looks very promising for the state.
Unfortunately the massive solar thermal project planned for Port Augusta has fallen over, with stakeholders blaming each other and interstate political interference.
In the absence of meaningful signals from government, Western Australia is falling further behind in the renewables race. The only bright spots are some remote settlements and mines switching to renewables, and the Perth Wave Energy Project.
Queensland, despite its massive natural advantages, remains a laggard in terms of government renewables policy due to the distorting influence of coal on its politics. Private solar farm operators continue to struggle to survive on the margins. More positively, two major renewable hydrogen and ammonia production projects are planned for the heart of Queensland’s coal and gas country, and big batteries are being constructed elsewhere in the state with government blessing.
In the Northern Territory, unsustainable gas has compromised the energy discussion in recent years, but there has also been serious political support for the $20bn SunCable project, which will sell green power to Singapore. Hydrogen represents another major renewable energy export opportunity for the NT.
Unsustainable energy solutions
Despite current federal energy minister Angus Taylor’s claim to have ‘renewables in his blood’ (he has a family link with the Snowy scheme, and is allowing Malcolm Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0 to limp on), in practice he has been a loyal advocate for fossil fuels since taking over the portfolio, like most of the other people surrounding the Prime Minister.
Scott Morrison’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel is an advocate of nuclear energy, as well as unsustainable gas and hydrogen, making no clear distinction in his public statements about the difference between green, renewable hydrogen and its emission-intense variants. He insists that unproven carbon capture and storage technology can solve emission problems.
Of course there’s no such thing as completely green energy either. Wind farms use a lot of steel; copper and lithium need to be mined; solar panels are difficult to recycle; biomass power plants burn trees as well as sugar waste; dams destroy country, and batteries continue to rely on unsustainable and unethical supply chains. But some forms of energy are definitely less destructive than others.
The good news is that despite the profusion of electronic devices, and a growing population, Australians are using less non-renewable energy than they did in the past.
Ridiculously high prices for electricity and global warming concerns have led people to think more about what they turn on and when, while also taking control of their own power, house by house, via techniques ranging from old-fashioned economising to smart meters to e-transport to going completely off the grid.
Community energy retailers like Enova are also doing very well. Despite the mixed signals from politicians, Australians are paying a lot more attention to where their energy is coming from, and voting with their dollars.
Beyond the domestic transformation, Australia’s natural resources and national grid means that with some creative engineering, vision and capital, our country is poised to become a renewable energy superpower, replacing dirty coal and gas exports with something much more positive.
If our government is unable to get off its fossil fuel addiction and assist this process, the least it can do for the economy and climate is get out of the way.
Originally from Canberra, David Lowe is an award-winning film-maker, writer and photographer with particular interests in the environment and technology. He’s known for his work with Cloudcatcher Media as a campaigner against unconventional gas and coal. David has also written Australian history. Many years ago, he did work experience in Parliament House with Mungo MacCallum. David has lived off-grid in the Northern Rivers since 2008.
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