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.