The Greens' renewables plan: a mixed bag

Reducing emissions is not enough. We also need reforestation and other ways of drawing down carbon dioxide.

On November 22, the Australian Greens launched their updated renewable energy plan Renew Australia.

The plan improves on their 2013 Clean Energy Roadmap, which was light on detail, merely calling for the Renewable Energy Target (RET) to be raised to 90% by 2030, more funding for the commercialisation of renewable energy technology and improved coordination and planning of the electricity grid.

Renew Australia shows how Australia can transition to 90% renewable energy by 2030. It should put pressure on Labor, whose target of 50% renewables by 2030 is also sorely lacking in detail.

However, unlike the Greens' earlier plan, Renew Australia makes no mention of achieving 100% renewables — a target demanded by much of the climate movement.

Renew Australia starts by estimating Australia's 2030 annual electricity consumption — 358 terawatt hours (TWh), compared with 247 TWh today. This increase is attributed to transport and heating usage shifting from fossil fuels to electricity. Energy efficiency, they propose, would be doubled.

Crucially, the Greens now recognise that a carbon price and an expanded RET will not drive this rapid transformation. Their latest plan includes the building of publicly-owned and operated renewable electricity generators, a position advocated by Green Left Weekly.

They also propose a mechanism for shutting down coal-fired power stations, starting with the dirtiest in each state. They call for pollution intensity standards on power stations, which would tighten over time. Currently, state and federal governments let the market decide if and when power stations shut down. Hence the least profitable power stations — not the dirtiest — tend to close first.

The Greens' position that mandatory standards are needed to shut down coal is an important recognition that the market will not deliver sustainability. Interestingly, the Greens do not suggest that new fossil fuel stations be banned — rather, they assume these will be too expensive to be built.

Mixed bag of policies

The Greens propose an assortment of policies to promote renewable energy. Yes, public investment is there; but this is expected to provide less than half of new renewables.

They also propose an expanded RET. Under the RET, private companies decide where and which renewable energy technologies are deployed, while electricity retailers must source a specified percentage of renewable energy.

The Greens also advocate reverse auctions, a competitive mechanism whereby private developers bid for specified projects. Reverse auctions allow governments to control where renewable energy facilities are located and the technology used. The government pays the difference between the market price of electricity and an agreed price.

Emission trading also gets the nod — albeit with a lesser role than the ALP proposes. The Greens recognise that a carbon price would not drive transformation unless it was very high. However, they still want Australia to participate in international carbon trading, despite evidence that this is not working.

Overall, the Greens' plan is about supplementing markets, rather than challenging the neoliberal marketisation of energy systems. For example, their plan hardly challenges the existing electricity market. While it advocates some public sector involvement, it still envisages a system in which electricity is traded and the price is determined by the market.

A competitive electricity market has actually hindered Australia's move towards sustainability by removing direct control from governments. It has not helped Australia develop a manufacturing industry in sustainable technologies. Having private companies compete to build renewable energy facilities typically leads to technologies being imported.

The Greens do not deal with this contradiction adequately. They merely claim they would give preference to projects with local content, rather than mandating it. Moreover, the Greens fail to grapple with how trade agreements can actually stop governments from requiring local content.

Are Greens endorsing off-grid systems?

Battery companies are promoting the idea that households and communities can go “off-grid” by using renewable energy and battery storage systems. This plays into people's dissatisfaction with energy companies and a fascination with self-sufficiency. Certainly such systems are appropriate in remote areas. But in grid areas, off-grid systems require excessive generation and storage capacity. They are a massive waste of resources.

Widespread use of household battery systems would also cause significant environmental impacts. Moreover, if such systems become common, lower income households and renters, who cannot afford such systems, would incur greater costs.

The Greens appear to be promoting such systems. At the launch, Greens leader Richard Di Natale claimed: “It democratises our energy system ... Neighbours can trade with neighbours ... We can unburden ourselves from the shackles of the large energy utilities.”

Certainly, household solar systems are important in a sustainable electricity system, and many people wish to contribute in this way. Distributed storage can also help optimise electricity flows. However, going off-grid is very wasteful, and it is concerning if the Greens are promoting this. Or are they calling for changes to electricity market rules so that households can trade using the electricity grid?

Either way, the Greens are promoting individual ownership of electricity assets. There is no suggestion of returning to a publicly-owned and operated electricity grid that governments would operate in the public interest.

Rather than promoting off-grid systems or individual households trading among themselves, a far better idea — in terms of environmental sustainability, democracy and equality — is for electricity grids to be put back in public hands. In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein provides several examples of cities renationalising their electricity grids.

No detail on slashing energy waste

Disappointingly, the Greens' report focuses primarily on electricity generation. Certainly renewable energy is popular with the public, but any serious analysis of decarbonising Australia's energy systems must deal with slashing energy waste.

Australia's energy efficiency is appalling, but too often ignored. In their 2010 Stationary Energy Plan, Beyond Zero Emissions showed how Australia's energy efficiency could be at least doubled. The Greens have adopted this doubling idea, but deferred providing any detail to “a later date”.

This neglect is disappointing because Renew Australia does not grapple with which policies can substantially increase energy efficiency. It is clear that market mechanisms and a carbon price will not do the job.

Energy efficiency needs strong government regulation and programs. Fortunately, Environment Victoria also recently released a detailed plan for improving energy efficiency, which emphasised the importance of mandatory and strong energy performance standards.

Also neglected is any recognition that energy usage needs to be slashed by eliminating the relentless production of wasteful consumer products. As Ted Trainer shows, climate change cannot be solved in a consumer society.

Of course, the Greens' policies are frequently attacked by right-wing commentators as threatening living standards. Perhaps by not mentioning wasteful consumption, the Greens wish to avoid this perception. As climate journalist Tristan Edis quipped: “It seems they want a Tesla [electric car] in every driveway and an air conditioner in every living room”.

Green jobs

Any transition to renewable energy needs to consider job losses from coal-fired power stations in regions such as the Hunter Valley and Latrobe Valley. The Greens have called for jobs in mine site rehabilitation. However, their main plan is to offer re-skilling to workers and incentives for industry to move to these areas.

The Greens claim that renewable energy will create tens of thousands of jobs in design and construction. They also hope to attract energy-intensive industry through cheaper renewable energy, echoing decades-long efforts by Australian governments to attract energy-intensive industry.

Unions and environmentalists are calling for a just transition to ensure that jobs are provided in communities affected by the transition to sustainability. However, this cannot be left to the private sector. It is disappointing that the Greens advocate indirect mechanisms such as reskilling. The public sector needs to ensure there are jobs for all affected workers, through a jobs guarantee.

Too late for 1.5°C?

The Greens ignore the current view that a safe climate is probably no longer possible. They said: “To avoid catastrophic global warming and stabilise warming at 1.5°C, Australia must cut pollution rapidly to achieve net zero pollution by 2040.” While they acknowledge that 2°C of warming is no longer considered a safe target, they then suggest we still have 25 years to stay within 1.5°C.

The planet has already warmed 1°C since the Industrial Revolution. Additional warming is locked in due to thermal inertia and temporary cooling from pollution. As climate policy analyst David Spratt shows, even if emissions stopped today, we are probably headed for more than 1.5°C warming.

Reducing emissions is not enough. We also need safe methods to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, including reforestation and increasing carbon in soils. As Tim Flannery argues, measures that reduce emissions and measures that remove CO2 from the atmosphere should be considered separately.

But emissions trading schemes still treat these as interchangeable, and the Greens agree. They support international trading schemes where Australian farmers and foresters earn money by offsetting fossil fuel emissions.

Last year, the NSW Greens introduced a bill to parliament to transform NSW to 100% renewables by 2030. It also called for public sector investment, but included a jobs guarantee for displaced power station workers, an explicit ban on new fossil fuel generators greater than 15 MW, and consideration of both energy efficiency and renewable energy by an expert panel. Small-scale solar systems would be supported through a high feed-in tariff.

While it still does not challenge the marketisation of energy, that NSW Greens bill is much stronger than Renew Australia and seems to offer a better way forward.

[Dr Andrea Bunting's PhD was on the wind power industry. She is a member of Socialist Alliance, Climate Action Moreland and Psychology for a Safe Climate.]

Like the article? Subscribe to Green Left now! You can also like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.