Like Trump, Turnbull’s energy policy is based on ‘alternative facts’

The federal government's support for coal threatens the environment.
February 24, 2017

The first few weeks of the Donald Trump administration have been extraordinary, and quite frightening — not just because of the incompetence of a president who appears to be little more than a self-obsessed idiot, but also by the actions of the dangerous ideologues at the helm of the world’s biggest economy and military power.

There have been shocks across the policy spectrum, but probably none more so than in climate and clean energy, where Trump has promised to throw the baby out with the bathwater, quit the Paris climate deal, disband or dismember environmental regulations, “re-invent” coal, stop renewables and build more gas pipelines.

It might sound crazy, but to many people in Australia it should be familiar: There is little that Trump and his regime is doing on climate and clean energy that has not already been achieved, or attempted, by the current Coalition government in Canberra.

Remember that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott destroyed the carbon price, slashed the renewable energy target, disbanded the Climate Commission, absorbed the climate change department and removed the words climate change and clean energy from the government lexicon.

If he had had the executive power, or the numbers in the Senate, Abbott would also have demolished the Climate Change Authority, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and abolished the Renewable Energy Target (RET) altogether.

Far from reversing those acts, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has extended them — slashing ARENA funding and now calling on the CEFC to subsidise new coal-fired power stations. With energy minister Josh Frydenberg, Turnbull has sought to demonise renewable energy at every possible turn.

And just like the Trump regime, if the Australian government does not rely on lies, they certainly depend on “alternative facts” — particularly about the costs of power, the impact of renewables, and the efforts to reduce emissions.

Let’s look at each of them in turn.

Cheap coal-fired power

The basic premise of the Coalition line is that new coal power is cheaper than renewable energy. This is blatant nonsense.

The Coalition has made much of the supposed $48 billion capital cost of a 50% renewable energy target, but neither it nor its boosters in the media have reported the $62 billion cost of building new “ultra supercritical coal” instead, which doesn’t include the huge ongoing fuel cost, nor the environmental or climate impacts.

The Melbourne Energy Institute puts the carbon emission savings from $62 billion invested in renewables at twice that if invested in “clean coal”.

Put more simply, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance, if you are building new coal-fired power plants now, you will be paying nearly twice as much than if you were building new wind or solar.

The industry itself does not dispute these figures. It is instructive that neither the major coal generation lobby, nor the major coal generation companies think new coal is either valid or a good idea. The Australian Industry Group has dismissed it, much to the horror of Murdoch commentators such as Judith Sloan.

Energy experts point out that not only is new coal expensive and polluting, it is also relatively useless in a grid that will rely increasingly on flexible generation, particularly as more consumers turn to rooftop solar and storage to reduce their bills.

Indeed, the only people pushing new coal, apart from the ideologues within the Coalition and Murdoch media, are the coal miners, desperate for a market for their product.

Wholesale power prices

Turnbull and Frydenberg continue to bang on about rising prices of electricity, fingering wind and solar as the culprit. A brief scan of the wholesale prices in individual states over summer proves the nonsense of that claim.

The highest prices this year have come in the states with the least amount of large scale renewable energy, Queensland and NSW. As David Leitch pointed out in his column on February 6, the average pool price in Queensland in the first week of February was $319/MWh. Even more appallingly, the average pool price at 4.30pm in 2017 has been $886/MWh, and at 5pm it has been $1332. As Leitch notes: “the Queensland State owned generators are having a lend of consumers”.

This is about competition, or the lack of it. Large scale renewables increase competition and reduce the pricing power of the big coal and gas generators. It was this lack competition, exploited by the gas operators in South Australia when the interconnector was being repaired last year that caused prices to jump.

Turnbull and Frydenberg have been banging on all summer about the high prices in Victoria and South Australia, attacking their decision to focus on renewables and the resulting coal closures. Which states have had the cheapest wholesale prices in 2017? Victoria and South Australia.

The most expensive has been Queensland, with virtually no large scale renewables. Over the first five weeks of the year, it has averaged $229/MWh — for so called “cheap” coal and gas.

It is insane. And what have we heard from the Coalition about Queensland’s price jumps? Absolutely nothing.

No wonder so many companies, including major zinc refiner Sun Metals, are focusing on large scale solar — it is less than half the price.

Role of renewables

Turnbull, Frydenberg and most others in the Coalition tell us that targets, such as Labor’s 50% renewable energy target are a recipe for disaster, not just on costs but on reliability of supply. Again, this is nonsense.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) is making it clear that the South Australia blackout last year was a storm issue, not a technology one. Yes, there were problems with ride-through mechanisms on wind farms that were then unknown but have now been addressed. Moreover, these ride-through mechanisms are not unique to wind farms — similar issues were found on thermal plants in Australia more than a decade ago.

It is interesting to note that Audrey Zibelman AEMO’s new CEO is to be the head of New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision, a ground-breaking program that aims to take New York state to 50% renewables by 2030. But we don’t have to rely on imports to tell us what is possible.

Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel says the technologies to incorporate large amounts of wind and solar are at hand, and the CSIRO and the network owners have made it clear that high levels of wind and solar are not just doable, but desirable because it will cut emissions and be cheaper to consumers. There is really no evidence, apart from a few crack-pot commentators, to support the Coalition position.

Paris climate deal

Then it comes down to how seriously the government takes climate science. In the case of Trump, it is clear that he does not. He has a Big Oil CEO in charge of diplomacy and climate science deniers in charge of environment, energy and many other key portfolios.

Turnbull claims he accepts the science and will honour the Paris climate deal. But that requires more than just paying lip-service to Australia’s down-payment of a 26-28% cut in emissions by 2030.

The Paris deal requires the world to keep average global warming “well below” 2°C, and Australia’s fair share of that effort is at least a 45% cut by 2030 and a long term plan to reach zero emissions by mid-century, or in the 2040s according to the Climate Change Authority.

Building new coal-fired power plants doesn’t allow that to happen, and it is instructive to know that the loudest supporters of new coal-fired power plants are among those who think we should shred our participation to the Paris goal.

The Bernardi defection

It would be tempting to think that the defection of Senator Cory Bernardi, and potentially others on the far-right, to form an Australian equivalent of the Tea Party would give Turnbull room to breathe, moderate his clearly unpopular stance on key issues and shift to the centre.

Fat chance. Turnbull’s over-riding ambition is to last at least one day longer as prime minister than Abbott. That means that he will remain beholden to the right, who are ready to push the self-destruct button at any moment in the fervent belief that they can win power, if not immediately then after a single term of Labor. 

[This article first appeared on RenewEconomy.]

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