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Coalition backtracks on Paris deal, ABC cuts corners on energy

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Eighteen months on from the Paris agreement, and Australia appears to have forgotten what it signed up for. And it appears to be preparing, if not to abandon ship on the climate deal, then at least to stop rowing.

Federal energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg told ABC TV Four Corners program titled “Power Failure” broadcast on Monday night that Australia may not reach zero net emissions until the latter half of the century.

4.Corners

He gave the impression that the only thing Australia had signed up for was the weak 2030 target of a 26-28 per cent cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030, branded inadequate by the Climate Change Authority and hopelessly so by most other analysis.

Either Frydenberg is suffering from amnesia, or he is once again cowing to the Coalition’s powerful right-wing rump, the same group that deems though shalt not mouth the words carbon price, or infer that renewable energy is good.

Australia signed to an agreement that vowed to keep global warming “well below 2°C” and hopefully cap it at 1.5°C. Both those targets require all countries such as Australia to shift to zero net emissions well before 2050 – a target deemed eminently achievable by reports from the CCA and others.

But the Coalition seems to be preparing the groundwork to hide under the coat-tails of Donald Trump’s deranged and ill-informed attack on climate science, climate policy and clean energy, and effectively abandon the Paris climate accord.

As reported in the Guardian on Monday, key conservatives such as ACT front bencher Zed Seselja say Australia should review its commitment to the Paris climate accord if the Trump administration pulls out, a decision that could be made later today.

The government’s chair of the environment and energy committee, the conservative climate denier Craig Kelly, has said the same thing.

Consider the contrast with the South Australian government, which in its submission to the current climate policy review is calling on the government to get in line with the majority of states and pursue a target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The lobby group 350.org says in its submission that meeting the 1.5°C target requires urgent action. “At the current rate of emissions, this budget will be exhausted by 2021,” it writes. “The need for urgent action is obvious.”

Obvious to everyone, that is, apart from those who trample the corridors of power in Canberra and/or have specific interests to protect.

Monday night’s Four Corners investigation was full of promise, firstly because it pointed out that Australia has ridiculously high prices for electricity despite the lack of a carbon price, or even because it no longer has a carbon price. And, usefully, it underlined the point that the variability of wind was not the issue with the South Australian blackout last year.

Despite this, it also missed a golden opportunity to move shift the debate beyond the political impasse that has bedevilled the industry. It did so because it fell into the same trap as the policy makers themselves, and relied too heavily on the standard fare that the ABC feels obliged to quote: lobbyists for the mining industry, fossil fuels and big business.

That’s not where you will find progress and new ideas. The past few months has seen an extraordinary change in the debate around Australia’s future energy model, with the owners of the biggest utilities and institutions openly canvassing the attraction of a 100 per cent renewables grid – cheaper, faster smarter and cleaner, and deliverable within a few decades.

But this was largely absent from the program. Instead, the program relied too much on people looking to the past, and hiding the reality, and the possibilities of the irreversible transition that is upon us.

Take for example Frontier Economics’ Danny Price, who finds himself centre stage because of his proposed Emissions Intensity Scheme, but whose modeling has repeatedly been called into question because it fails to keep pace with technology developments and technology costs, so much so that his 2040 forecasts for the cost of wind and solar – made just six months ago – have already been beaten.

And there were two major clangers in the report. The first one on the subject of coal-fired generation:

“If the argument was just about energy security,” reporter Michael Brissenden asserted, “coal’s dominance would be assured. It produces synchronous power – reliable, steady, constant and predictable.”

Brissenden follows a long line of current and former senior journalists at the ABC to fall into this honey trap of synchronous generation. That’s the old way of looking at things, and certainly one the fossil fuel industry is keen to retain, despite the repeated failings of coal and gas generation over the last summer as equipment broke in the heat.

Actually, if you want the best system security, you would redesign the whole electricity system and make it completely different, and not rely on centralised fossil fuels, but rather a distributed grid focused on renewables and storage.

That’s the message from the new head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman, whose job it is to keep the lights on, and who for the past five years drove exactly that program in New York.

And that is the view of many in the industry, including AGL: After the September blackout, CEO Andy Vesey was asked if coal plants would have made the system more secure.

“If you have a system that was distributed – and didn’t have large transmission lines – you would have a more secure system,” Vesey said. “That is a very reliable system – and you can only get there with renewable energy.”

And that’s the message of the CSIRO and the network owners, who made it clear in their series of groundbreaking reports that the future of electricity is smarter, cheaper, cleaner and more reliable, and this will be achieved with 100 per cent renewables before 2050 and will save about $100 billion.

And, they say, such a grid will be based around distributed, not centralised generation. Even AGL is canvassing 100 per cent renewable energy scenarios. Once we have the technology for 50 per cent renewable energy, it says, we will have the technology for 100 per cent renewables.

The second big line from the fossil fuel lobby pedalled by the ABC program was this assumption: That even the most enthusiastic proponents of battery storage technology say that it is “10 years” away, and that in the meantime we should foster a mix of coal, gas and renewables.

How many times do the big industry players have to shout “we will not build new coal plants” before the message sinks in?

And now they are saying the same thing for gas. AGL last week said forget about gas as a transition fuel, it is too expensive; we are moving straight from big coal plants to big renewables plants with renewables.

Origin has been saying the same thing. Its record low price of around $55/MWh for the 530MW Stockyard hill wind farm underlines the case.

Battery storage is falling fast. Tony Concannon, the former boss of the Hazelwood power station, says the combination of large-scale solar and battery storage is already cheaper than gas and will be well below $100/MWh – the current cost of wholesale power – within a few years.

Bloomberg New Energy says battery storage is already well on the money in South Australia. And even if it is 10 years away from commercialisation, that will be in plenty of time. As CSIRO and AEMO have noted, storage is not really needed before around 40 per cent renewables, and Victoria, NSW, WA and Queensland are probably a decade away from that.

The problem with the report is that it did not interview enough of the people looking to the future, relying too much on the Canberra focused lobbyists fixated on the past. Not until the last five minutes did we hear in detail from the proponents of new technologies, and even then the inference was that this was something for the future.

Adrian Merrick, the former head of retail for EnergyAustralia and now founder and boss of EnergyLocals, a company focused on community-based distributed generation, notes there are at least 27 separate reviews into Australia’s energy market at present, and some will undoubtedly seek to add more layers of regulation to the traditional model.

“This would be akin to regulating horses in the early 20th century,” Merrick says. “I hear quotes from political leaders like “Coal is a big part of the future under a Coalition Government” and I think of W.W. Townsend’s quote in Motor Age in 1901:

“The speedy extinction of the horse (as a form of transport) is popularly anticipated. I do not take this view. He may be relegated to comparative obscurity, and possibly, in course of time to the zoo; but it is not we who shall live to see his extinction.”

The horses, of course, were gone within a few years, and this energy transition will be just as quick.

“To stay relevant and to avoid customers continuing to receive a poor deal from an increasingly broken market, we desperately need progressive reform that will give customers access to cleaner energy at lower prices,” Merrick said.  

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  • bruce mountain

    Spot on.

  • Peter

    The solar horse has bolted anyway.

    • MrMauricio

      All the “horses”-solar,wind,battery storage,electric cars-have bolted away from the fossil pack

      • Peter

        Thank you for making explicit what I meant. We are over the cost hump and individual actions and private enterprise are taking over regardless of political plays. The main worry now, perhaps. is that stranded assets are paid for by us and not by the fools put us in such jeopardy.

        • nakedChimp

          You’re worried about that?
          You can be assured of that.

          I have a pink glimmer for you though – be happy that Oz never had any meaningful nuclear power on it’s ground.

          Oh and a new worry for you, be afraid of politicians who want to dump international nuclear waste here.

          • Alastair Leith

            Don’t worry, we’re already fighting it.

        • Alastair Leith

          the regulatory system is still a hurdle though, not least access to the grid and managing for primary and secondary frequency response in modern ways. but yes, the technical and cost challenges have got over the hump without a shadow of a doubt, except for maybe CST which still remains on a knife edge of VHS/Beta deployment decisions.

      • Joe

        Giddyup I say

  • howardpatr

    Wait for the neanderthal thinkers in the LNP to ignore the crucial finders in Alan Finkel’s forthcoming report.

    At least 4 Corners showed Turnbull for the hypocrite he is.

    .

  • Chris Fraser

    I hope Coalition voters in the polling booth in 2015 did not have very high expectations of this Government, like, on ‘leadership’.

  • Ken Dyer

    An excellent summation of a program that was so full of holes it was embarassing. And again, the thought of following Trump, the King of the idiots, down his ill informed, mumbling and stupid path by abandoning Paris is just pure and utter idiocy. It was so refreshing to read that President Elect Macron told Trump that France would fight for the Paris climate accord to preserve what over 100 countries around the world agreed to. It just goes to show that this world needs to move on from electing old white men as leaders, especially those who continue to support fossil fuels in all its filthy forms, because they do not lead,

  • Robert Comerford

    I do think it was a reasonable show, although many of the truths they mentioned would have no doubt gone over the heads of many viewers…. particulary the fact that voting to end the carbon tax is one reason their electricity bills are now so high.
    It did show once again that the LNP is hell bent on polluting the planet.
    I wonder if Frydenberg is embarrassed at the end of each day when thinking about all the BS he must spout to keep his job.

    • Joe

      Politicians like Joshie F have no conscience so telling lies and BS is all in a days good work.

  • DogzOwn

    For track record with all renewables, need to get solutions from Costa Rica, population 5 Million, 299 days power last year without burning a fossil.

    • Joe

      Costa Rica are real smarties in the Renewable Energy. They’ve harnessed the full suite of their RE resources which is predominantly Hydro but Solar, Wind and Geo-Thermal all contribute. Why can’t we / Oz be like Costa Rica.

      • Alastair Leith

        those developing nation upstarts thinking they can teach an energy superpower like Australia anything.

  • Cooma Doug

    The article today on cars is good. I believe its close to what will happen. But left out of that was the logical result where cars will also manage our energy requirements.
    The energy/transport sector will race to 100% clean. Cars will be our residential poles and wires/energy/transport managers.

    This may disappear if the buildings of the future are built of 100% solar materials.

    We will look back on this government and the opposition and take our hads off to the ACT and South Australia.

    Im waiting to see how the federal government will attempt to control the AEMO CEO. Perhaps in a few years they will blame her for the stalling on the carbon price.

    • ben

      I wonder about how the Coalition will deal with Zibelman too. She is so visionary, and is saying things that no-one in Australia, apart from a few such as this publication, are saying. It is a little like that story of the emperor having no clothes.

      • Cooma Doug

        The hands on grid managers in Australia know her ideas are solid.
        Her ideas are rapidly becoming normal conference lingo.
        I remember when the first IT nerds walked about talking in DOS . Like a wierd crazy charade.
        We were quick to get on board.

        • ben

          Yes the renewable / distributed energy part of business are on board, but what she says is at odds with what many in the Coalition think, and also the “old school” incumbents in heavy industry. Winds of change I suppose.

      • Joe

        The COALition will deal with Audrey Z just like they did with Premier Jay. Big Mal and his hand puppet Joshie F will start the personal attacks to discredit her…tell enough lies, spread enough disinformation and the punters start to believe it is truth….bye, bye Audrey Z.

        • ben

          I hope that doesn’t happen

  • John Saint-Smith

    At least the ABC didn’t actually blame the wind turbines for the black-outs, although it seemed that the revelation has only just dawned on Auntie. I guess we have to understand that a good percentage of the viewers had to be re-educated first, before they could move on to ‘the future’. Unfortunately by the time they get there, the future will be past.

    For me, the real failing was the absence of a real slam-dunk condemnation of the criminal inaction of the government in office and the active promotion of fear and mis-representation in opposition.

    Had the ABC backed renewables and done an in-depth interview with the real leaders in the industry, they would have been howled down for bias.

    Better than dreadful, weaker than we might have hoped.

  • Radbug

    Pv’s & storage are just getting better & better & cheaper & cheaper.

  • Diana

    The part that troubles me is when zinc bromide flow battery entrepreneur says:

    SIMON HACKETT: As you add batteries all of us can become a power station so the power gets generated right around the entire national grid, right where consumers are, and my excess power that I harvested today can be delivered to my neighbour, not just to me, tonight.

    There is increasing talk we can buy and sell solar to each other, and it will be cheaper than buying from utilities [edited] but who will this really benefit? How equitable will that be, or will who gets this benefit come down to “what will you bid”? If we are going to change The System, how can we ensure that we don’t, as a society, develop whole new levels of winners and losers in who can afford the electricity they need? Who wins then?

    • Karl Edmondson

      Diana Simon Hackett was discussing energy software like Reposit, which is available now and helping homeowners get better value for their solar battery energy. Google Reposit for more info.

      • Diana

        Thanks Karl, but I think you probably do know where it all leads, and thus my concerns. New technology doesn’t necessarily make for a fairer world…

        • wideEyedPupil

          If it shares the declining price of PV with those who have a shaded roof, who rent, or otherwise just can get a lease for solarPV then it’s not all bad at all.

          Remember the price of PV modules is trending (globally) to zero cents per kWh by ~2036. Soft-costs (permits, connection fees, install) have tended to mirror cost decline of modules too. Already the Tesla tiledPV roofs, claims Musk, are* cheaper than a new conventional slate/tile roof and your electricity bills‡.

          * (will be when available)

          ‡ which is not quite to say free yet but getting close to virtually free.

          • Diana

            Yes, hear a lot about declining price of solar panels/mum’n’dad batteries, but oddly I don’t see it reflected in the ads I see from installers…. Call it luddite level but that’s what we non-expert types operate from. And declining price of equipment won’t necessarily make it a lot more affordable for those without solar to purchase it. I mean, first we wanted solar panels. Then we wanted price-reduction mechanisms to install. Then we found it wasn’t helping that much unless home. Then very expensive FiT schemes began coming to end. Then those with solar felt they were power stations, albeit without the operating costs, and wanted higher prices for solar. Electricity is valuable, and no doubt a market situation will apply, but on a much more individual level. I find it very difficult to believe those on lower incomes will be able to compete on this level. And what are we talking about here anyway? A huge number of mums’n’dads advertising their solar for sale and what am I bid? Somehow all of this took on a huge financial aspect: lower the price, pay a higher price, what am I bid? I thought it was about lowering bills.

          • nakedChimp

            Do the prices for the systems include ever bigger systems or are they still the 2-3kW from 5 years ago?

            The ones on lower incomes will never be able to compete on higher levels.. otherwise they wouldn’t be on lower incomes?!?

          • wideEyedPupil

            It is about lowering power bills and saving the world Diana. And module price has been declining steadily for three decades. Yes FiTs and soft costs (installation, permits, grid connection) all come into it, but the decline is continuing and virtually free solar PV modules are on there way I promise you.

            Just today I read about new low cost printed PV on plastic film that Australian scientists have been working on for 15 years coming into its commercialisation phase. The group we diligently focused on the sustainability performance and price point. Another quantum leap by the sounds of it.

        • Geoff James

          Hi Diana, your question is well worth asking, and (it seems to me) there will always emerge winners and losers no matter how things are set up. But they will be winning or losing relative to some fundamental outcome – if generating local energy is cheaper than grid electricity, and if retail margins and network costs can be avoided, then consumers are ahead, maybe some more than others.

          Utilities (in Australia we have networks and retailers as – mostly – separate companies) can respond by changing tariffs to get more from people who adopt new technologies. Rules about demand charges and feed-in tariffs can reduce the financial benefit to consumers. But this is temporary and they’ll have to support the consumers’ new options or lose consumers to more agile companies that are sprouting up to form a healthy commercial ecosystem.

          As for technology, well, it can always be used for “good or evil” purposes, right?!? Our choice.

          • Coley

            These new “agile companies” are going to be in the perfect position to provide a fair, cost competitive system, based on collecting and selling domestically produced solar electricity.
            The downside is, most of these ‘start ups’ once they have cornered a decent bit of the market will invariably sell their model ( and customers) to one of the ‘big boys’

        • nakedChimp

          If you want a fairer world look at monopolies.
          Distributed systems, that you can potentially own yourself aren’t in that category.

  • wideEyedPupil

    “Australia signed to an agreement that vowed to keep global warming “well below 2°C” and hopefully cap it at 1.5°C. Both those targets require all countries such as Australia to shift to zero net emissions well before 2050 – a target deemed eminently achievable by reports from the CCA and others.”

    That would require zero GHG emissions by noon tomorrow from every national in the world. Climate lag and removal of short lived aerosols (currently emitted from coal stacks) would see us sail to at least 1.5º C without any more human-caused GHG emissions.

    Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of UK’s TyndallºCentre for CC Research says 1.5º C was put in as a sop to low lying nations and other countries that will drowned or see massive death toll from CC over this century.

    Anybody who wants to understand what Paris Agreement was and wasn’t could do worse than listen to his presentation here.

  • Peter Campbell

    I think the ABC is so cowed by the incessant accusations of bias (from everyone) that it bent over backwards to blame everybody precisely equally regardless of what might have been a fair apportionment of blame.
    It is similar to the fallacy of the false middle to which the media are often susceptible. The reasonable position is not always at the mid-point between two extreme views.

    • Mike Shackleton

      I think any news outlet trying to cover the issue is going to run into problems. Analysts can’t keep up with rate of change in the sector. Studies that are 6 months old are already out of date. Not to mention it requires a lot of technical understanding that journalists would generally lack. Once the 5 minute settlement policy is implemented, it’s going to be curtains for Coal fired operators, they can’t compete. And with Stockyard Hill now promising to supply energy at $60/MWh a new benchmark has been set in electricity prices for the network.

    • Thucydides

      You’re right, and it’s an explanation but not an excuse. On an issue of major significance in a time of rapid and difficult change it is not unreasonable to expect a journalist to be widely read and well briefed on a subject before they open their mouth.

  • Alastair Leith

    “It did so because it fell into the same trap as the policy makers themselves, and relied too heavily on the standard fare that the ABC feels obliged to quote: lobbyists for the mining industry, fossil fuels and big business.”

    This.

    I’d add to that list academics with a barrow to push. To bad Auntie has defaulted to he said she said journalism, it’ just goes to show how lacking in policy depth ABC news dept is these days (and how else to explain the rise of anti-renewables campaign Chris Uhlmann, quoted by other ABC online journalists around energy matters in preference to genuine experts).

  • Alastair Leith

    “And even if it is 10 years away from commercialisation, that will be in plenty of time. ”

    These learning curves aren’t set in stone like the growth of oak trees, they’re dependant on deployment, the faster the world deploys chemical batteries the fast the price comes down. It’s a virtuous circle as more research money goes into blue sky and product development research, then more that’s invested in engineering challenges by companies on specific products.

    That’s why short term subsidies are such an important policy lever for governments (and why attacking them is so harmful), Germany practically started the entire RE revolution with their early and purposefully generous subsidies (FiTs) to wind, solar and biomass. That encouraged other nations to get involved.

  • hugh grant

    Good article Giles. Yes – it was a disappointing program and a lost opportunity. The only news that came out of the program was Frydenberg’s selective amnesia or capitulation on the Paris Agreement commitments – yet another mixed message for investors – why isn’t Labor screaming the costs of investor uncertainty from the rooftops?

  • Coley

    Why, with all these CEOs and other previous adherents of a FF future now belatently beating a path to Damascus, do these FF lobbyists/adherents still get air time?
    It’s not so much the ‘writing is on the wall’ in most respects the bliddy wall has fallen on top of them!

  • MaxG

    The government had a clear idea when they changed ABC’s management; to get rid of independence, and closer alignment with the government view.