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Nationals demand “coal target” as energy politics spirals into loony fog

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It barely seems believable, but the politics of energy has just gotten worse. A week that began with a bizarre push to extend the life of a decrepit, 50-year-old power plant in the hope of keeping the lights on, finished with the Nationals demanding that no further subsidies be given to renewable energy.

Instead, they said, they should be given to last century’s technology: coal. At their annual conference on the weekend, the National voted, in effect, for a coal energy target. It wants the federal government to give out loans to support the coal industry, and trade minister Steve Ciobo announced new rules that will allow EFIC, the government trade investment institution, to invest in struggling coal export projects because major banks won’t.

Nationals leader and deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce continued his bizarre riff about people being stuck in lifts, desperate to go to the loo, if the energy system had too much wind and solar. He seemed to think that closing Liddell in 2022 would cause the lights to go out in 2017.

Former resources minister, and Joyce’s ex chief of staff Matt Canavan, joined in, describing renewables as a “short term sugar hit” for jobs.

“We’ve taken all the subsidies away from our farming sector and now the biggest protection racket going around is in our renewable energy sector,” Canavan told the conference.”

Even this comment was too much for the “moderates” in the Coalition, who insisted through energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg that renewables have a future in the energy mix. But just how much is difficult to judge.

It is Turnbull and Frydenberg who have been trying to appease the Nationals and the ideologues within their own part by insisting that the ageing and unreliable Liddell coal generator be kept open, and have been piling pressure on AGL – in the form of an investigation into market bidding practices – to try and force their hand.

As we have noted before, the politics of energy has become less and less credible as each week passes by. We’ve noted how the debate within the Coalition government has been hijacked by the right, and about the conservatives have gone “completely nuts” over new technologies such as battery storage, and Tesla’s big battery in particular.

The Liddell intervention is extraordinary, as ITK analyst David Leitch points out in our weekly Energy Insiders podcast and in this column: Bullying, cronyism and Captain’s picks. 

Leitch compares the government’s latest intervention like that of Venezuela, given that it lacks probity, would likely kill smarter, cleaner and much cheaper projects, and was yet another example of policy on the run.

Chloe Munro, the new head of AEMO’s expert advisory panel, and a panel member of the Finkel Review and a former chair of the Clean Energy Regulator, describes the move on Liddell – and the government’s involvement, as “mystifying” – given it goes against the advice of both AEMO reports and the Finkel Review itself.

Indeed, given how depressing the political debate on energy has become, it is reassuring that there are discussions taking place at high level that are looking for serious solutions to the energy transition, to ensure that it does lead to a cheaper, smarter, cleaner and more reliable grid than we have now.

(If you do wish to listen to a sane discussion about energy policy, we recommend you listen to Munro’s guest appearance on our weekly Energy Insiders podcast.)

Sanity, however, has no place in the Murdoch media, which is heaping pressure on the Coalition government to bend to conservative ideologues and fossil fuel vested interests, with relentless fact-free attacks on state-based initiatives and the federal contemplation of Finkel’s proposed CET.

Last week, The Australian claimed that the renewable energy target would cost taxpayers $60 billion – a figure seemingly plucked from their imagination – and suggested that 10 large nuclear power stations could be built for the same price.

The co-author of that report, economics writer Adam Creighton, continued the delirium on Monday, branding the renewable energy target as “bonkers” and proposing that all the problems could be solved by building nuclear power stations.

One assumes he didn’t read either of the AEMO reports, the Finkel Review, the CSIRO/ENA reports, Transgrid’s vision of a 100 per cent renewable energy grid, or talked seriously to anyone not completely invested in the fossil fuel industry.

One assumes also he didn’t notice the reason for new nuclear reactors being canned in the US – soaring costs ($A30 billion each) and endless delays – or the decision to close down Florida’s main nuclear supply when faced with wind gusts slightly less than those which hit South Australia last September.

The Courier-Mail also insisted on a new coal-fired generator in north Queensland – the pet project of Canavan – even though AEMO made it clear that no such project was needed.

“Unless Labor scraps its loopy renewables energy targets, Australia will go broke,” it says, proving that former ABC political editor Chis Uhlmann (who predicted a national blackout if we have more wind and solar) and the Courier-Mail’s peers in The Australian do not have a mortgage on energy hyperbole.

As ITK’s David Leitch points out, the discussion around energy options in Australia is now completely ignoring technical and other issues, and is based only around politics.

For the record, the AEMO reports – despite what you may read in mainstream media – made no recommendation to keep Liddell open for an extra five years. Far from it. AEMO suggests a range of mechanisms – such as a strategic reserve and reliability obligations – that should make any government intervention redundant.

But the Coalition is now terrified by the reality that, without government intervention, the money will flow to renewables and smart technologies that will likely accelerate the departure of coal generation, rather than extend their life.

AEMO says there are proposals for more than 21GW of new wind and solar . It expresses a clear preference for flexible and dispatchable generation. “That doesn’t sound very much like keeping Liddell open,” Munro says.

The conservatives, however, have pinned their policy decision on an increasingly redundant concept, “baseload” power, despite the fact that this bears no relation to the concept of “reliability”.

As the AEMO report points out, the biggest threat to electricity supplies over coming years is the failure of a large coal or gas generator, and “that is quite likely” due to their age, and their vulnerability to heat, as the market discovered last summer on repeated occasions.

One sane voice at The Australian is Alan Kohler, who points out that despite the bluster of the Nationals and the conservatives within the Liberal Party, everybody knows coal-fired power stations must close if Australia is to meet the 2 degree commitment that everybody agreed to in 2015.

“The task of leadership is to prepare for that, not yearn for coal,” he writes.

“The Australian Energy Market Operator has made it clear the closures can be handled through demand management and some NEM redesign, with even more renewables and batteries, which is what’s happening anyway because that’s what businesses and investors want to invest in.

“There won’t be any new coal power stations, and the lives of existing ones won’t be extended unless the government, bizarrely and unnecessarily, pays for it.

“If that happened, it would bring about the final divorce of business and the Coalition, and the final retreat by Malcolm Turnbull into the loony fog inhabited by Donald Trump and the coal dancers on the Coalition’s right.”  

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  • Patrick Comerford

    We have now entered the energy propagander war by this government. Lies deceit, the MSN not accountable for propogating this fiction. Out and out disregard of any facts all for the purpose of their political survival. Let’s hope it’s a fight to the death.

  • John Saint-Smith

    Actually coal is washed – to remove excess ash, also known as dirt. The result is there is a higher percentage of dirty black carbon per tonne. It burns better, but it produces more, not less CO2 per tonne.

    • Joe

      …but when it is washed ‘white’ it burns cleaner….’Cleeeeeen Coal’ !

      • John Saint-Smith

        Seriously Joe, I don’t know what you’re smoking these days, but you’d never get coal ash to burn at all. It might polish your gemstones – its near pure Aluminium oxide.

        • Joe

          I was being totally sarcastic with my comment…Clean Coal…NO SUCH THING.

          • John Saint-Smith

            This is Wonderland, anything is possible.

          • mick

            bloke on insiders likened clean coal to nice paedophile

  • Noel Wauchope

    I do feel sorry for the producers of the comedy TV show Utopia. How can they possibly compete? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1f18ab640e2a2832e48d3da9e82b7644245d30a842c29b95a9f1dde9f1162f0d.jpg

    • onesecond

      That picture is way too kind to Turdbull. He is free show a backbone and support the right policies, he chooses not to because he loves bein PM more than anything else, obviously including our whole planet. No straight jacket to blame there.

      • Can you imagine in his head how it reconciles what he does and what effects that will have on its progeny? He was only allowed to do the Snowy Hydro 2 because it will probably fail due to erratic rainfall caused by global heating.

  • Carl Raymond S

    The Nats are right. The need for a coal target is as obvious as Irma. A coal target of zero – as fast as humanly possible.

    • Joe

      The Nationals with their CET…’Coal Energy Target’…here we come ready or not!

  • bedlambay

    The coal spruikers in the LNP claim that renewables are subsidised but the details have never been disclosed. We should also remind the LNP that the mining industry gets millions from diesel rebates.

    • Joe

      ….mining industry subsidised, never ever occurred to the punters….please say it ain’t so.

  • DugS

    Rather than the Liddell Intervention lets call it out for what it is, the Luddite intervention. This is the Fossil fuel lobby furiously pulling on the strings of their puppets to make as much noise as possible which the voters are supposed to accept as reasoned policy. I fail to see how the National party, a supposedly farmer friendly entity, can reconcile the farmland destruction and water table depleting of a coal mine with support from their constituents. Conservative they may be but stupid they are not. Many a farm has solar and wind power to augment the grid and many will have reasoned clearly that scaling this power generation up is a better prospect than the destruction and pollution that comes with a coal mine and coal powered electricity. Frankly we should take solace from the spectacle of the fossil fuel industry going through it’s proxysms of denial and spasms of irrelevance.

    • Brian Tehan

      Yes, coal mining and fracking by, mostly, foreign companies destroys some of Australia’s most productive farmland. We can only hope that more farmers will realise that the Nationals are working for multinational mining companies, not Australian farmers. It’s sure taking a long time for the penny to drop though.

      • Its taking a long time because DugS characterisation of conservatives as “not stupid” is false.

    • Chris Fraser

      The fossil fuel lobby would see Barnaby as excellent value for money.

  • Chris Fraser

    I wonder if anything useful got achieved at the National’s conference. The proposal to implement a coal energy target, no doubt by some other name, is about as loopy as it gets for me. Can’t think if any other country, and certainly no other political party, that would top that one. No doubt most of the agenda items resulted in a clash of superegoes.I suspect most of the anti’s, and especially their mouthpiece Barnaby, are not so much against new technology but are iconoclastic. It’s become a game. Not so much against renewable energy but anti political correctness. It makes them stand out as partners in the Coalition, they are putting off irrelevance.

    • Joe

      …the proposed Burqa Ban got voted down, the one high point of The Nationals Federal Conference!

    • Ren Stimpy

      The concept of so much generation being housed under one roof should be loopy to anyone interested in a well functioning market. It stifles competition. Giant coal plants are effectively monopolies, aided by their little mates the gas generators who play dodgy games in the dodgy market to set the prices as high as possible. It all adds up to price gouging. The Nats are clearly not interested in the plight of the energy consumer. No interest whatsoever.

      The only real solution is to show these giant old Soviet-era coal generators the door ASAP while encouraging (with a RET and CET) a lot more diverse ownership of a lot more numerous but smaller generators. Only then will we have effective competition – i.e. a well functioning market. It will be by far a more effective system in the technical sense as well, as generators which are more geographically diverse will be closer to the load, resulting in much lower power losses due to less need to transmit over long distances – and also much less excuse for grid co.s to gold plate the networks.

      • Greg Hudson

        Another possible fix is to lower the maximum price from $14k/MW to $5k

        • Ren Stimpy

          I wouldn’t want to pitch in as yay or nay without reading more about that, can you give links to some articles to support that proposition Greg.

  • Ian

    If you use a euphemism to refer to carbon dioxide-free electricity generation then don’t be surprised if the coal-lobby “misconstrues” the meaning of the word. It’s a bit like the military term ” boots on the ground” which we generally understand to mean no military personal in the war zone but could mean just that: no boots but plenty of clandestine soldiers dressed as civilians wearing running shoes etc. Beware the Euphamism – just saying.

  • Tim Buckley

    And now EFIC has had a rapid rule change so it too can spruik more Australian taxpayer subsidies to private coal companies like Adani. How bizarre is the new world of Malcolm Trumble?!

    http://www.efic.gov.au/media/4112/efic-august-2017-statement-of-expectations.pdf

  • Alen T

    Unless I misunderstood, it was AEMO who implied that extending the life of generators may be a viable option: consideration should also be given to the possible extension of the capability of some existing resources to support the energy transition now underway. This could take the form of life-extension or investment to increase the flexibility of current dispatchable resources, and thereby improving their business viability and extending their life in the market.

  • jm

    I guess there is no longer an ambiguity as to whether the Nationals are the party for farmers or miners…..

  • Robert Comerford

    Some of you still don’t get it. The Nationals are not the party of the farmers, the majority that vote for them work in the fossil fuel industries or are dependent on those workers. Farmers are few and far between these days with the mechanisation that has taken place. In a couple of my previous positions I had a lot to do with fossil fuel workers. By and large they live in country electorates not Sydney or Brisbane.

    • I was only recently thinking about how farmers who are concerned by global heating would have a hard time in rural and remote areas gaining acceptance, let alone real support. In the decades to come, we will have to show extra support for our primary producers as their traditional politics fails them.

  • Greg Hudson

    My wife told me her ‘toy’ was a coal washer. I had no idea she was telling the truth !

  • Miles Harding

    Beauty, Giles.

    The headline is about the best description or the COALition’s energy dogma I have seen.

    There doesn’t seem to be any way for them to close the obviously huge gap between their position and the facts, which make me suspect that we are simply at a waypoint along the path to insanity.

  • brucelee

    What happened to all the “technology Agnostic” rhetoric?? they are plainly on the Coal wagon as they have always been.