Can Angus Taylor stop the renewables and storage revolution?

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Angus Taylor might be viewed as the federal government’s most “anti-renewables” energy minister yet. But can he really stop the energy revolution as his supporters wish?

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Much is expected of new energy minister Angus Taylor, particularly from Coalition politicians and media commentators who helped put him in the post.

In Tuesday’s The Australian, there were no less than three articles (including one on the front page – “Fossil fuel blueprint for power”) urging the new minister to invest in new coal-fired generation, and celebrating the departure of AGL’s chief executive Andy Vesey, who had dared tell them what a dumb idea that was.

As we reported on Sunday, Taylor is known as one of the most determined opponents of wind energy in the country, and has been pushing for the scrapping of the renewable energy target since before he entered parliament in 2013.

Labor went one step further on Monday, branding him the most “anti renewable” energy minister yet – which is no mean feat, given the competition for that title from predecessors including Martin Ferguson, Gary Grey and Ian Macfarlane.

But Taylor is considered by his Coalition backers to be made of tougher stuff than those three, who despite having graduated as lobbyists for the fossil fuel industry, and working previously for Woodside in Gray’s case, were seen as “soft” on renewables by the Far Right commentariat in Australia.

Resources minister Matt Canavan – who laughingly blamed the outages caused by Saturday’s lightning strike on two transmission lines on the lack of coal generation – is going gang-busters, urging that coal and gas should be the centrepiece of the government’s new energy blueprint.

“We need a new era of energy and resource abundance,” Canavan told The Australian, and you could be sure he was not referring to wind and solar, nor the potential of renewable hydrogen exports promoted by the likes of CSIRO, chief scientist Alan Finkel and ARENA in three landmark reports published over the past fortnight.

Taylor regularly reports to talk-back commentators such as 2GB’s Ray Hadley, where – as you can hear in the recent interview – he dares not contradict the shock-jock’s view of the world.

But what’s he going to say when he sits with the experts in the electricity industry – those who know that developing new coal power is a suggestion of such momentous stupidity; who insist (even Bluescope and BHP) that the energy market needs to take emissions into account?

Take, for instance, Spark Infrastructure, the network giant that runs two of the biggest networks in Victoria, the distribution network in South Australia and has a stake in the main transmission link Transgrid.

Here’s what they illustrated in their half-year results presentation on Monday. The presentation was titled simply “Future Energy”, and it wasn’t about fossil fuels.

Now it is important to note that networks couldn’t give a toss what sort of energy source they are connected to. But the future is pretty clear to them – it’s all renewables.

This stunning slide shows how and why.

It shows only the southern states where Spark Infrastructure has its operating assets. Queensland, remember, has a 50 per cent renewable energy target for 2030, as does the Northern Territory.

In South Australia, Spark predicts that fossil fuels are all but eliminated, relying on just one terawatt-hour of gas generation by 2040, with the overwhelming majority coming from large-scale solar, wind, pumped hydro and battery storage.

NSW, also, almost gets rid of its fossil fuel plants – the production of coal-generated electricity plunges from 51TWh to just 7TWh; gas generation halves, and wind, solar and storage increases eight-fold. Household solar and storage jumps four-fold.

In Victoria, the home of the brown coal generators, coal production halves, and renewables jumps three-fold.

As Spark Infrastructure notes, over the next 20 years, coal generation falls by 70 per cent and wind, solar and storage in those three southern states jump by 425 per cent.

Has anyone spotted the irony here? NSW makes the most dramatic shift towards the clean energy revolution, yet it is the only state without any formal or informal state target. It achieves this extraordinary transformation by market forces.

Its coal fleet is ageing and needs replacement. No one with a grip on reality or an understanding of technologies expects that new capacity to be new coal generation, or new gas.

How exactly do Taylor and his noisy right-wing backers think they are going to stop that?

The answer? Well, they won’t. At least not in the long term. There’s an election in less than nine months’ time, and because of the pull to the right there will be no lasting policy.

The energy portfolio has been deliberately excised from environment so there is no emissions factor to contemplate. Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited drought affected areas in Queensland on Monday, but didn’t want to talk about climate change.

In the same way, Morrison is expected to resist persistent calls from the so-called “Dutton 40” to quit the Paris climate treaty. But he won’t put in a policy of how to meet it.

So what do renewables do in the meantime? They wait. As several suggested to RenewEconomy on Tuesday, “we’ve given up on the Coalition”. They are now turning their attention to Labor, in anticipation of an election win.

There is plenty to do. Construction is still going for the 5GW or more of yet to be completed projects to meet the renewable energy target. Victoria is about to announce the winners of its first tender –and Australia’s largest – to meet its 40 per cent VRET for 2025.

Queensland will eventually get into gear for its 2030 target, and South Australia is ploughing ahead with its installations – driven, in this case, mostly by corporate demand for a cheaper alternative to fossil fuel.

The answer to that, as UK billionaire Sanjeev Gupta has made clear, is solar and storage. He intends to build 1GW in that state alone, and even AEMO recognises it will be sourcing the equivalent of 100 per cent of its needs from renewables by 2025.

As one solar developer told RenewEconomy on Tuesday, we’ve got people at a mining conference today. Every corporate now understands that the cheapest electron is a green one.

“If they want to build a new coal fired generator, that will push up prices and be good for renewables.” But they warn that the current lack of government policy, and the depressingly ill-informed comments from various MPs, risks pushing away international investors,

So yes, in the short term, expect all sorts of prognostications and all sorts of talk, and some intervention from the competition authority.

You may even hear talk about a tender for the government underwriting of new dispatchable generation. But don’t expect it to suddenly produce new investment in coal generation, as David Leitch writes in this analysis.

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