Coal became a dirty word in NSW poll, but wind and solar face uncertainty

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The likely biggest losers from the NSW poll result were the coal loving Nationals, and the large-scale wind and solar industry.

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It’s often hard to make sense of an election outcome with such a confusion of stories and trends as the New South Wales state poll on Saturday. But in thinking of what it means for the renewable energy industry, I’m immediately drawn to this graph below.

It shows the build-up of wind, solar and battery and pumped hydro storage projects by state. It shows that NSW, even if it trails others by actual deployment to date, has clearly been considered as the State of Anticipation.

No other state has as big a pipeline of new investment in wind, solar and storage. But what happens now that the Gladys Berejiklian Coalition government has been returned in NSW, for yet another four-year term, is unclear. The state seems destined to return to its previous moniker of the State of Uncertainty.

It stands with W.A. as the only state or territory without a specific renewables target, yet it is faced with perhaps the most dramatic transition of all, thanks to the age of its coal generation fleet – most of which is due for retirement over the next 10-12 years.

Labor came into the polls with a well-articulated strategy – a 50 per cent renewable target by 2030, a build out of at least 9GW of wind and solar. But it didn’t seem to want to shout those initiatives from the rooftops, particularly in the last few weeks of the campaign, where a 1GW storage initiative failed to see the light of day.

The state Coalition government was more cautious. It refused to be drawn in to any commitment for a build-out of large-scale wind or solar, and was also careful not to say too much about coal.

The only firm commitments made were made directly to consumers on distributed generation – interest free loans to help NSW catch up with rooftop solar and battery storage, with a target of 300,000 homes, and welcome initiatives on making solar easier for apartment dwellers, and a small commitment to large-scale battery storage.

But it ignored the elephant in the room, the fact that NSW faces the phase out of most of its coal generators in the coming decade or so. Which means it will need new investment, and the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator tell us unequivocally that wind and solar, even with storage, are the cheapest options.

That is why such a huge pipeline of potential projects has built up in the state. Quite how this pipeline is unlocked, and developed, when the state Coalition has no target, no proposed reverse tenders (as Labor had suggested), is anyone’s guess.

New coal investment was championed noisily by only one group of people, a crew of Queensland LNP members who want a coal generator in that state’s north. When this was hoorayed by former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce as part of a particularly clumsy effort to get his name back up in lights, he was told to shut up by the NSW Nationals branch.

They, at least, could see what the impact would be. And it is no coincidence that the biggest political losers in this state poll have been the Nationals, particularly in those areas where climate is already having a tangible impact – and where the Nationals are seen as more friendly to miners than to farmers.

The Nationals vote was down nearly across the board, and two Nationals MLAs were turfed out and replaced by another two members of the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, both standing on an articulate platform of water issues, schools and access to health despite their party’s reputation for being even further to the right.

The Nationals may lose another, the seat of Dubbo, this time to a moderate independent Mathew Dickerson, the mayor of Dubbo who was an early adopter of electric vehicles and a strong promoter of renewable energy.

This is the stunning result.

More than half the state’s land mass is now represented by the SFF, who may be as enthusiastic about coal as the Nationals – and for a new coal generator in the Hunter Valley – but took care not to talk about it much. And the Nationals’ influence is further reduced by climate-focused independent Joe McGirr in Wagga Wagga, who was returned handsomely.

Two of the seats in the north-east corner credited in this map (published on news.com.au) to the Nationals will go to the Greens (Ballina), or to the Greens or Labor (Lismore).

Labor, meanwhile, is reduced to a small geographic rump based around the coal mining regions north and south of Sydney, and a string of seats straddling the major arterials in and out of Sydney, and a couple of inner city seats that weren’t snapped up by the Greens or independents.

This, of course, has implications for the federal arena, as many commentators have suggested, and it will be fascinating to see how the Coalition handles the coal issue, and the coal lobby in business (the Minerals Council) and in media (News Corp and talkback radio).

As the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy observed recently, prime minister Scott Morrison, the man who cradled a lump of coal in his hands and brandished it around the floor of the house of representatives, shouting “don’t be afraid, it’s only coal,” is exactly that, and dares not mention its name.

The Coalition – under pressure from influential and deep-pocketed donors – is pushing to announce a group of favoured projects under its FUNGI (federal underwriting of new generation investment).

It is too late to lock in contracts that could or would not be broken by a Labor government, but it will be interesting to see what is short-listed. Possibly an extension or refurbishment of Vales Point, and maybe the seemingly crazy idea to restart the dirty Redbank. All will be presented with a mixture of renewables and storage to make them more palatable.

The big difference will be in how the climate and energy transition is pitched.

The federal Coalition is committed to painting any higher targets than its own as “economy-wrecking”, backed by big business in the form of the antediluvian Business Council of Australia, and has armed itself with the preposterous costings of the mining industry’s favourite economic modeller, Brian Fisher.

It has busily unveiled a stream of policies, but they amount to little more than putting lipstick on the pig of Tony Abbott’s emissions reduction fund, $1.4 billion to Snowy Hydro to help fund its Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro schemes, and a lot of talk about Hydro Tasmania’s “battery of the nation” project.

Labor has its 45 per cent emissions reduction policy and a 50 per cent renewable energy target. Most independent studies suggest the cost of these policies should be minimal, but it’s wary of its ability to win against a scare campaign that will be amplified by the Murdoch media and barely scrutinised by the ABC and Nine.

Labor also has a household battery incentive scheme, but there is so much more that could be done by both parties – electric vehicles, energy efficiency, yet more on distributed generation.

But will Labor go for the jugular?

The history of the Coalition government, through Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, and Morrison, the scrapping of the carbon price, the attempt to kill the renewables target, the cradling of a lump of coal, and the rump of a Coalition still in denial of climate science, presents an un-missable target and a point of difference.

An exit poll in the seat of Coogee, the only Sydney seat to fall to Labor, revealed just 21 per cent of the remaining Liberal voters thought climate change an important issue, compared to more than 60 per cent for everyone else and 57 per cent for Liberal Party deserters.

Food for thought. Or perhaps a no-brainer. It’s what’s given new life to independents, after all.

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