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.
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.