Energy and Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg has insisted that the federal government has no plans to change or walk away from the Renewable Energy Target (RET), despite a strong push from the far-right rump of his Coalition, led by former prime minister Tony Abbott, with vocal support from the Murdoch media.
However, in doing so, Frydenberg also reiterated that meeting the 2020 target of 33,00GWh will not be “cost free” and that new coal-fired generation, such as ultra-super-critical power plants, may have a role in providing a stable and “more affordable” low(er) emission electricity network.
Indeed, Frydenberg appeared to suggest that “clean coal” could be an important part of meeting Australia’s Paris climate target of 26-28 per cent, saying that so-called ultra-super-critical plants could reduce emissions by 40 per cent from “business as usual.”
He said Australia would not walk away from its Paris target even if the new Trump administration withdrew its support.
But his language also indicated Australia would not look to increase its target, something that it actually signed up for when it ratified the Paris climate deal that aims to cap average global warming at “well below” 2C and as low as 1.5C.
Most independent analysis suggests that would require emission reduction cuts of at least 45 per cent, but Australia’s emissions have actually risen since it scrapped the carbon price.
Building new “clean coal” plants – with a shelf life of more than 30 years – would make it almost impossible to meet a target of net zero emissions by around 2050, which even the Coalition-friendly Climate Change Authority says should be the country’s target.
In an interview on ABC Radio National Frydenberg temporarily poured cold water on calls from within Coalition ranks that the RET should be scrapped – although that may have more to do with the realities of the Senate than the Coalition’s attachment to building more wind and solar.
While confirming the support for the current RET, he repeated claims that the government will pursue a lower-emission electricity generation portfolio while placing “a priority on affordability and security.”
In the interview, Frydenberg cited the interim Finkel report’s findings that replacing existing coal generation with new ultra-super-critical power stations that emission intensity would be reduced from 820kg/MWh today, to 700kg/MWh.
(Most black coal plants have emissions intensity of more than 1000kg/MWh while brown coal generators have emissions intensity of up to 1400kg/MWh).
However, when pressed as to whether his office has crunched the numbers as to the cost of making the switch towards ultra-super-critical coal technology he was evasive.
“All of these choices do cost, but the point is that we need to achieve more affordable power, but we also need a more stable system,” said Frydenberg. “The integration of renewables into the grid is very challenging because they don’t have the characteristics that coal and gas and hydro do have.
“So if you can get more baseload power in through cleaner coal and gas, then that can provide more stability in the system as well as more affordable prices.”
Finkel’s review also made it clear that while wind and solar do present challenges to the grid, the technologies that could smooth this transition were already available and cost effective, but Australia’s energy policies and rules were not supportive.
Frydenberg also backed Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce’s statement yesterday that Australia would not follow suit if a Trump administration pulls the U.S. out of the Paris climate change treaty.
“Of course, we want America to be at the table, they are 16% of the world’s emissions, they are the greatest economy in the world and a great friend of Australia,” said Frydenberg. “But we made a commitment in Paris, and we will stick to that commitment.”
He also noted that the new head of the US Department of Energy, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, is making energy efficiency, energy security and the promotion of “all forms of energy” a priority.
Frydenberg did not, however, touch on the massive expansion of wind generation, being followed now by solar, in Perry’s home state of Texas – where he was Governor for 15 years.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) figures show that new wind farms can be developed in Texas for US$22/MWh and solar projects for less than US$40/MWh.
On the basis of these project economics, and the ability to develop renewable assets far more quickly, BNEF concludes that a Trump administration will be largely unable to prevent the further expansion of solar and wind capacity in the U.S. in the coming years. It forecasts that wind and PV capacity will grow by 33 percent over the next two years, or 40GW of capacity.
BNEF calculates that Australia will require $2.5 billion in new investment into large scale renewables annually through 2020 to meet the 33,000GWh RET.