Australian environment minister Greg Hunt, the man most likely to be sympathetic to renewable energy in the current conservative Coalition government, has effectively thrown his lot in with the coal industry.
In an interview with the Murdoch-controlled Sky News, Hunt said coal would be a fundamental part of the energy mix for decades and decades, and added algae and coal drying technologies would be the focus of the government’s emissions reduction efforts. Not so much “clean coal” as “cleaner coal”. He also said nuclear energy could provide “relatively low-cost, low emissions or zero emissions energy”, although he said it would not occur in Australia without bipartisan support.
The comments from Hunt – once considered a relative moderate in a hard right conservative Coalition government – came as the renewable energy industry reports that large-scale developments are at a standstill, with no new projects committed in Australia during the first quarter of 2014, despite the need for some 8,000MW of new capacity by 2020 to meet the renewable energy target as it now stands.
The industry is increasingly pessimistic about its prospects. Insiders say recent meetings with various ministers and advisors have increased the gloom, with promises only made that projects already built would not be affected by any changes.
Hunt, when pressed on the issue in the Sky interview, said only that the government would be able to offer the renewables industry “certainty” – which could, of course, mean that the target will be less, with no further review for another four years.
While Australia seems destined to go backwards on renewables, the rest of the world is looking to accelerate. The IPCC report, released on Sunday, said the world needed to increase the amount of renewable energy generation three of four fold, and pointed out that this, plus other measures, would come at little additional cost.
The International Renewable Energy Agency overnight said renewable energy and energy efficiency provided the most affordable and technologically mature path to bring about the necessary change. It foreshadowed last year that renewables could provide this abatement at little or no additional cost.
“The accelerated deployment of renewable energy significantly reduces energy-related carbon dioxide emissions at a reasonable cost, and also provides other benefits, including enhanced energy security, more local jobs and value-creation, and a cleaner and healthier environment,” Adnan Amin, IRENA’s Director-General, said in a statement.
IRENA’s forthcoming report, Remap 2030, says a quadrupling of the share of renewable energy sources by 2030, will cut annual global energy related emissions by 8.6 gigatonnes, while energy efficiency could save an additional 7.3GT – lowering the forecast level of 41GT on business as usual down to 25.5GT.
“Renewable energy has entered into a virtuous circle of falling costs, increased deployment and accelerated technological progress,” Amin said.
This is a view shared now by most of the world’s investment banks. Citigroup recently pointed to the “age of renewables” and Sanford Bernstein pointed out that solar will beat oil and gas, and ultimately coal, because it is “cheap, clean, convenient, and reliable” … and “will get cheaper.”
The IPCC report was also welcomed by the US, which said it offered a huge opportunity to invest in clean technologies and accelerate emissions reductions program, and in Europe, where renewable deployment continues and the EU is considering higher emissions targets.
Hunt, among others, likes to cite Germany as an example of a government backtracking on renewable targets. But they are only rethinking their mechanisms. As this graph below shows, the short- and medium-term targets remain in place and ambitious, and continue to 65 per cent by 2035 and 80 per cent renewables by 2050. As another graph pointed out last week, Germany’s electricity prices have risen 5c/kWh over the last 7 years, as renewable generation doubles, while Australia’s average electricity price rose by 15c/kWh, thanks to unrestricted investment in networks.
Hunt, however, made it clear that Australia would take only a “step by step” approach to de-carbonisation. It would meet only its 5 per cent reduction target below 1990 levels by 2020 – despite direct advice from the Climate Change Authority that this was clearly inadequate. (The Abbott government wants to dismantle the CCA).
Hunt said once this 5 per cent target was met, the government would move to other measures – “practical technology and practical actions such as energy efficiency, cleaning up our power stations, towards further goals over the coming decades, but step by step.”
No mention of renewables – or a carbon price – despite new data (quietly) released by Hunt’s department on Tuesday showing that electricity emissions fell 5 per cent in the last calendar year – a fall no doubt due to the combined impacts of the carbon price, renewable energy and falling demand.
As this graph below shows, Australian electricity emissions are down nearly 20 per cent from their peak in 2009 (coincidentally the time that solar began booming and demand started to fall). The big increases have come in transport (53.5 per cent) and fugitive emissions (43 per cent) from coal mines and gas extraction. (The Abbott government’s policies on these sectors are to build more roads and to “extract every molecule of gas” that it can).
Asked specifically about the IPCC’s recommendation of a four-fold increase in renewables, Hunt talked only about cleaning up brown coal power stations. He implicitly dismissed carbon capture and storage (CCS), but embraced coal “drying” – see this story from Crikey’s Paddy Manning for an assessment of this – and repeated his long-held fascination for algae technology, which has yet to move beyond a few small pilot projects.
“The sort of technology which we were discussing today is the combination of drying, gasification and then capture, not so much for storage, because at this stage that appears to be expensive without real prospect, but capture for reuse through things such as algal energy.
“So we can make enormous strides, whether it’s 30, 50 or 60 per cent in the reductions from our brown coal power stations. And the three great sources of emissions reduction in Australia, because there isn’t enough focus on where you clean things up, the land sector, energy efficiency and then cleaning up the great power stations.”
Sure. But it is a long way out, 2050 and then 2100, but I guess the key question here is do you think there will come a time when coal should no longer be used – coal fired power?
Look, my view is that coal will be a fundamental part of the world energy mix for decades and decades, if not more.
Pressed again about renewables, Hunt said “the extraordinarily prospective technology is about cleaning up the coal fired power stations and Australia is right at the forefront of this.”
Australia is also at the forefront of deploying rooftop solar, and in South Australia is at the forefront of integrating high levels of wind and solar energy into the grid. As the energy market operator and statistics have shown, not only has this reduced emissions dramatically, and lowered wholesale electricity costs, it has also forced the early closure of two of the dirtiest power stations in the country – and elsewhere too.
Asked again if renewables could reach 80 or even 100 per cent of Australia’s electricity requirements, as AEMO has said is possible, and how various energy research institutes have also pointed out would be lower cost than business as usual, Hunt said:
“Look, I don’t want to make predictions about 2100. What I do think is that we can have a dramatically lower profile for our energy sector. Now, that will be a combination of reduced cost renewables over time. I think that some areas will reduce cost, others may not. It will also be a combination of energy efficiency and then the other part here is cleaning up the existing sources.”
The protection of the Australian coal industry is now the clear policy priority of the new government. Australia’s coal-fired generators, already with nearly one-tenth of their capacity sidelined and the rest with much lower usage – have been pushing back against both the deployment of large- and small-scale renewables, and policies that encourage energy efficiency: both policies that groups from the IEA, the UN, and numerous research institutions have stated are the most cost effective.
But, as we have mentioned before, the emergence of solar as a common energy currency, and a potential voter issue means the government needs to tread carefully. As the Australian coal industry has found out to its embarrassment, campaign slogans like “Save our coal” don’t have quite the same ring as, say, “save the reef”. And, as the Guardian and others have pointed out, is open to ridicule.