The federal energy minister Angus Taylor has made an extraordinary intervention into the Australian energy debate, seemingly mocking the Australian Energy Market Operator’s 20-year blueprint, known as the Integrated System Plan, and Labor’s $20 billion pledge to modernise the grid to support the ISP.
The intervention from Taylor, a prominent anti-wind campaigner and critic of the renewable energy target before he became minister in 2018, came in a Tweet published just hours after Labor’s plans were unveiled in leader Anthony Albanese’s budget reply speech.
“Your $20 billion black hole will turn the lights off and drive up prices,” Taylor wrote. “No reliable generation – transmission lines to nowhere.”
It’s the sort of language that hadn’t been seen by a minister since the Tony Abbott era. The fact that Taylor is not a great fan of AEMO’s ISP – its 20-year blueprint to manage the transition from coal to renewables – is not new. He has barely mentioned it. This is the first time, however, that Taylor has shown such hostility towards what AEMO’s has described as the “world’s fastest energy transition.”
For the record, AEMO’s plan includes proposed new transmission links between South Australia and NSW, NSW and Victoria, and Tasmania to Victoria, and upgrades elsewhere.
It has been warmly embraced by the entire energy industry, and all state governments, and new lines will also be required for the Coalition’s pet projects, the $10 billion Snowy 2.0 scheme and Tasmania’s “battery of the Nation”. Taylor has even announced more than $200 million to help prepare feasibility studies for the projects, particularly the ones linking the pumped hydro schemes to the rest of the grid.
Far from causing the lights to go out, AEMO says the ISP is essential to ensure that they stay on, given the deteriorating state of the country’s ageing coal and gas fleet.
Indeed, the ISP is the first time any energy institution responsible for the grid has bothered to prepare a long term plan. AEMO has made it clear that these upgrades are essential to modernise the grid, and improve reliability and security, with the happy bonus that it will cut emissions and keep down prices. The alternative is more fossil fuel generation, which the federal government is keen on, given their “gas transition” plan strategy.
Ironically, Taylor’s comments about “lines to nowhere” came less than 24 hours after he issued a 600 word media release promoting the fact that the federal government had allocated $5.2 million to help develop a new transmission line between Townsville and Mt Isa.
On Thursday, Albanese said the $20 billion “Rewiring the Nation” program would help rebuild the main electricity grid to deliver the outcomes modelled by the ISP.
“We can be a renewable energy superpower,” Albanese said. “Australia’s electricity network was designed for a different century, and transmission systems themselves are operated by monopoly providers who keep taking households and businesses for a ride.
“Australians don’t just pay for their power, but for the cost of building and operating the grid and then a hefty price on top.”
Labor’s plan is to create a Rewiring the Nation Corporation (RNC) and keep it in public hands as a government-owned entity and partner with industry and provide low cost finance to deliver the ISP.
It says this will ensure the grid is rebuilt at the best price possible, and help grow traditional industries like steel and aluminium and allow growth in new sectors like hydrogen and battery production.
“The Liberals have had 22 energy policies in the last eight years and all they have to show for it are higher electricity prices and higher emissions. Australia can do so much better,” Labor said.
Shadow minister for climate change and energy Mark Butler said there is a race for renewable energy jobs and investment around the world and Australia should be leading that race.
“As more renewable energy gets built, we need the transmission network to support it. That’s why Rewiring the Nation is a no brainer. It ensures Australia’s modern energy grid will be built by Australian workers using Australian steel at the lowest possible cost.”
Butler said he was horrified by Taylor’s remarks, given that the ISP had been recommended by the Finkel Review and endorsed by all governments at the Coag Energy Council which he chairs.
“Angus Taylor couldn’t wait 12 hours to reject the transmission plan endorsed by his own Government,” Butler noted..
The Labor plan was welcomed by the Clean Energy Council, which said it called for such a fund in its pre-Budget submission.
“Australia’s transmission network has not kept pace with the transition to a 21st-century energy system, and the lack of transmission investment is now one of the most critical challenges facing the industry,” the CEC said.
“This underinvestment is stifling new generation investment, constraining existing generation and resulting in increased energy security and reliability risks and higher power prices.
“The challenge remains as to how to deliver these projects as quickly as possible. While network service providers and private investors have demonstrated a strong willingness to own and operate new transmission infrastructure, the regulatory regime is not fit-for-purpose in providing certainty for them to make the necessary financial investments in these long-lived assets promptly.”
The Australia Institute also described Rewiring the Nation Corp as a sensible solution to funding Australia’s transmission network.
“The slow delivery of new transmission lines is a handbrake on lowering emissions in our highest polluting sector,” climate specialist Richie Merzian said in a statement.
“Rewiring the Nation Corporation builds on the successful model of public energy bodies such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), which in their first five years catalysed over $23 billion in clean energy investment.
“The energy grid is in dire need of an independent implementation agency, to take the politics out of building a modern grid, while helping to lower electricity costs and helping to create more energy jobs.”