Can we stop pretending that the National Energy Guarantee somehow, miraculously, ends the deep political divide between the mainstream political parties over climate and energy policy?
The Liberal National Party in Queensland – one of the key battlegrounds in the next federal election – has effectively turned its back on renewable energy technologies and emissions reductions, and called for new coal fired power stations to be built in the state.
The call for more coal-fired power stations, and government ownership of the railway line to the Adani coal project were largely symbolic, as were their resolutions to “protect Christmas” and save the “Lord’s Prayer”, but they underline exactly where this federal government is at, as well as its state offshoots.
“We are very pro-coal in the LNP. Of course we are,” Michael McCormack, the federal leader of the Nationals said when addressing the conference over the weekend.
In calling for new coal-fired power stations, the LNP – which is Queensland acts as the one party rather than a Coalition of Nationals and Liberals – is effectively turning its back on the significant and world-leading renewable and storage projects that are already under development.
In and around Townsville and Cairns, the state is host to a series of projects such as the newly connected Lakeland solar and battery storage installation – the first in Australia to combine the two on the main grid – the Kennedy Energy Hub, combining wind, solar and storage in a world first, that could grow 20-fold in size to a 1200MW “baseload renewables” plant, and the world-first combination of large-scale solar 270MW) and pumped hydro (250MW)at Kidston, which may also have 150MW wind attached to it.
Any of these two huge projects – or even the new hub proposed by Neon, would remove the need to have a new HELE coal plant built in North Queensland. (See our story: The changing shape of wind and solar on Australia’s grid).
Even the region’s biggest energy user – the Sun Metals zinc refinery – has opened a 124MW solar plant to provide one-third of its needs and provide the cheap power and cost certainty needed to go ahead with a $300 million upgrade.
But still the LNP charges headlong into the past – even after dumping from its Senate ticket two of its most conservative and reactionary members – Ian “Australia was once covered in ice – of course the climate changes” MacDonald, and Barry “I will die in a ditch beside the road” before accepting emission standards for cars’ O’Sullivan.
One of the lines being pushed by the federal Coalition government, and surprisingly embraced by nearly all of mainstream media, is that the NEG, with its obligations for both emissions and reliability, will end the climate and energy wars between it and Labor.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The NEG’s emissions and reliability obligations would never be enacted under a Coalition government, because its emissions target is so weak and will likely be met soon after 2021, and because there is no reliability problem.
In calling for coal, the LNP – and the federal Nationals for that matter (who actually want the government to fund three new coal-fired generators) – are thumbing their nose at any increase in emissions, and shooting themselves in the foot if they are serious about meeting the targets already committed to.
Going soft on electricity means a greater burden on other industries, specifically those that should matter most to the LNP and Nationals – transport and agriculture among them.
Yet, renewables present the greatest economic opportunity for regional Australia – not just in generation but also in reviving the manufacturing industry.
And while the Nationals and LNP rail against renewable subsidies – wrongly assuming that the Australian is right in claiming the cost to be $4 billion a year (it is a fraction of that) – they blithely ignore the massive cross-subsidy that provides power to regional Australia.
In Queensland and Western Australia, this subsidy has amounted to $600 million a year in each state, and is one reason why the coffers are near exhausted (in Perth, where all electricity is subsidised), or costs are so high in Queensland and other states.
Simply put, if the cost of delivering power was to be paid by the consumer, the last thing they would choose to do is string wires across thousands of kilometres to connect to coal fired generators to source all their needs.
They would focus instead of renewables-based micro-grids, and that reality is now being accepted by network owners and market operators – if not the owners of the big power plants – as the model for the future grid.
The LNP, with their push for more centralised coal, simply want to ignore the climate, ignore the economics and the engineering of renewable power, and double down on regional cross-subsidies with yet more.
The NEG, should the Coalition remain in government, will be nothing more than an empty frame at best, and a significant hand brake to new technologies at worst.
What really matters is the emissions target, and these two parties are as far apart now as they were a decade ago. The Coalition wants to limit the electricity sector to a 26 per cent target, and wants that locked in so it cannot be change before 2030.
The Labor wants emissions to be cut by 45 per cent, and it is fair to say that the bulk will come from electricity, which makes sense because with the plunging cost of wind and solar, the possibilities from storage, demand management and energy efficiency, this is where the cheapest abatement can be found.
But the conservatives are simply not interested. As the Queensland conference highlights, those within the conservatives movement who want be serious about climate change, and who recognise the benefits of renewables – and such people do exist – are simply being drowned out.