It is now one year since Scott Morrison became prime minister of Australia, and this photo above is as relevant as it was then: The divide over the country’s energy future is as deep and depressing as it ever was, and there are no signs of a healing.
The past week has only confirmed what we already knew about this government. The hatred of the “intermittents’ – wind and solar – is so intense that one Queensland LNP MP Keith Pitt wants his state to be cut off from the rest of the grid so the Sunshine State can burn more coal and gas.
It’s about a dumb an idea as you can get, but brain-farts from the Coalition backbench, and the echo-chamber in Murdoch media, have been more influential on Coalition climate and energy policy decisions than reasoned argument for the past six years.
Pitt and his mates, apart from insisting on more coal generators, have even forced the government into a pointless inquiry into nuclear, while the anti-wind energy minister Angus Taylor has launched his own little task-force – which he won’t identify – into how to keep the oldest and least reliable coal generator open for longer.
Morrison last week flew to the island of Tuvalu for the Pacific Island forum, where his team fought furiously against the desperate call for climate action and the phasing out of coal. The deputy PM said if climate change turned out to be a problem, the Pacific islanders could always come to Australia to pick fruit.
And, if at all possible, it got even worse. The Australian Energy Market Operator revealed the scenarios it would model for its 20-year planning blueprint for Australia’s main grid, and how to keep the lights on as the energy system transitions. It included one scenario that respected climate science and would offer a pathway to decarbonise the grid.
It is important to note here that this “step change” scenario was done at the urging of the energy industry itself. In the absence of any coherent federal policy, industry – the incumbents included – want to get some understanding of how the future will unfold and how to reach the target they all know they have to get to – zero emissions by the turn of the century.
It isn’t the only scenario that AEMO will model. There are four others where the transition is dramatically slowed, one where it remains business as usual with current policies, and two that imagine what happens if policies don’t change but technology does, and consumer choice drags the transition forward.
The silence was deafening – both from the government, and the mainstream media (apart from some curious stories about the absence of a carbon price from the modelling). There was no mention of consumer-led revolutions, fast technology change or the possibilities of a decarbonised grid.
Apparently it didn’t go down too well in Canberra. Taylor is said to have told AEMO he was not impressed, and disputed the numbers and the assumptions. The path to a clean energy transition, one that would sideline coal and nuclear, is not a message that Taylor, a leading anti-wind campaigner before he entered parliament, wants to hear.
And, if any further proof was needed, the reaction to the latest AEMO document, its annual Electricity Statement of Opportunities, underlined the divide between the Coalition and Taylor’s office and the rest of the industry.
The ESOO is a complex and frustrating document. It is a technical summary vital for short-term and medium planning, but it creates headlines by warning what might happen if AEMO chose not to deploy any of the assets that it has or will have at its disposal. The real story gets lost in the crazy headlines.
The message from AEMO was clear: supply is increasingly at risk from ageing coal and gas generators, the growing “tail risk” of catastrophic events caused by extreme heat in Australia’s changing climate, and the lack of long-term policy and tools at its disposal.
AEMO understands full well the implications and the fallout from such an event. It also understand technology costs and trends, and the weakness and strength of legacy assets. It wants more power to deal with the growing variability, in output, demand and climate.
The response was near unanimous. Almost everyone pointed to the need for more investment in new generation and in transmission, and for the long-term plan that AEMO is trying to put into place with its ISP. Mostly though, they want the federal government to park its ideology and start talking seriously with the states.
Since Taylor became energy minister, only one COAG energy ministers meeting has been convened, and that didn’t go well for him, so frustrated were even the Coalition states. Taylor hasn’t called another one since. COAG should really be meeting every few months, given the amount of work that is on their plate and the decisions that need to be made.
The middle of the road Australia Industry Group – like most others – vented its frustrations and pointed to the need for policy certainty and a plan, so that investment can be made to replace the ageing coal fleet.
But the Coalition doesn’t like to listen to experts. It disputes climate science, it disputes the cost advantages of wind and solar and storage. And it is not interested in the details and complexities of AEMO’s presentations.
Craig Kelly was on radio enhancing his reputation by telling people to get money out of their bank accounts and keep their car fuel tanks topped up, because they won’t be able to do that in the summer blackouts.
Taylor’s response was not much better. He also took to radio, to lambast Victoria’s “insane” push for 50 per cent renewables. Perhaps he didn’t read the part in AEMO where it said that more renewables, along with extra grid capacity, should ease that state’s supply problems in coming years.
In an interview on ABC Adelaide, Taylor played the usual Coalition anti-renewables tropes.
It’s all the fault of state-based renewables targets, he said. (Actually Victoria’s targets are for 2025 and 2030, right now it is struggling just to meet its share of the federal target, and South Australia’s grid is already more than 50% wind and solar and looking pretty solid, with the state Liberal government now aiming for “net 100%).
Taylor said Hazelwood closed down because it couldn’t cope with the rate of growth of “intermittent” (a phrase he used a lot) renewables. Actually, there wasn’t that much wind and solar in Victoria’s grid when Hazelwood closed down. It was just a clapped out piece of machinery that the owner was desperate to close, although it would have been better had they given more notice.
ABC Adelaide suggested that maybe the Coalition bore some responsibility, given that they have been in power for six years, and have actually been boasting of the record level of renewable investments from the federal renewable energy target.
Taylor insisted it was all the fault of the states. “Coal is crumbling because we are forcing intermittent renewables (into the system) too fast,” he claimed. Wind and solar should only be built at a “natural” pace, whatever that is.
Six years of the Coalition. One year of Morrison and Taylor. No climate policy, no energy policy, no EV policy, no energy efficiency policy. No respect for the science, no listening to the experts. No clue. No sign of change.
How good is that?