Taylor a no-show at clean energy summit as Labor piles on pressure

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He might be a no-show at the Clean Energy Summit, but at least Australia’s minister for emissions reduction is getting a grilling in Parliament.

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Credit: AAP/Dan Himbrechts
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This week, Australia’s renewable energy sector will converge in Sydney for the annual Australian Clean Energy Summit, hosted by the Clean Energy Council, although the person many are the most keen to hear from, federal energy minister Angus Taylor, won’t be in attendance.

The absence is due to the sitting of Parliament in Canberra, where Taylor has also been the centre of attention, receiving a flurry of questions from the Labor opposition, who have pursued Taylor in relation to claims made regarding illegal clearing of grasslands at a family property.

This line of question continued during question time today, and one might speculate about which audience, the Clean Energy Summit, or parliamentary Question Time, is going to offer the friendlier audience for Taylor.

Taylor narrowly avoided having the matter referred for investigation by a senate committee, with the senate voting down a motion 33-32, with the Government having mustered the support of One Nation senators to block the referral.

Such appearances during a sitting week aren’t unmanageable, and the Labor opposition is unlikely to begrudge the attendance of Taylor at the Clean Energy Summit, where energy ministers and shadow ministers alike have made an effort to attend in past years.

To his credit in 2016, less than two weeks after being sworn in has the energy minister, Josh Frydenberg even fronted the Clean Energy Summit and a grilling from Annabel Crabb, to sooth an industry anxious after the re-election of the Turnbull Government, that the destructive Abbott era had indeed ended.

We have emerged at a similarly crucial moment for the energy sector in Australia. Currently, there is no clear policy direction from the Federal Government, other than a commitment to expand the Snowy scheme, the weaker half of the National Energy Guarantee, and a vague proposal to underwrite some new dispatchable generators.

The 12-month anniversary of Angus Taylor’s appointment as energy minister will arrive next month, but there is little to show, other than an abandonment of policy mechanisms developed by his predecessor, and a vague commitment to unwrite gas, coal and pumped-hydro projects that cannot otherwise secure finance.

There is no coherent policy to tackle emissions in the electricity sector, nor is there any sign that the Federal Government will introduce a policy to meaningfully steer the future development of the energy sector that is undergoing a transition to clean energy sources, and a shift away from the old, centralised model for electricity generation.

While the clean energy industry is in a healthier position than it has for many years, with the Clean Energy Regulator confirming that strong investment, and a deep pipeline of future projects, has driven the sector to record levels of construction and investment.

But this doesn’t absolve the federal government from communicating an effective platform for the future of the Australian energy sector.

Taylor, as minister for emissions reduction, was forced to reluctantly concede last week that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have been rising under his watch. The recent surge in investment in renewable electricity projects has seen electricity emissions fall, but this has been more than offset by increases in every other sector of the economy, which has been allowed to occur due to a lack of effective constraints on national emissions across the economy.

Australian emissions projections

It doesn’t look like electricity prices are going to fall anytime in the near future. The ASX tracks futures prices for wholesale electricity trading, with the Australian Power Index continuing rising steadily over the last 12-months. It’s an interesting point that the Prime Minister gave Angus Taylor the official title of Minister for Emissions Reduction, but the title of ‘minister for bringing electricity prices down’ has been abandoned.

Since 2017, wholesale electricity prices have regularly traded well above $80 per MWh, which has flowed through to households and businesses via higher electricity prices, and well above the average prices seen when the carbon price was in place.

ASX Energy futures july 2019
Rising prices for wholesale electricity futures. Source: ASX Energy

Electricity prices have surged and the reasons for this are relatively well understood; the retirement of large-scale coal generators, hesitant investment in renewables due to policy uncertainty, with the situation exacerbated by high gas prices and drought conditions putting pressure on hydro generation across NSW and VIC.

Analysis from the AEMC shows how all of these mechanisms have flowed on to retail electricity prices, with the carbon price looking like a mere blip compared to what has happened under the Coalition since 2013.

AEMC wholesale price dynamics

The clear result is that both greenhouse gas emissions and electricity prices have now surging to new highs under the Coalition, and the last six years of policy chaos have seen households and businesses bearing the cost of poor system planning.

Taylor seems to be a reluctant participant of the COAG energy council; it has now been seven months since the last meeting of energy ministers. The energy council met every two months throughout 2018, but is yet to meet formally in 2019.

Energy Ministers, industry participants and the wider community are keen to hear some form of leadership from Angus Taylor, and its time he leans into to his role and communicates with the key stakeholders within his ministerial portfolio.

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