Too late to turn back dial on energy transition, Penny Sharpe says

Federal energy minister Chris Bowen, NSW energy minister Penny Sharpe, and NSW Parliament’s rooftop solar array.

The New South Wales energy minister Penny Sharpe, currently locked in negotiations over the possible extension to the closure date of the country’s biggest coal generator, says it is “too late” to turn back the dial on the energy transition.

Sharpe, speaking at the opening of the EEC National Conference in Sydney on Wednesday, was asked about the some of the consumer energy initiatives, electrification, and the state of the overall shift to green energy.

“If you read the paper every day, which I do, and if you listened to a lot of the commentary, which I do, it’s focused on how this is not going to work, that we shouldn’t be doing it, and we should be turning back the dial,” Sharpe said.

“It’s too late for that. The transition is happening …. so how do we make it work for as many people as quickly as possible so that we can just get on with it and do it.”

Sharpe’s comments come amid a huge pushback by conservative interests and the fossil fuel lobby against the switch to renewables, and the lingering uncertainty about the future of Eraring, the 2.88 GW coal generator on the central coast that owner Origin Energy announced more than three years ago is scheduled to close in August next year.

The state government initiated discussions with Origin over the closure date in 2023 after receiving a state grid “health check”, and speculation ranges from no extension, a partial extension for a couple of its 720 MW units for two years, or a full extension for four of five years, potentially at great cost to taxpayers.

The negotiations come as renewable energy developers and storage companies race to complete projects to fill the Eraring gap, and as the federal Coalition argues that all large scale renewable and transmission projects be stopped and coal fired power stations kept open to wait for nuclear technology.

The focus is also switching to consumers, and their role in the energy transition, and the opportunities that are afforded them through access to new technologies such as solar PV, battery storage, smart controls and electric vehicles, and how to ensure that lower income households are not excluded from the benefits.

As the state looks to a grid without coal – NSW currently has the biggest coal fleet in the country, but all are expected to retire within the next decade – there is also a renewed focus on consumption rather than production, including peak demand reduction and energy savings schemes.

“We need to get to all the techie stuff right. I’m terrible about all the technical detail, but it’s so essential. We can make this go much faster actually if we get the technical stuff right,” Sharpe said.

“But the good news … is that the federal government and the state energy ministers generally have elevated that issue as well. The pace was too slow, but I think they have really tried to put a put a lot of pressure on and work on that.

“I just hope that the consumer strategy is something that actually people can understand, that they can feel as though that there’s actually some opportunities for them to lower their cost of living, improve the way in which their households exist in a changing climate.

“Because the other thing I think at the end of this is – support for the transition politically is a fragile thing.

“And we must all of us do that work because it is absolutely essential for the future of our communities and future prosperity in a way in which our economy works, as well as the planet and the ecosystems that live within it.”

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