Software billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes has a happy knack of being able to “cut through”, which probably explains at least in part why he’s a billionaire and you and I are not.
When Elon Musk idly boasted in the wake of South Australia’s system black that he could fix South Australia’s energy problems in 100 days, Cannon-Brookes quickly hopped on to his Twitter account and challenged him to deliver.
And Musk did. His company built what has been casually called the Tesla big battery at Hornsdale in less than 100 days, and the battery has changed the thinking about the grid, repeatedly demonstrating its ability to keep the lights on, even when transmission lines are falling down around it.
When prime minister Scott Morrison – having ridiculed the Tesla battery, electric vehicles and other modern technologies – happened to trip across the phrase “fair dinkum power”, Cannon Brookes jumped on the case, launching a social media campaign to turn the idea on its head.
Cannon-Brookes quickly debunked the idea of “baseload”, as so many energy experts and market operators already had, and made it clear that if Australia was going to be fair dinkum about energy, it needed cheap, clean and reliable power, and fossil fuels were not the answer. See renewables and storage.
Now Morrison is trying to market his way out of his climate and energy policy failure with a “technology” roadmap, the argument being that the technologies needed to cut emissions are not at hand, and Australia will need billions of investment to find them.
And once again Cannon-Brookes is on hand to say that’s not being fair dinkum. “The technologies are here,” Cannon-Brookes said as he announced a $12 million plan to fund solar and battery off-grid system to provide clean and reliable power to communities hit by bushfires and other disasters
When Cannon-Brookes delivered the first two of what could be 100 off-grid solar and storage systems – using rapid solar deployed by Australia’s 5B, and Tesla batteries – one of things that struck him most was the reaction of the people he was helping out.
They were delighted, of course, but also asking questions about whether the power would work at night, after the sun went down. And they were stunned to learn that it could, because they thought that such technologies were a decade away.
And that paints a telling picture, because the story of renewables is not well understood. The lack of information is as widespread in the general community as it is amongst our government leaders. And it’s probably no surprise. Much of mainstream media – the Murdoch papers, Sky News and talk back radio speak mostly nonsense when it comes to renewables.
That has blinded the reality from readers and governments alike, although for Morrison and the rest of the Coalition government, there should be no excuse, were it not for the fact that they also rely on the legions of fossil fuel lobbyists they have hired to advise them.
Since the bushfires, Morrison has been exposed as someone who is tone deaf, doesn’t like to admit mistakes, and doesn’t like to listen to experts.
“Currently no one can tell me that going down that path won’t cost jobs, won’t put up your electricity prices, and won’t impact negatively on jobs in the economies of rural and regional Australia,” he said this week when trying to back pedal away from a long-term zero emissions target by 2050.
He’s kidding us, isn’t he? People can tell Morrison that, and they have. The government’s own scientific research organization, the CSIRO is a prime example, and it was only a few months ago, just before the bushfires erupted.
In a landmark report last year titled the Australian National Outlook, the CSIRO – in conjunction with the NAB and former Treasury head Ken Henry – said 100 per cent renewables could be reached by 2050 and deliver a substantially lower cost of energy than we have now, and the whole economy could reach net zero emissions by 2050 and deliver a stronger economy and more jobs at the same time.
And the country’s Australian Energy Market Operator, whose prime responsibility is to manage the electricity grid and keep the lights on, has mapped out a blueprint to reach at least 90 per cent renewables in two decades.
Again, this is the cheapest option, as the combined research of the CSIRO and AEMO, with the input of dozens of energy experts and research groups, shows clearly that decarbonising through renewables is the quickest and cheapest path to cutting emissions.
The Morrison government wouldn’t even have to try too hard, because all the states have set their own zero emission targets for 2050, so a federal target would not be pushing for anything that state Liberal and Labor governments haven’t already signed up for.
But the benefits and efficiencies of having a federal target would be significant. The only thing that is getting in the way of a zero emissions target is a government refusing to acknowledge it is possible. And that’s because it doesn’t set a plan that federal regulators and rule-makes can follow, and which can provide a signal to business and investors.
The sad reality is, however, that it is almost impossible to name a single member of the government who accepts the advice of the experts and recognises that going 100 per cent renewables, or as near as dammit, is possible or even desirable. Either they are pushing the myth of “clean coal” and carbon capture and storage, or have hopped onto the nuclear bandwagon being pushed by the coal lobby.
That’s the big fear of the Coalition’s technology roadmap. More than $500 million has already been spent on CCS without saving a single tonne of emissions, or with any credible plan to do so, and another $500 million is going to a hydrogen pilot to sequester just three, yes, just three, tonnes of emissions from a brown coal generator. When will this madness stop?
“The technology we need to get to net zero we have today,” Cannon-Brookes says. And while solar and batteries for fire-ravaged communities like Cobargo can be rolled out in a single day, and provide power for another 20 years if needed, the challenge for a system wide change is more complex.
“How we roll it out and get it into the system is different than ‘do we need to invent new things’,” Cannon-Brookes says. That, of course, means enabling technologies, a blueprint like that prepared by AEMO, and regulatory and market reform.
Morrison doesn’t even mention these, and Cannon-Brookes, like most others, is worried about what the Coalition’s proposed “technology roadmap” will seek to promote.
“My fear that it will be carbon capture and storage, and gas and other fossil fuels,” he told ABC Radio. “If it renewable hydrogen, if it’s pumped hydro, if it’s other things that we can roll out at large scale, absolutely, if it’s ways to get storage solutions, if it’s high voltage DC lines for example, to provide distribution of energy across the continent …. these are the technologies we should be investing in for sure.
“We have to have a target. A technology investment roadmap doesn’t remove need for a net zero target. You have to have target and then have a series of solutions.”
It all seems so obvious, unless of course you are not really trying to find a solution at all.