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Abbott spruiking coal is a win for renewables



Quick reader poll. When I say 'Tony Abbott', what words spring to mind? Future-focused? Tech-savvy? Visionary?

Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews at Hazelwood plantI'm guessing the answer is nope, nope and nope. After all, Abbott is a social conservative whose signature achievement as Prime Minister was repealing legislation from the previous government. He was ridiculed for his outdated views on women and his attempts to reinstate a system of Knights and Dames. Part of Turnbull's pitch to replace him was a shift towards 'innovation'.

The other justification, as the media reminded us ad nauseam this week, was Abbott's 30 consecutive losing Newspolls. When Turnbull passed that same milestone on Monday, Abbott was cycling through Victoria's Latrobe Valley to draw attention to his latest crusade — a government-funded coal-fired power station.

A lot of people got annoyed with ol' Tony, saying he was undermining Turnbull's leadership or distracting from real solutions to fix out national electricity market and curb greenhouse gas pollution. Not me. I'm concerned about climate change and want to see Australia transition to more renewable energy, so I was cheering him on. Go Tony!

Why? Because every time he fronts up to the cameras as self-appointed Ambassador for the Little Black Rock, Tony Abbott reinforces the message that coal power is the technology of a bygone era.

The Coalition's political old guard don't get this because their thinking hasn't changed since Abbott's 'carbon tax' sloganeering of 2012 and 2013. His chief of staff, Peta Credlin, later explained the strategy on Sky News: 'We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment.'

Indeed, that's how the issue was framed for decades: reducing prices vs cutting pollution. The trouble is it's no longer true, and the energy industry doesn't support it. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the coverage of the Australian Financial Review, which once ridiculed renewables but now runs articles about how they're the cheapest investment for new electricity supply.


"The lobby group representing coal power stations is now saying that renewables are the cheapest form of new power supply. And the country's biggest financial newspaper is publishing it. Can you imagine that happening five years ago?"


On Wednesday the AFR published an opinion piece by Matthew Warren, CEO of the Australian Energy Council, which represents big coal and gas generators. Warren argued that 'new coal is now more expensive per megawatt hour than new wind and new solar', flatly contradicting Abbott's claims. Banks won't finance high emissions coal power, he wrote, and wholesale prices will soon come down due to 'a wave of more than 4000MW of new renewable generation entering the market over the next two years'.

Let me reiterate: the lobby group representing coal power stations is now saying that renewables are the cheapest form of new power supply. And the country's biggest financial newspaper is publishing it. Can you imagine that happening five years ago?

The public doesn't believe coal equals cheaper prices either. In a 2015 Essential Media poll, more people thought renewables would be better for electricity costs, jobs and the economy. Essential did the same poll in September 2017, with similar results (although there was a slight decline for renewables being better for electricity costs).

Whenever you pit the two against each other, renewables come out on top. A July 2017 Essential poll found 64 per cent of respondents would prefer investment in renewable energy sources to meet future energy supply needs, and only 18 per cent would prefer new coal-fired power plants. A September 2017 ReachTEL poll found even people in coal industry electorates like Hunter, where Liddell power station is located, overwhelmingly prefer government investment in renewable energy than coal.

Such findings are remarkably consistent over time, across electorates and between different polling companies. They're also backed by independent polls — the Lowy Institute found an overwhelming majority of Australian adults (81 per cent) want the government to 'focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable'.

Why are renewables so popular? I'd like to say greater support for action on climate change, but I suspect that's not it. As mentioned before, I think it's because wind and solar represent technological progress, and people in rich, industralised countries like ours believe new technology will lead to ever-higher material standards of living.

From copper landlines to smartphones, horse-drawn carriages to motorcars, and typewriters to laptops, we've all seen how last century's technology has given way to the next big invention. Renewable energy is simply the electricity sector's turn for disruption. Most people think this is inevitable and, like previous innovations, will ultimately increase prosperity.

This is the new frame for the debate — not prices vs pollution, but past vs future. We saw it rise to prominence last week. After Abbott and a few other Coalition backbenchers announced a 'Monash Forum' to lobby the government for coal power, descendents of Sir John Monash rebuked them for misappropriating the family name.

Sir Monash was 'intellectual and scientific', they wrote. 'We are sure that, today, he would be a proponent of the new technologies e.g. wind and solar generation, rather than revert to the horse-and-buggy era.'

See the analogy? Old vs new. This is the looming PR battle for coal, and it's the reason the Minerals Council's recent ad campaign has the tagline 'making the future possible'.

But if the pitch is future relevance, Abbott is the worst spokesperson possible, especially when he's flanked by other political dinosaurs like Howard-era ministers Kevin Andrews and Eric Abetz. You can't look at these blokes and think 'modern' or 'innovative'. On top of that, the media interprets all of Abbott's interventions as a personal vendetta against Turnbull, distracting from his message.

Polling released this week suggests the Coalition campaign of 'fear, uncertainty and doubt' about renewable energy is finally cutting through. Most people still support government prioritising renewables over coal, but coal has crept up over the last three years. This coincides with Turnbull's 'technology neutral' pitch, which sounds more reasonable and pragmatic than Abbott's past belligerence.

All of this is why every time Abbott stands outside a coal power station and smiles his goofy grin, I just laugh and shake my head. Silly bugger. He can't resist throwing punches, but doesn't realise he's knocking the wind out of his own cause.



Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Main image: Tony Abbott (with Kevin Andrews) speaks about coal power at Hazelwood.

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, Tony Abbott, Kevin Andrews, Hazelwood, coal, renewable energy, climate change



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Existing comments

There is no doubt that eliminating coal mining and burning will help the environment. It will also eliminate many livelihoods in producing countries and power scarcity in the third world. The gaps we provide in the market by eliminating coal in Australia will be filled immediately by others seeking increased and profitable markets. However, it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that the energy producing companies of the future in this country will provide the consumer with cheaper power. Their entire dedication is to increasing profits for themselves and their shareholders. Tony Abbott, in reply to your opening questions, Greg, reminds me of that famous English, disruptive dissident, Richard Head.

john frawley | 13 April 2018  

The economic argument against coal is clear, but there are also many health benefits of an exit strategy. Tony doesn’t understand this, seemingly thinking that it’s up to individuals to cycle like him to stay healthy. But by cycling around spruiking coal, he fails to recognise the damaging public health-impacts of coal to both the mine workers and community in the surrounding area. For example Muswellbrook - near both Liddell and Bayswater mines - has the worst air quality in NSW, and emissions of particulate pollution, ( responsible for hundreds of premature deaths in Australia each year) is extremely high in the area, linked to high rates of acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma, cardiovascular events, bowel and lung cancer amongst other things. But of course Tony lives in Forestville, not Muswellbrook, so will continue to be sheltered from the direct impacts of both old mines, and new developments like Adani should they proceed.

Rose | 16 April 2018  

Tony Abbott is a 'fossil' backing a fossil industry. The reality is that those of us who can afford to, are switching to renewable energy for our children's sake. IE; Solar panels and when they become cheaper batteries. John, from what I am reading that Indian company who wants tax payer money to dig up central Queensland are backing a dead horse-indeed while in southeast Asia last year, it soon became apparent to me that ordinary people are using LED lights in their home and in street lighting and even solar panels are appearing on rooftops so the message is getting through even there!

Gavin | 16 April 2018  

Greg, you are a great enthusiast for your cause, and well done on that. But your starting premise is wrong: nothing Austria does can change climate destiny as we just don`t contribute enough green-house gas in the first place. Even if we managed to cut our CO2 emissions to nil, it would contribute NOTHING to climate! You really have to understand this futility, and all national policy really should start from there. That is not to say that we should not be a part of international agreements, but our involvement is almost purely symbolic...to hopefully encourage the big players. Even going as far as a 25% renewables contribution to our energy mix is very expensive (and Greg it will continue to be) both to the tax-payer (billions in subsidies each year) and to the customer and of course for jobs , and without background base-load hydrocarbons, this is going to be highly unreliable for the foreseeable future. The market should decide what base-load energy source makes most sense and gas or nuclear would seem top of the list. But of course this discourse is so disfigured by ideology as for much of Australian politics and planning, that common sense goes out the door. Please, focus on the common-good and think about how the poor are going to cope with our needlessly dystopic future.

Eugene | 16 April 2018  

There is another factor at work here I suspect, in keeping coal front of mind for the public, and that is the Adani mine. Contrary to John Frawley, it seems to me that there are new technologies coming on stream in the less-developed countries that will leapfrog dirty power sources, but they tend to work at the local, small scale level - so not profiting the big players like Adani. We should be supporting village solar generation, for example.

Maxine Barry | 16 April 2018  

It is very close to the point where it is cheaper for a home-owner to install batteries to capture their excess solar energy rather than exporting it. However, it needs careful consideration of the load to be serviced to select the right PV system and battery sizes.

Peter Horan | 16 April 2018  

It is worth drawing people's attention to a book I have just read and have been most impressed with. Using facts to call out Tony Abbott (et al.) fails, as we well know, because he is not listening. The book is called "I'm right and you're an idiot" by James Hoggan, sub-titled "The toxic State of Public Discourse and how to clean it up" ISBN 978-0-86571-817-3 (p'back) 978-1-55092-612-5 (ebook). It starts from a question by David Suzuki to the author "why aren't people paying attention, marching in the streets as we destroy the planet?" Hoggan is a public affairs consultant, and the comment provoked a ten year mission to explore why public discourse was so corrupted by so many people including our politicians. The book is a sequence of essays based on interviews with various people, including Karen Armstrong (St Paul documentary) and the Dalai Lama. I would also say the book describes a journey of conversion, both for the author and for myself. In my case, when a friend said "why don't they just get on and build the (coal-fired) power station?", I pulled myself up from instinctively trotting out the arguments, and wondered what my response should now be. "Smashing heads does not change minds", to quote a section heading. Hard work, but a good resource.

Peter Horan | 16 April 2018  

In reply to Eugene, look forward with hope to what may be possible, rather than backward in despair. We can do better than using coal and oil for energy and it is time to make the switch. It is not about our feather weight we can bring to bear on the problems the world faces. It is about working out how to do this successfully. Yes we will make mistakes, but doing nothing is guaranteed not to work and Australia will remain a client of those who faced the future. China is has set a target for peak coal usage in 12 years, and some commentators expect the peak sooner.

Peter Horan | 16 April 2018  

The idea that 'energy companies' will still hold sway with distribution networks in 20-50 years is highly questionable. Given the uptake of PV panels across the country, and the likely halving of battery prices in the next 4-5 years the decentralization of power distribution will inevitably result in neighbourhood networks or stand alone power producers/consumers as I intend to be after I loose my PFiT.

Warren Thomas | 16 April 2018  

Oh Peter and Warren, you would put this highly urbanised country and its people at great personal and economic risk by what is at this stage just wishful thinking. Our energy is now the most expensive in the world and in danger of becoming widely unreliable. And for nothing that is coherently positive.

Eugenew | 17 April 2018  

Eugene, what risks do you fear?

Peter Horan | 17 April 2018  

Thanks Peter; thanks for the question. Current energy policy trajectory: Expensive energy adding to poverty and inequity between the rich with their personal supplies and the rest; unreliable energy leading to brownouts/blackouts; widespread disinvestment and loss of jobs. But thank goodness for Josh Freydenberg and his NEG...some sense at last but even with current energy prices ordinary families are badly hit, and the only direction for these prices (and profits for the industry) is up.

Eugenew | 18 April 2018  

Current energy policy trajectory: I agree. Faulty policy allowed the energy suppliers to game the system. Faulty policy allowed the energy distributors to augment their systems unnecessarily but risk-free. We now pay over the odds for the gaming and over-investment. What worries me is that Governments tend to continue with faulty policy when the engineers at AGL want to do something different, which they say will replace their Liddell coal fired power station.

Peter Horan | 18 April 2018  

Greg, no disrespect but the direct fuel cell developed by qld university converts coal of any calorific to gas using 82 PC of the coal without the need for combustion. The DFC is scale able to any size. Australia has coal to fuel the world for anther 2000 years.

Francis Armstrong | 21 April 2018  

In response to Francis: Thank you for that information about the direct carbon fuel cell. While all means should be explored and used to reduce emissions of CO2, and a direct carbon fuel cell with a high efficiency goes in the right direction, it still emits CO2, which still needs to be sequestered. We need to remember that the free CO2 in the atmosphere is like a mortgage. Reducing CO2 emissions is like lowering the interest rate, but if we do not capture more CO2 than we emit, we are not reducing the capital of the mortgage.

Peter Horan | 23 April 2018  

AGL want to shut Liddel as they will make more profit from heavily subsidised renewables. I want the cheapest form of power for our country.

Adrian Harris | 23 April 2018