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Ideology and idiocy in national energy policy



The Australian Greens have called for the establishment of a government-owned energy retailer, Power Australia, in order to bring down energy prices and drive emissions reduction 'by providing a guaranteed buyer for clean energy' to 'contract the next wave of renewable energy projects'.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on September 13, 2018 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)Of course, you'd expect such a call from the Greens, but calls for investor certainty in the clean energy market have also been coming from industry, as the government struggles to develop a coherent, bipartisan energy policy (as has just happened in New Zealand).

In the wake of the recent ousting of Malcolm Turnbull over the emissions reduction components of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG), new Prime Minister Scott Morrison decided to decouple carbon emissions from government energy policy.

This has been roundly criticised by industry groups, with the Australian Energy Council, representing 21 major energy companies, stating that it 'means a continuation of the price instability and investment uncertainty we have been dealing with in this market for more than a decade'.

As Turnbull pointed out in the lead up to his resignation, 'ideology and idiocy' have been playing a significant role in national debates around energy policy in Australia for too long. A classic example of how this has muddied the waters around renewable energy can be found in the South Australian blackout of 2016.

In late September 2016, most of South Australia temporarily lost power after an extreme weather event (including two tornadoes in the north of the state) damaged critical energy infrastructure. Even as the crisis was unfolding, coalition politicians, including then-Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, attempted to blame the blackout on South Australia's commitment to renewable energy, despite having no evidence to support their claims.

Not only did the South Australian blackout have nothing to do with renewable energy, but recent events indicate that renewable energy is, in fact, highly resilient in the face of extreme weather events. In late August, lightning strikes across Australia created a 'power system emergency' that led to widespread power outages across New South Wales and Victoria.


"With Morrison's appointment of Angus Taylor — a renowned critic of renewable energy — as Australia's new Energy Minister, it's hard to see ideology being taken out of the equation any time soon."


In contrast, Queensland and South Australia's power was barely disrupted, reportedly due to their access to sufficient renewable energy supplies. In South Australia's case, this resilience was thanks to the Hornsdale Power Reserve, also known as the 'Tesla Big Battery' — a state government investment that was heavily mocked by our current Prime Minister who likened it to the Big Banana.

There is also evidence from the United States that renewable energy installations are showing themselves to be resilient in the face of extreme weather events. In the wake of Hurricane Florence, solar-power installations in the Carolinas escaped largely without harm and were able to begin producing power soon after the storm passed. This was consistent with the performance of renewables in other areas of the US, with both solar and wind power suffering little damage from storm events.

Beyond resilience, there is also the fact that renewables are not exacerbating these extreme weather events in the first place, unlike their fossil fuel competitors. Just the other week, scientists were able to estimate, for the first time, the contribution of climate change to the damage caused by a storm before it had even hit.

In the lead up to Hurricane Florence, a group of scientists 'estimated that forecasted rain totals [would be] more than 50 per cent higher than they might have been if humans hadn't warmed up the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels'.

In light of this mounting evidence, a national energy policy that prioritises renewables should be uncontroversial. But ideology is, apparently, impermeable to evidence. Instead, we have the incredible situation of the government continuing to try to pressure AGL into keeping the Liddell coal-fired power plant open despite both clear-cut economic and environmental reasons for its closure.

With Morrison's appointment of Angus Taylor — a renowned critic of renewable energy — as Australia's new Energy Minister, it's hard to see ideology being taken out of the equation any time soon.

As a result, it looks as though Australia will continue to rely on heavily polluting energy sources and ageing infrastructure as the lack of certainty forces companies to shy away from investing in new energy infrastructure. This gives us little chance of meeting our international emissions reduction commitments.

Most significantly for a government heading into an election period, this ideological approach also seems to guarantee that consumers will receive no relief from high energy bills.



Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a lecturer at the Southern Cross University School of Law and Justice. Her research focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.



Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on September 13, 2018 in Canberra, Australia. (Photo by Stefan Postles/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, renewable energy, solar power, coal, Scott Morrison



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Existing comments

I have witnessed climate change progressively over the last 40 years. A new medical technology for the treatment of varicose veins, originating in Ireland and England, replaced in-hospital operative treatment with an in-office procedure requiring 3-6 weeks continuous bandaging of the legs without removal. While this was practical in Europe, it was not practical in the Australian summer months when the bandaging led to painful and intolerable heat blistering and leg swelling. Because of the summer heat, in NSW in 1976, the treatment began in late March and terminated in early September. By 2006, we had delayed the start of the treatment season to mid May and the end to late November. The seasons, defined by ambient temperature (or patient comfort), had progressively shifted downhill in the calendar year by 2 months. I am decidedly not a climate sceptic and do not have command of the science involved! However, we need to accept climate change and move away from pollutant waste-producing energy production to renewable energy production. However, for it to work with smooth transition there should be an interim transition period in which the renewables are prioritised in bringing them on-line in unison with progressive removal of coal burning energy production. Neither the introduction of the new nor removal of the old can be accomplished in one big hit without disadvantaging a lot of people and industry for an indeterminate time. Phase-in, parallel with phase-out, would seem to be the priority. Politicians unfortunately don't seem to be able to see beyond the next election and can't accept both concurrently until the renewables are advanced to the point where the alternate power producing systems can be replaced without effect on people's lives and business. We have to have the all-or-none, blindly taking sides, barnyard brawl which seems to be what our politicians believe their job to be. A pollution on all their houses!!!

john frawley | 27 September 2018  

Thanks Cristy. I suggest readers go to the Climate Council and read the Reports, such as the 2018 Report on Climate Change and Drought, which states, "Climate change is likely making drought conditions in southwest and southeast Australia worse. › Climate change has contributed to a southward shift in weather systems that typically bring cool season rainfall to southern Australia. Since the 1970s late autumn and early winter rainfall has decreased by 15 percent in southeast Australia, and Western Australia’s southwest region has experienced a 15 percent decline in cool season rainfall. › Climate change is also driving an increase in the intensity and frequency of hot days and heatwaves in Australia, exacerbating drought conditions. › Queensland and New South Wales are currently in the grip of severe drought, with drought declared for 16.4 percent of New South Wales and 57.6 percent of Queensland. › Current drought conditions come after a 2016/2017 summer characterised by recordbreaking temperatures, followed by a record dry winter. Rainfall over southern Australia during autumn 2018 was the second lowest on record. › Time spent in drought is projected to increase in the future across southern Australia. Future drying trends in Australia will be most pronounced over southwest Western Australia, with total reductions in autumn and winter precipitation potentially as high as 50 percent by the late 21st century."

Grant Allen | 27 September 2018  

I have been doing research into changes in climate since I became aware of the issue in 1983. My own climate records go back to 1983 at my present location. They show a marked decrease trend wise in rainfall. rising temperatures again trend wise. I have analysed the data for the Canberra and Goulburn's sites. In Goulburn's case they go back to the early 1900's. The impact is obvious as Grant has written. My major concern is that we may be close to a tipping point which could render much of northern and central Australia uninhabitable due to extreme heat. Even Sydney and Melbourne will experience torrid summers if the experts are to be believed. I know the members of the Climate Council and I can assure readers that they are dedicated scientists with no axe to grind.

Gavin O'Brien | 01 October 2018  

Henry II signed off on clean air legislation, forbidding coal burning in England's great conurbations, in the 12th Century. By the 1950s, Big Coal was alive and well, killing 10,000 to 15,000 Londoners every winter, and giving us a new word: "smog". Now Morrison stands for Coal against the people, as Becket shielded the "Criminous Clerics". Oh Henry, where are you? Will no-one rid us of this turbulent beast?

james marchment | 01 October 2018  

The statement that fossil fuel burning is 'exacerbating' climate change is not a view held by expert scientists in the field such as meteorologists, William Kininmonth in Australia and Roy Spencer in USA, and Australian geologists, Nigel Radford, Robert Carter and Ian Plimer, who are specialists in paleo- climate. Moderate global warming (now called climate change) is largely driven by natural phenomena due to sun and oceans as it has been done over millennia. Carbon Dioxide is plant food. It is not pollution Let us keep burning plentiful fossil duels efficiently!

Gerard Tonks | 01 October 2018  

Gerard. Carbon dioxide is indeed gobbled up by plants. When, however, mankind continues to rid the planet of plants by land clearing for various business enterprises, carbon dioxide accumulates particularly if unnatural excessive amounts are generated in parallel by human activities. It is this accumulation that leads to warming and accompanying weather changes. When we continue to interfere with natural carbon dioxide removal we have to balance that against reducing overproduction by our lifestyle and corporate desires. A couple of cold burning power stations are probably not as damaging as car usage. Replacing all fossil fuel powered cars with electric cars might be a good place to start reducing our emissions in parallel with Bob Hawkes' plan of some years ago to star replacing the trees we have chopped down for various "developments" and rural "kingdoms".

john frawley | 02 October 2018  

If the Climate Change Scientists are to be dismissed or not believed-then lets focus on rising deforestation levels, in particular, and as John rightly points out this leads to rising carbon dioxide levels both man-made and naturally occuring, and if we all agree that carbon dioxide is plant food, rightly pointed out by Gerard, or to use John's words, "gobbled up by plants" then we may then deduce that rising deforestation is a development that is not in our interests. In my opinion, you don't have to be a climate change scientist to work out that rising deforestation then leads to rising carbon dioxide levels from less plants to "gobble up" the carbon dioxide. It may be of considerable concern then to us that the Amazonian rainforests, coined the "lungs of the world, and all forests are facing increased destruction through logging or farming, man-made activities , and if you don't think that saving the forests for our children and grandchildren's future is worthy of consideration, then you might just be persuaded to care for the forests and the planet, for your own self-motivated reasons or by reason of the ill-health of a loved one. According to this link https://www.adventure-life.com/amazon/articles/medicinal-treasures-of-the-rainforest- Seventy percent of the 3000 plants identified by the United States National Cancer Institute as having potential anti-cancer properties are endemic to the rainforest. There are numerous other conditions Aids, Parkinsons Disease etc, cures, of which, may be reliant on medicinal compounds such as found, in plants in the forest."Quinine, an aid in the cure of malaria, is an alkaloid extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree found in Latin America and Africa." “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten and the last stream poisoned, you will realize that you cannot eat money.”Native American Saying Or maybe this is too much "lefto-pinko" propaganda

Roz | 14 October 2018  

'Carbon Dioxide is plant food'. And water is essential for plants too Gerard, but there is such a thing as too much.

Ginger Meggs | 23 October 2018