John Hewson and Oliver Yates
Steve Blume, Kristina Keneally and John Grimes

The battle for renewables


How great it was to hear from thought leaders at this week’s Smart Energy Conference that brought together a top line-up of industry commentators. Collectively they presented the overwhelming rationale for clean energy, not least of which is the urgent need to stem greenhouse emissions and climate change. The recent concerted push by the far-right faction of the Coalition for more coal, and the prospect of a flawed and incomplete energy model has only steeled the resolve of the renewables sector, and that was clearly on show this week.

The timing of the conference coincided with a push by the federal coalition to extend the life of Liddell coal power plant, and the so-called Monash Forum advocating a new coal plant, as well as the move by the federal Energy Minister to urge States to adopt the National Energy Guarantee. 

Against that backdrop, Labor Senator Kristina Keneally kicked off the conference by criticising the government’s support for old coal-powered stations and for new plants, stating “We know that building new coal-fired coal power stations is going to be more expensive than building renewable energy storage that backs up wind and solar power.”

She described the Monash Forum as a group that represented a nineteenth century ambition which was totally out of step for a twenty-first century Australia, and said descendants of the Monash family “don’t need this” association with the name of their forebearer who if alive today and as a man of vision would undoubtedly be supporting new, clean technologies. 

“We know that extending coal-fired power stations only delays the transition … [and] the argument is now over on the ground and in Australian boardrooms,” Keneally said.

“We’ve only got one future energy system [and it’s] driven by renewables and all the technologies and opportunities that renewables bring. We must listen when business says there is no appetite – and we are talking zero appetite – for building new coal-fired power stations,” she said before reminding delegates of the 2014 sale of the Liddell coal plant by the NSW Liberal government for $0, zero dollars, nothing.

The NEG is not yet settled but the Labor party won’t be propping up coal power, said Keneally who then reaffirmed ALP support for 50 per cent renewables by 2030. A figure that is more in tune with most State targets. 

Smart Energy Council President Steve Blume agreed with Keneally that we have  “won the war” for renewables which is now the cheapest source of power, and suggested that Australia can play a part in exporting renewable technology.

Keynote speaker Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore opened her remarks by naming Australia’s shamefully high carbon emissions rates and lowest reductions targets, with modelling by the Climate Institute revealing they are taking us headlong to 3 to 4 degrees warming.   

The challenges are great but we need a more sustainable future, she said, after spelling out City of Sydney's Commitment to Smart Energy and strategies for a 70 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.

In his address State of the solar and storage industry, Kobad Bhavnagri of Bloomberg New Energy Finance warned of a slowing in investment from the $8 billion committed in 2017, and $5 billion in 2018 then dropping to around $2 billion by 2020 as the federal renewable energy target is met. In the absence of changes to federal policies it will be individual states along with the corporate sector that push for more renewables, he said.

The long term outlook for the sector is hardly glowing: Bhavnagri explained the NEG won’t do much to boost demand, given the 26 to 28 per cent emissions reductions will largely be met by the Large-scale RET by 2020 so “the window of opportunities under the L-RET are closing fast”, and there will be a vacuum over the following decade. 

On matters related to energy storage, he noted that the cost of batteries is forecast to reduce by 42 per cent by 2025 and that 19 utility scale projects in the pipeline include storage, totaling 828 MW. 

Despite all this, there is some cause for optimism as the economics of renewables stack up, with large-scale wind and solar sitting below wholesale electricity prices and continuing to fall at the same time as becoming increasingly attractive to investors, and the “new prosumers” in the corporate sector keeping close watch on emissions data. 

But if the NEG adopted a 45 per cent target, as recommended for the 2°C limit, “that would be transformative [and] the outlook for investment would be much stronger”, Bhavnagri said. 

Smart Energy Council chief executive John Grimes declared the activities of the Monash forum [our apologies to descendants for using the name] is to ensure the coalition party leader will never support sensible renewables policies and targets or cut greenhouse gas emissions; and are adding pressure to Turnbull’s hold on the leadership at a time of the 30th negative Newspoll. 

Illustrating how ridiculous the thinking is, far right forum leader Craig Kelly has gone as far as to suggest more kids would die under from a push toward greater renewables (due to more costly swimming lessons).   

The man deserves to be slapped down by Turnbull but that won’t happen, John Grimes said, because intelligence suggests that Turnbull struck a secret ‘no renewables policy changes’ deal with the Nationals to secure his leadership. 

There it is: a prime minister hijacked by the far right, powerless to steer Australia’s sensible energy future.

“If the people of Australia knew the truth of the agenda at the heart of this government, they would reject it comprehensively,” John Grimes said, referencing the groundswell of public support for smart energy and boom in popularity. 

As one speaker observed the irony of this is the underlying party principle to foster and enhance economic progress, not plug it. 

“We are living in a parallel universe between the policies of the existing federal government and the real world of Australia [which includes] families, self-funded retirees, the market and the public,” John Grimes said.

Hence the topic of his address: The Battle for our Energy Future Rages On.

In other choice remarks relating to the NEG, Tristan Edis of Green Energy Markets declared “Malcolm Turnbull needs to grow a spine on this particular issue, if it’s going to be meaningful … [and] the policy could work if designed the right way, but it must have a much more strengthened, more aggressive emissions reduction target to drive any kind of meaningful investment targets.”

Essential Media’s Peter Lewis presented the somewhat sinister results of a result poll indicating over the past three years public support for the government to prioritise coal over renewables has doubled to 13 per cent while support for prioritising renewables has declined from 50 per cent to 37 per cent.

Although support for renewables remains far greater than that of support for coal, the balance has shifted a few inches and “Coal is creeping up,” Peter Lewis said, “The coal club is fighting back [and the] renewable energy industry is up against an industry that will do anything to survive.

“But are you going to let the coal lobby dictate the future?”

Oliver Yates of UPC Renewables deserved a standing ovation for his address ‘We’re on the road to nowhere’ that illustrated just how out of step policy direction is with the public’s thirst for clean energy, and summed up the NEG’s shortcomings, highlighting it proposes nothing on climate change. 

“It's actually worse than doing nothing,” he said. “The government is trapped. It cannot pass sensible policies. The coalition wants to continue running coal plants until 2070.”

“We are facing a state of investment paralysis, yet we have no time left to tackle carbon emissions,” Yates said, imploring all supporters of renewables to take greater political action to help avoid the destructive nature of climate change.

“It’s your responsibility,” he emphasised.

John Hewson of ANU Tax and Transfer Policy Institute – and as one delegate labeled “the greatest Prime Minister Australia never had” – has long maintained smart energy policy is necessary and inevitable, and that was at the heart of his address in which he again expressed his “total frustration and bewilderment” over party politics that were heading toward the worst possible outcome with rapidly increasing electricity prices under the “fourth best option” for the future. 

“Politics are difficult to understand,” he said, “with many in the party undermining the prime minister … there is a lot of misrepresentation.

UNSW Professor Martin Green gave everyone reason to feel good about the future by stepping out ‘The Great Transformation: Terawatt Photovoltaics’, under which if the exponential curve of the pipeline continues its trajectory, namely by adding 100 GW a year, we will be looking at 1000 GW – or one terawatt – within seven years if not before. 

He backed up the numbers with a Shell chart illustrating the forecast of a sharp rise in renewables against a decline in fossil fuels.

Read more about the Smart Energy Show in Winter Solar and Storage magazine.

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