Renewables revelations at Smart Energy Summit

One much-repeated statement at this week’s Smart Energy Summit: “The cost of coal cannot compete with renewables and storage which are cheaper, that is how we get to lower energy prices, everyone has to open their eyes to the reality.” The speaker? Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

So enthralled is he by smart new technology steering decarbonisation that he spent half the day – three hours longer than scheduled – at the summit soaking up news of renewables developments and innovation.

Turnbull – along with his candid views – was more than welcome at the summit, and in his address Politics, engineering and economics: Opportunities for a clean energy transition he set about explaining why, like so many of his forebearers, he failed to unite the government in the construction of energy policy.

It’s one of his key regrets, he said. But when you have a small bunch of climate sceptic politicians that “exist in a fact free zone” and are led by “ideology and ignorance”,that’s what you get. Impasse.

A minority of MPs, he said, torpedoed a ‘very good’ policy.

Turnbull made it clear he never abandoned the NEG, rather the insurgency undermined it and ultimately brought it to an end, and for him that was “very disappointing”.

"Ensuring a competitive market and the protections of consumers is very important, but you've also got to have the certainty of integrated climate and energy policy so that you get the investment," he said.

“The politics in the respective party room make it hard …. but we came close to getting a consensus on a national energy policy, and one that provides the certainty that we need for investment to occur.

“We need the certainly via a landing, a mechanism, to enable that to happen, it’s the best way to create investment certainty in the electricity sector.  You won't get investment if the climate is uncertain and racked with controversy," he said.

"That's what we were endeavoring to do with the National Energy Guarantee.”

"Ensuring a competitive market and the protections of consumers is very important, but you've also got to have the certainty of integrated climate and energy policy so that you get the investment," he said.

He stressed too that the issue of decarbonisation has to be grounded in economics and engineering.

“Always I’ve sought to resolve the trilemma – to reduce emissions and ensure energy affordability and reliability.”

The ex-PM is now calling on the government to revive the NEG, describing it as “fundamentally a very good technology-agnostic policy, which united climate and energy policy, and would enable us to bring down prices and keep the lights on”.

“It was a vital piece of economic policy … the abandonment of the national energy guarantee obviously creates a vacuum of energy policy at the federal level, and of course that provides the opportunity for the states to get on and lead.”

The ALP will adopt the NEG but would lift the emissions reduction target from 26 per cent to a more realistic 45 per cent by 2030. That target is not endorsed by Turnbull on the basis Labor failed to demonstrate it "will not push up prices".

(OK to push up emissions but not prices? But why would he assume prices would rise? Did he not emphasise – several times – that renewables were cheaper and the way to go?)

During his address Malcolm Turnbull took the opportunity to list the coalition’s achievements in matters of energy which include the ACCC inquiry into the electricity and the retail sector, and almost all of the recommendations of the Finkel review, Tasmania’s battery of the nation agreement from energy retailers for a better deal for two million households and his pet topic: the prospect of Snowy 2.

He revealed former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce had “unhelpfully” suggested that instead of investing in Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro the government should invest in new coal fired power plants.

For his part, new PM Scott Morrison remains fixated on lowering electricity prices rather than emissions.

Asked why, during his time in office, Turnbull failed to lock in a renewable energy target, Turnbull said “There is a huge gulf between members’ views on energy – a significant number who don't believe climate change is real and say we need to get out of Paris.”

“You have a very entrenched difference of opinion and as you saw with NEG they are prepared to cross the floor blow up the government to get their way,” he said.

“[But] I am passionate about the goal of a move to a clean energy future and zero emissions and the way we get there is through smart energy – and smart energy people like you – that is how we will get there.”

“Renewable energy backed by storage is the cheaper form of energy generation, now we are in the midst of a transition from coal fired power to intermittent power.

“From a dumb one-way grid to a smart system where retail customers become both consumers and suppliers of megawatts of power and through intelligent demand response.

“The challenge is to get from fossil fuels to a clean energy future … truly there has never been a more exciting item to be in the energy industry. There is no shortage of enthusiasm and for investment – look at all of you here.”

Smart Energy Council chief executive John Grimes described the NSW Smart Energy Summit an historic event that facilitated “a fair dinkum discussion of Australia’s clean energy transition”.

“This is the challenge of our time, and we are backing Australian innovation that benefits the whole economy,” he said.

“Australia has always been a leader [now] there’s a real sense that the politics may just be changing and that Australians old and young want to see real action on climate change, with strong support from [many] governments for renewable energy.”

Victoria’s landslide election of late November, delivering Labor 30 more seats than the state coalition, was, he says, in many ways “a trigger for some introspection from the Liberal Party”. Now former Deputy Leader Julie Bishop has stepped into the arena by urging bipartisan energy policy.

Now in just a few short months it’s the turn of the NSW electorate to determine who is best placed to lead the state. And clearly, as the next article shows, the sparring parties have differing ideas about renewables.

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