In the Australian Parliament on 8 February, senior members of the Government stood up to hold aloft a piece of coal. Like school-boys who had returned from an excursion and excitedly wanted everyone to see the rock piece they had collected.
The ruling Liberal-National Coalition (conservatives) Government is increasingly being seen as irrelevant to the future of energy policy in Australia. Just like coal.
Australia has stumbled to its present mix of dirty coal-fired power stations, some gas-fired stations and a fragmented array of green-energy sources of electricity.
Australia is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of energy. And yet today Australia’s energy policy is in chaos: mining companies which use Singapore marketing as a profit-shifting mechanism to substantially reduce tax paid in Australia; energy companies increasingly in the hands of foreign interests, not that that stops them from asking for government support for financing, such as the proposed new Carmichael coal mine in Queensland; gas suppliers bringing on-stream some of the world’s biggest Liquefied Natural Gas facilities in Western Australia for export, but a looming shortage of gas in the eastern states; those huge LNG operators fighting against paying royalties; gas fracking in the eastern states opposed by a range of rural and green activists; old coal-fired power-stations which need to be de-commissioned, but without replacement capacity; alternative energy proponents faced with government distaste; looming shortages of electricity which the inter-state market mechanism cannot handle; projections which show that Australia will not be able to meet international Climate Change commitments; and huge opposition by the crazy-conservative part of the Government to introducing a Carbon Emissions trading Scheme to place a price on pollution. And yet in the Parliament in Canberra, politicians wave around pieces of coal rather than policy proposals.
This messy mix has seen a substantial rise in electricity charges to consumers over recent years. The conservative Government blames green-power for this. The reality is that major privatizations of power-stations by state governments has created private monopolies; new investments in transmission lines has pushed up electricity prices; and the hotch-potch of alternative-energy policies and lack of policy signals by the conservative Government has damaged investment decision-making by electricity suppliers (both fossil-fuel sourced and green-energy sourced).
And these developments in the electricity market are against the backdrop of rising temperatures, and resulting summer electricity demand, due to Climate Change – itself a topic which many in the conservative Government are loath to even accept as real.
As the current record-breaking hot summer has drawn to a close, the State of South Australia encountered a series of black-outs. As it happens, South Australia has been host to the most green-energy projects of any state in Australia. This gave an apparent excuse for the national conservative Government to launch a major attack on green-energy. This attack was led by the Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, who said “this crisis in South Australia is the consequence of pursuing a massive increase in renewables — wind in particular — without doing anything to put in place the backup, the storage or the base-load to cover the state when the wind isn’t blowing”. Well, Mr Turnbull is astute enough, and informed enough, to know better. Watching Mr Turnbull grab this cheap opportunity was a tragedy in itself. Turnbull was an early-acknowledger on the conservative side of Australian politics of the threat and significance of Climate Change. Indeed some years ago he was a proponent of a Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme. This was before the kindergarten-rhymer, Mr Tony Abbott, used the Emissions Trading Scheme to chant ‘no new tax’ and thus push the energy debate to the level of the lowest IQ voter in the country. Much of the present mess in electricity supply and electricity policy belongs to the ever-present (and ever-damaging) Tony Abbott.
In fact, those black-outs in South Australia were more the result of the failure of the inter-state Australian Energy Market Regulator. Still, what’s a few facts to those Government people who hold aloft a piece of coal as a badge-of-membership of Big Coal. A badge-of-membership of Australia’s past. Most Australians still trustingly believe that Liberal-National Party members of the present Government represent the voters who elected them. Alas, those politicians now effectively represent Big Business.
The technology of electricity production is now moving fast. Technical innovation and the mathematics of economies-of-scale have now pushed the cost of new power-generating solar capacity to a position comparable to the capital investment cost of a coal-fired power-station.
New wind-turbines have also become more technically efficient and cheaper. Hence the extraordinary attacks launched by senior conservative Government ministers in recent years on wind-turbines based on their ‘ugliness’. Wow! And so does the incredible ugliness of un-remediated mines result in attacks on the mining industry by conservative Government members? Of course not!
However, the Achille’s Heel of green-energy, except for bio-mass or geo-thermal, has been the fact that they are unreliable in some circumstance: when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. Hence the opportunity for Prime Minister Turnbull’s attack on South Australia.
As the Australian Government’s aging and tiring senior ministers huff-and-puff, the technology that has made green-energy so attractive around the world, is now rapidly solving the no-sun no-wind problem: battery technology is improving. Efficient and cost-effective battery-storage technology, combined with solar-panel farms or wind-turbine farms, will be as good as a fossil-fuel power-station. And without the pollution.
On 10 March, American entrepreneur, Mr Elon Musk, unexpectedly entered the Australian energy debate. In a Twitter release Mr Musk said that his Tesla batteries could fix the electricity problem of the State of South Australia in 100 days for just $33 million. He confronted the domination by the Big Coal protectors in the Australian debate by saying: “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free”.
Mr Musk co-founded Pay Pal, founded the Tesla electric car, the spacecraft launcher, Space-X, and the solar-power company, SolarCity. He is involved in battery systems for green-energy plants. And Tesla does have the ability to do just what Mr Musk offered: it delivered a similar system to Southern California Edison in December in just 90 days (pictured here).
The technology, and the debate, for the use of batteries to support solar-farms and wind-farms is moving fast. Far faster than the coal-clutching school-boys in ministerial positions in the conservative Australian Government want.
The desire of Big Coal to squeeze out of the Australian energy market a few more decades of profits and pollution is being questioned.
An Australia debate, given international prominence by an American tech-geek, is about to show that Big Coal, and its conservative Australian Government protectors and apologists, have no clothes.
Mike B. Bradshaw has been an officer of the Treasury, Canberra, an investment banker, and a consultant in Europe, the USA and Asia. He now works on project financing.
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