Hiya hottie. Strap yourself in. We’re talking Aussie energy policy.
No, this isn’t sexy reading. The government’s energy policy isn’t exactly an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride. It’s a pity, because it’s deadly important. In fact, decisions that the Turnbull government makes in the next few weeks will have a big effect on the future of Australian homes. The Turnbull government is seemingly doing all it can to get electricity prices down. The PM cares so much about it he put on a hard hat last week and spent a lot of time in a helicopter and standing next to big bits of infrastructure. It’s a big policy platform.
In fact, Turnbull’s success as a PM will likely be remembered for two things: how he handled same-sex marriage and how his government responded to Australia’s energy needs. In 2019, when it comes to the election, this will be big.
And what does Australia need?
Well, funny you should ask, because the government just received a massive, scientific review offering advice on this very matter. Three months ago, Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, offered up his unimaginatively titled The Finkel Review looking at Australia’s electricity needs.
One of the review’s key recommendations was for a clean energy target. Switching Australia to clean energy at a very specific pace would make power prices cheaper, says Finkel. This is good news, because some Australians have seen their power bills go up by as much as 50% in the last few years.
So how much of Australia’s energy comes from ‘dirty’ places at the moment?
In this last financial year just gone, 52% of our electricity came from coal (allegedly the dirtiest of them all). 19% came from gas. The rest was made from hydro, wind and solar.
The problem is that Australia needs more electricity. Much more. Climate change has undeniably meant that Australia is measurably hotter in the last ten years. Plus, all those coal plants are getting tired. They need to shut down, which means the energy they’re producing needs to be replaced – not to mention the thousands of jobs that they provide.
So what does Finkel want to do again?
He wants the government to set a very specific Clean Energy Target to help control prices. But his target for clean energy is actually half of what some experts say Australia needs to meet the Paris Climate Accord.
The Paris Climate Deal is a big agreement facilitated by the United Nations. As of December 2016, 194 states have signed it. It’s an agreement to bring down greenhouse gas emissions. Trump wants to leave it because he says American industry suffers under the deal. But Obama had already signed on the line. The earliest he can leave is 2020. Turnbull signed up in 2015.
So why is Finkel against the Paris deal?
He’s not against it as such. He was only asked to deliver his recommendations for the electricity sector alone. Switching over to clean energy any faster, he reckons, would be expensive for Australians, and run the risk of new systems not working properly.
Why hasn’t Turnbull legislated for this yet?
Well, we’re expecting it any day now. But it’s a touchy issue. It’s another example of where Turnbull wants to do one thing (he believes in climate change, he’s previously pushed for much bigger cleaner energy targets) and his party wants to do another (coal!).
Turnbull’s confused about coal. Just last week, he said, very directly, that the government had no new plans for new coal mines.
This freaks out a few people in his party. Tony Abbot and Barnaby Joyce are the most high profile. Scott Morrison also held up a lump of coal in Parliament earlier this year and said ‘don’t be afraid!’ Everyone laughed. Oh ScoMo, you’re hilarious.
Economic conservatives are a fan of coal, because Australia’s relied on it for a long time. It’s at the heart of Australia’s economy. Australia’s one of the top five coal exporters in the world.
A few days after he said that the government had no new plans for coal mines, Turnbull walked back his comments, saying he’d welcome submissions for a ‘clean coal’ energy plant. There’s serious scientific doubt about whether ‘clean coal’ actually exists.
While we’re on the subject, why have I seen Greenie hippy types waving signs that say ‘stop Adani’?
Adani is an Indian company that wants to build an enormous coal mine, the Carmichael coal mine, in Queensland. It would be the largest coal mine in the Southern Hemisphere. The chairman of Adani says construction will start in October. There’s been ongoing delays for the past year over how the mine is financed. Adani was turned down by over a dozen banks for a loan, they got into a fight with the Aussie government about whether they would help him build a rail line to transport the coal, they had to sort through a bunch of Native Title issues, and Adani himself faced fraud allegations in his home country. Plus, environmentalists have very real concerns about how much the mine would further damage the Great Barrier Reef to the point where it dies completely. The Reef has already lost half of its coral in the last thirty years – with decay speeding up. Pollution from nearby coal mines has been a massive factor.
Adani seem to have cleared most of those hurdles. The mine is set to go ahead. Turnbull has given repeated explicit support for the project. Adani has said the mine will create 10,000 jobs. In one of their many court battles, however, a leading economics expert said it was likely to create 1,500. Time will tell.
What does this have to do with Turnbull in a helicopter?
Right. So, last week Turnbull zipped up to the Snowy Mountains to announce another $8 million of funding towards upgrading the Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme. They want it to provide 50% more power than it does currently. The Scheme is an enormous water-powered electricity complex, made up of sixteen dams, seven power stations and over 200 km’s of tunnels and a bunch of other impressive numbers. It’s just one part of a bigger clean energy plan.
Why are we only getting to this now?
That’s a big question. The right time for the Finkel Review’s recommendations was probably ten years ago. But Australia’s energy has been at the heart of ferocious political debate since John Howard. One of K-Rudd and Gillard’s big policies was the ‘Emissions Trading Scheme’ – effectively a tax on carbon emissions. It was a policy that is now widely seen as being mis-handled by the Labor Government and was the subject of consistent attack from Tony Abbot. It was immediately pulled apart when Abbot got into power. To get to that moment to this one, where a Liberal PM is using words like ‘clean energy’ with wild abandon, is quite the turn-around.
We may be late to the party, but 2017 is the biggest year yet for clean energy in Australia, with well over 30 projects across the country at various stages of constructions. Most of these are solar and wind plants. In a generation’s time, our energy sector will look very different than it does today.
We’ll keep an eye out for Turnbull’s movements on energy in the weeks to come. We’ll be back with all of the essential news at the end of the week.