Hewson's View | October 20, 2016

LIGHTEN UP: Time to take the political heat out of the discussion about renewable energy. Photo: Justin McManus
LIGHTEN UP: Time to take the political heat out of the discussion about renewable energy. Photo: Justin McManus

JUST when Australia should be accelerating the development of our renewable energy industry, capitalising on the enormous business and employment opportunities, and working to achieve our Paris commitments on emissions reductions, the issue has again been reduced to a short-term political point-scoring contest.

It is this contest that saw the Abbott Government attempt to wipe out the industry by attempting to abolish the Renewable Energy Target a few years ago, an attempt that saw investment in the industry fall by some 80-90 percent, costing some 15,000 jobs and a reduction in the RET.

The industry was just settling down to a somewhat more stable outlook when the funding of ARENA (The Australian Renewable Energy Agency) was cut recently in the so-called Omnibus Budget Repair Bill, and the Turnbull Government ministers quickly, and incorrectly, blamed the recent South Australian power blackout on renewables, attacking the Labor States for their ambitious renewable energy targets. 

The SA power crisis was as a result of an extreme weather event – torrential rain, gale force winds, and lightning strikes – that brought down three power lines and some 22 transmission towers. Overall, it would not have mattered whether the power had been generated from, coal, gas, wind or solar. It could not have been transmitted.

The recent meeting of energy ministers has correctly called for a review of what actually happened, and of the National Electricity Market (NEM), but with a very short time scale.

I fear this process could be ‘seized’ by the bureaucracy – the Department of the Environment and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) – for a more defensive response, rather than a full-blown review and redesign of the NEM.

The NEM was designed some 20 odd years ago, based on the UK model, which has since been abandoned, and its is not actually ‘national’. It was not designed in the context of a rapid development of renewables, or of heat and battery storage, or of distributed distribution via communities and households. A review of just a few months cannot do the redesign task justice.

It is true that, quite unrelated to the SA blackout, the rapid roll-out of wind and solar farms in SA has some problems. First among them is ‘intermittency’, where the wind blowing mostly at night, and the sun shining for a few hours in the day, leaves the morning and evening ‘peaks’ to be powered either by gas, or by drawing from mostly Victorian coal-fired power generators. This has, at times, been expensive.

Cost effective battery storage, which can store the power either to meet these peaks or provide 24/7 base-load, is close to being commercially viable. This represents a world-class technology revolution that Australia can lead. (I declare an interest in the development of these technologies).

In time, this will work to provide the desired ‘energy security’ and lower electricity costs, while ensuring the desired emissions reduction benefits of wind and solar.

It is time we took the politics out of the renewables debate. The development of this industry is fundamental to the essential transition from fossil fuel-based power generation, our response to the challenge of climate change and to saving our planet.

It requires a stable long-term, policy framework and strategy, underwritten by genuine bi-partisanship. Its importance transcends any of our current and prospective political leaders.

- John Hewson


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