Monday, February 20, 2017

Today by Nick Feik

Defining clean to include dirty
The Turnbull government is peddling energy myths and climate denialism


Federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg yesterday revealed that the government is considering changing the mandate of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to allow it to invest in coal-fired power generation. 

The CEFC’s purpose is to promote renewable and clean energy. Needless to say, coal is neither renewable nor clean. In an ordinary cabinet of a well-functioning government, an environment minister would step in at this point to strenuously oppose such a proposal on the grounds of, well, everything. In the Turnbull government, Frydenberg is also the environment minister. 

The “new” coal-power stations that he and his colleagues tout are marginally (around a quarter) less dirty than the dirtiest old ones, still dirtier than gas and significantly more emissions-heavy than the current CEFC investment guidelines allow. In other words, the government proposes to redefine clean to include dirty. 

The reason the government proposes changing the guidelines is that new coal-fired power plants are not financially viable. (If they were viable, they wouldn’t need a subsidy.) 

Calculating the cost of coal-fired power across its life cycle, even disregarding the environmental cost (which we shouldn’t), coal is now more expensive than gas, solar and wind. (Various government and coal-industry spokespeople like to talk about carbon capture and storage (CCS) – to make coal “even more clean”. Be wary: no one has ever built a large commercial CCS plant, and if it were possible this would only make coal even more expensive.)

There is not a major energy, scientific, environmental, business or industry organisation in the country, apart from those representing coalminers, that believes new coal-fired power plants are viable. Banks won’t invest in them. Not a single energy company plans to build one. A government subsidy is unlikely to change that. So what is the government playing at?

The Coalition is playing household-budget politics, relying on its ability to keep the public in a state of ignorance about the costs of coal (both economic and environmental) in order to prosecute the argument that it cares deeply about power bills. 

This is a con with a long history. It relies on several ongoing myths. One is that renewable energy, and the carbon tax before it, is the primary cause for high power prices. It’s not: Queensland, for instance, most reliant on fossil fuels, has the most expensive power. “Gold-plating” the power infrastructure has been the primary cause of price rises. Another is that renewable energy causes blackouts. It doesn’t, as the expert report following the SA episode explained.

The con now relies too on the myth that coal doesn’t really pollute. Or that carbon pollution won’t change the global climate – even as this occurs before our eyes. 

The government led by Malcolm Turnbull is now indistinguishable from one led by a climate denialist. (Speaking of which, it’s worth looking at the One Nation official position on climate change, if only to judge for yourself how mature and sophisticated they’ve become. Here is an unedited excerpt: “Climate change should not be about making money for a lot of people and giving scientists money. Lets know the facts and scientific evidence to make a well informed decision as to how best to look after our environment. Paying a carbon tax or an Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is not going to wave a magic wand and stop nature changing the climate change.”) 

It is true that there are some systemic issues related to power that need to be addressed by the federal government. But talk of baseloads and “stabilising the system” are dishonest: if there’s a supply problem, it’s in the massive peaks in demand that occur on very hot days, not the baseload shortages. Can anyone else think of a technology that might work well on hot days? No prizes.

Here’s an idea: if, against all evidence, the government still believes renewable energy is too expensive or unreliable, it could try investing more on new technologies, batteries, microgrids and the like, using a mechanism such as, for instance, the CEFC.

Today’s links

  • Fox News anchor Chris Wallace turns on Reince Priebus over Trump’s recent attack on the press. As a sign that Trump may be losing the support of Fox News, it’s very significant.
  • Other network anchors are showing similar signs of frustration.
  • Housing affordability is off the federal government’s agenda again, as another thought-bubble on tax policy is floated and shot down immediately. Then floated again.
  • The planned Werribee youth detention centre is deeply unpopular with local residents, and it’s a major threat to the electoral prospects of Victorian treasurer Tim Pallas.
  • The Guardian has launched a series exploring the shameful rates of indigenous incarceration in Australia.
  • Federal Labor leader Bill Shorten will raise his party’s opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a historic visit to Australia this week.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.



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