Where is Turnbull in the renewable revolution?

While Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers bang the coal industry drum, renewable energy is powering along. Whatever happened to Turnbull’s spirit of innovation?

Elon Musk and his solar roof, at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. PHOTO YouTube

Elon Musk and his solar roof, at Universal Studios, Los Angeles. PHOTO YouTube

Just over a year ago, amid much fanfare, Malcolm Turnbull announced the program that he wanted to define his prime ministership: the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Since then we’ve seen many announcements, sometimes several a week, about what NISA is delivering to the country, but it’s impossible at this early stage to gauge its impact.

The political spin hasn’t mentioned that money is being restored to CSIRO and universities that they shouldn’t have lost, and that these institutions are being pushed into collaboration with industry at the expense of independent research. That should never be a choice. We need both.

That isn’t to say the money is wasted. Innovation is not spun up overnight. Some goals will only be realised many years hence, through more focused education, training and research. If those long-term programs bear fruit it will be good reason to thank NISA.

No broad-based public program should focus on a single research area. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to find that the question dominating today’s public discourse on innovative technology – how we might power our lives without fossil fuels – is missing from NISA’s list of announcements.

But it does suggest that the government is unenthusiastic about renewable energy, a view supported by multiple attacks by the PM, energy minister Josh Frydenberg and others in government on South Australia’s advanced wind-solar energy policy.

That defies reason. The Coalition’s own emissions figures, which it released late in the week before Christmas, show that in June 2016 national carbon emissions were 2.2 per cent higher than in June 2014, when Tony Abbott’s government abolished carbon pricing.

With the government continuing to scratch around for an effective alternative it makes eminent good sense to get solidly behind low-carbon energy, a view underlined by the December report of the government’s expert panel on energy security led by chief scientist Alan Finkel.

Finkel’s report says that consumers are driving a low-emission energy transformation, and that with current technology and the right governance, variable renewables – wind and solar power – can be effectively integrated into the system. So why all the fuss over South Australia?

A lot is happening – and very quickly – in the global renewable energy market. There’s no better indication of this brewing revolution than the latest initiative by the darling of leading-edge venture capital, Tesla’s Elon Musk.

Musk is a man on several missions. His name has become synonymous with space rocketry, electric cars and home battery packs. Now he’s moving in a direction which could shake energy policy to its foundations throughout the developed world.

In mid-2016 Musk announced Tesla’s full takeover of the biggest US solar panel company, Solar City. The strategic importance of that move became clear at Universal Studios, Los Angeles, in October, when he stood on an outdoor stage on the leafy suburban set of “Desperate Housewives”.

Steve Jobs made an art form out of announcing various Apple revolutions. Musk’s foreshadowed revolution is even bigger: millions of solar roofs able to produce more power than today’s centralised generators, at less cost, feeding into a grid to help drive a zero-carbon future.

This all-electric miracle will be achieved by new, more powerful batteries fed by cells embedded in textured-glass roof tiles “that look better than a normal roof, generate electricity, last longer, have better insulation, and cost less than a normal roof plus cost of electricity,” said Musk.

Around him at Universal Studios were three renovated Desperate Housewives’ homes, each with a new solar roof and, in the garage, Tesla cars and battery packs.

Yes, this is Hollywood, and yes, “cost of electricity” isn’t fully explained or the scheduled mid-2017 release date set in stone. And like most ground-breakers, SolarCity and Tesla are currently trading at a substantial loss. But even if these fail, there are many others snapping at Musk’s heels.

As it’s getting more powerful, rooftop power is getting cheaper. A roof that supplies free energy in perpetuity is all but irresistible, and a growing legion of global players, drawing on advanced science in numerous institutions, will eventually deliver the solar power revolution Musk envisages.

The disruption will be felt keenly by Australia, with its big coal reserves, but denying that it will happen will only add to the economic and social damage. We need the government to accept the inevitable and help prepare us for the change – or even to help lead it. It’s never too late.

As Malcolm Turnbull says, this is an exciting time to be alive. But it remains to be seen whether he or his government will be able to take any credit for it.

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