Renewable energy hits high-level opposition

Powerful vested interests are persuading political leaders that renewable energy is an expensive mistake. [13 May 2014 | Peter Boyer]

Musselroe Bay wind farm in Tasmania’s north-east. PHOTO HYDRO TASMANIA

Musselroe Bay wind farm in Tasmania’s north-east. PHOTO HYDRO TASMANIA

The weighty tomes I find myself reading these days don’t lend themselves to a relaxing holiday, so it was with some trepidation that for a recent trip away I included a new book on renewable energy.

The book was by Mark Diesendorf, a Sydney scientist and teacher who I’d heard speak in Hobart some years ago. It was no heart-stopper or ripping yarn, but it was a page-turner, chock-full of good ideas and useful reflections about our energy choices in these changing times.

After everything I’ve read about how technology can’t fix our climate and energy problems, Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change offered a refreshing alternative view: that technology can improve lives and the health of the planet, if only we let it.

That’s not to say it’ll be easy. Diesendorf calculates that Australia’s per-capita energy usage is “equivalent to us each consuming about 6 kilowatts continuously, about the energy that would be needed for every one of us to drive a small car 24 hours a day”.

But it’s a challenge he believes we can overcome. He says he wrote the book mainly to offer “realistic and cost-effective solutions” to human-induced climate change.

Diesendorf lists many reasons for optimism. Detailed assessments of future scenarios effectively counter the well-worn arguments that energy from wind, solar (thermal and rooftop) or any other renewable source is too dispersed, intermittent and expensive to supply cities and industries.

I’ve previously said that in light of the slow progress of renewable energy in replacing fossil fuels, nuclear power should be on the table. But Diesendorf firmly believes that renewable technology can do the job so long as it’s not held back by entrenched interests.

He cites International Energy Agency (IEA) data revealing that there’s a current trend away from fossil-fuelled electricity, driven by energy efficiency, high power prices, slower economies, and a competitive renewable sector.

But while Diesendorf is optimistic that technology can do much to ease us across the line into sustainable energy, things get a bit heavier when he discusses the jaded mindsets and vested interests that are lining up to thwart all attempts to transform the system.

Investment in renewable energy in Australia had its ups and downs over the past decade or so. For the past few years conditions have generally been favourable, with a reasonable level of support coming from both government and investment banks. But dark clouds are gathering.

The dark clouds are driven by power generators stuck in a mid-20th century mindset of centralised electricity production, featuring large coal-fired thermal power stations feeding into an extensive grid, while rejecting an increasing role for distributed renewable energy like rooftop solar.

Tasmanians, and increasingly South Australians, are familiar with the notion that renewables can be primary generators. Coal-power utilities could take the view that this is the direction we’re headed, investing in solar, wind or other renewable sources to safeguard their own commercial future.

But such a position might give the impression that fossil energy is on the way out. Appearances count for everything in the dog-eat-dog energy market, so coal-power generators are treating renewable energy as competition, and competition has to be put down.

The result has been huge pressure on government, especially in Canberra, to reduce or eliminate support for renewable energy through such programs as the Renewable Energy Target and subsidies for rooftop solar. And indications are that the coal sector’s lobbying is beginning to bear fruit.

The rapid growth of solar and wind-farms around Australia has exacerbated pressure on coal miners and power generators caused by declining energy demand. In turn, the generators have put pressure on states to increase restrictions on wind-farms and raise barriers against take-up of rooftop solar.

Australian Solar Council CEO John Grimes let it all hang out in an angry outburst on ABC radio last week. There was a campaign to wind back support for renewable energy, he said. It was “ideological”, “wedded to the past” and “supported at the highest levels of government”.

Government support for the 2020 target of 20 per cent renewable energy, Grimes said, was a “mirage”. The target for large-scale renewables was likely to be halved and up to $1.5 billion pulled out of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which helps renewable projects get under way.

Small-scale solar was also in the firing line, with the government set to phase out support for rooftop solar panels and to withhold funding from its much-touted “million solar roofs”. Said Grimes, “It’s not too early to say this is a broken promise.”

Modelling commissioned by the renewable energy industry has found power bills higher over the next year or two because of the renewable energy target, but cut by about $50 a year by 2020 if the target remains, allowing renewables a greater share of the energy market.

Global subsidies for renewables total $88 billion, according to the IEA. The same body says that fossil fuel subsidies add up to about $500 billion annually, but the International Monetary Fund has calculated a far higher figure, close to $2 trillion a year

If that assessment is correct we’re looking at a figure approaching 10 per cent of all the world’s government revenue. The United Nations Environment Program sees fossil fuel subsidies as a big threat to global stability and to the effort to address human health and climate change.

Over the next four years, according to the Parliamentary Budget Office, Australia’s direct fossil fuel subsidies will amount to about $13 billion. Bear that in mind when you next hear complaints about the high cost of renewable energy.

The best long-term strategy for pegging power prices is to increase the rate at which renewables are rolled out across Australia. The federal budget is taking us in exactly the opposite direction.

• Last week saw the inauguration of Tasmania’s first “Spark” sites in Hobart, Glenorchy and Launceston. Spark is a program led by the Australian Conservation Foundation in partnership with YMCA aimed at improving understanding of energy efficiency among YMCA staff and customers.

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