Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel is about to step into Australia’s energy war.
Spare a thought for him as he tries to untangle the political ideology from the scientific fact and fiction to find a way forward on an issue which could define politics all the way to the 2019 election.
This is what he’s working with.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says he wants “common sense” in the national debate he has started about affordable and reliable electricity.
While Treasurer Scott Morrison has gleefully provoked the greenies by holding up a lump of coal in the House of Representatives, the PM’s plan to keep air conditioners humming in 40+ degree heatwaves looked more like it was designed to play on our fears about blackouts and higher power bills.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has now implausibly waded into the war with a 50 per cent generation by renewables target by 2030. And always ready with some gratuitous advice, the alt-PM, Tony Abbott, advocates freezing the RET immediately.
Compounding matters, Australia has now ratified the Paris climate change agreement and declares its commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 26 to 28 per cent on 2005 levels by 2030. This represents 50 to 52 per cent emissions reduction per capita and a 64 to 65 per cent reduction in the emissions intensity of the economy between 2005 and 2030.
But in spite of this formal declaration, the PM is now proposing taxpayer investment in “high efficiency, low emissions” coal-fired electricity generation or “clean coal” with the still highly questionable prospect of CCS – carbon capture and storage.
Gas has a stronger case
This ignores the stronger case for already proven lower emissions natural gas to provide both baseload and peaking power to complement Australia’s growing wind and solar generation to keep the lights on in the short to medium term.
But natural gas will feature prominently in Dr Finkel’s thinking.
Gas has been a game-changer in United States energy security and given its abundance in Australia through conventional (no fracking) extraction, it could be here as well.
Instead of clearing current price and access roadblocks for gas, the Turnbull government looks to be placing all its policy gambling chips with ‘clean coal’.
Having already taken off the table a government discussion paper about an emissions intensity pricing scheme which would actually make cutting emissions an affordability incentive, Mr Turnbull’s common sense seems to be missing in action.
Significantly, the pricing scheme had been recommended by the regulators, the Australian Energy Market Commission and the Australian Energy Market Operator. The government expediently ignored them.
PM’s video reassurance
The Prime Minister has now produced a video to reassure Australians that both reliability and affordability are central to his approach.
This is where voters can hope for some common sense to enter the debate.
Dr Finkel is now leading an “independent review” through the COAG Energy Council, an advisory body of the federal and states governments.
The terms of reference are already constrained. Dr Finkel is not being asked to assess the efficacy of either a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme to put a market price on carbon dioxide to rapidly reduce emissions, which is supposed to be what Australia’s ratification of the Paris agreement is all about.
So the hapless Chief Scientist already has one hand tied behind his back. His main task is to produce a “blueprint” for national policy, legislative and rule changes to “maintain the security, reliability and affordability of the national electricity market”.
The review will deliver the Chief Scientist’s concluded view on the “costs and benefits, including to consumers and industry” to address future vulnerabilities.
Dr Finkel, who acknowledges clean coal could be viable in the future, has already indicated that his review, which will also examine industrial scale battery storage and pumped hydro, will be “technology neutral”.
In the last 10 years Australian property owners have seriously embraced rooftop solar to defray the grid cost of their electricity.
Rooftop solar has jumped from 700 properties to a guesstimated 1.6 million properties. While this is one answer to the affordability conundrum for property owners, Dr Finkel and his panel will now have to apply their minds to securing baseload electricity for our growing population at an affordable price while juggling “Paris” at the same time without an ETS. And it’s to be technology neutral preferably without taxpayer subsidy. No mean feat.
Over to you, Chief Scientist.
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism. He tweets at @QuentinDempster