Renewables Are Our Energy Future

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Over the last few weeks, Ben Eltham and a team of other contributors have brought you Future Shock, the most extensive data-driven investigative project we’ve undertaken here at New Matilda. The series ends today on a high note: Eltham’s exclusive interview with Greens leader Christine Milne, who he describes as having "an intuitive understanding of the political opportunities represented by renewable energy".

"It becomes obvious that if you’re going to get the renewable energy revolution and the demand-side management that you need, you have to address the structural barriers. This is confirmed to me wherever I go, people talk to me about how they want to put in renewable energy, but people are citing barriers that are put in their way," Milne told NM.

The transformation of our energy sector is having profound effects on our communities. Belinda Eslick visited Chinchilla, where coal seam gas development has seen the town’s house prices and population explode:

"Councillor Ray Brown, [the mayor of Western Downs Regional Council]said that many of the town’s new residents are single males, who don’t contribute to the local economy as well as a family of four would. This is a common problem for towns like Chinchilla. The town’s resources are put under pressure by an increase in population, but the new residents don’t engage with the community enough to bolster it. They’re there for work and little else."

In Waubra, the influx has been political, as Sandi Keane reports. Wind farm opponents have appropriated the town’s name and bullied its residents:

"[Local resident] Karen Molloy described the first Waubra public meeting as ‘stacked with outsiders’. ‘It was our community meeting. It should have been a meeting of the Waubra community but we had these anti-wind people coming from as far afield as Gippsland. What gave them the right to barge into my community?’ she asked.

[…]

"Wherever the Guardians go, the scene turns ugly. At Waubra, the venue was moved after a bomb scare. Property was also damaged. In Colac in 2009, former energy minister Peter Batchelor, had his leg slammed in a car door."

Behind the talk of carbon pricing and paying off brown coal generators, the renewable energy sector has been quietly growing. Solar power in particular is booming: "Between 2006 and 2011, the operating capacity of solar electricity globally increased by an average of 58 per cent a year." In fact, it’s likely to be the cheapest way to generate energy by 2030.

Renewables may soon generate some serious political energy, too. Eltham spoke to some of the leading voices in the renewables field, who are convinced a shift to 100 per cent clean energy will be both feasible and cost effective in the near future. The barriers won’t be technical, they’ll be political:

"Kobad Bhavnagri [an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance]says that while renewables will eventually be cheaper than fossil fuels, that moment is still some time away, which gives Big Energy an opening. ‘It’s still five years at best, 10 years more probably, before renewables will be cheaper than fossil fuels, and that’s a long time to wage a fear campaign’. He points out that no-one would have predicted just how successful the campaign against peer-reviewed climate science has been. ‘I remember in 2009 it had had become heresy to speak out against the science of climate change, and no-one had the guts to do it except really right-wing loonies, but then it really started to gain momentum and became very effective.’"

If the politics of renewables are set to become more complex, then understanding the current technical and regulatory environment is critical. And that starts with the humble power bill. We ran a two part explainer (here and here) on the current state of the energy industry and talked gold-plated energy infrastructure. Belinda Eslick took a forensic look at just how green the GreenPower certification system really is:

"Generators must be ‘based primarily on a renewable energy resource’, which means that more than half of a generator’s energy output needs to be attributed to a source other than those based on fossil fuels. There’s a bit of wriggle-room here: a GreenPower generator can produce up to 49 per cent of its power using fossil fuels."

Coal seam gas is the new buzzword for dirty energy. Despite being the new kid on the block, CSG has a worse reputation than old players like nuclear and coal, partly because of how suddenly it’s emerged:

"The wildcat boom in gas has caught most Australians by surprise. Many farmers and rural landowners had no idea that mining companies could legally come onto their land without their permission and drill in search of gas."

To add insult to injury, most of the gas will be shipped overseas, Eltham writes:

"What that means is that by the second half of this decade, the three big LNG plants being built at Gladstone will be exporting huge quantities of Australia’s domestic gas supply — as much as they can get their hands on. Back in April, Michael Fraser, the boss of big electricity company AGL, warned that ‘Gladstone is going to be like a giant vacuum cleaner for the east coast gas market hoovering up all the gas it can get its hands on.’ This, in turn, is expected to drive the domestic price of gas up."

But a spike in the gas price may not be the worst outcome of the CSG frenzy:

"But if high gas prices mean a new lease of life for dirty coal, they also eventually mean good news for the renewable energy sector. As Kane Thornton from the Clean Energy Council observes, ‘we’ve already seen Origin Energy come out and say they don’t want to do any more gas generation for the next decade at least, so that I think is a recognition that there’s a trend at play there’."

"In the end," Eltham concludes, "perhaps the dominant theme to emerge from this series has been the intertwining of political, economic and environmental imperatives in the race towards our energy future." If, as Milne says, the government’s ministers are fighting backroom battles among themselves, and with the possibility of a Coalition reboot of the whole renewables issue, untangling the various threads may prove more difficult than ever.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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