We are barely a week into this seven-and-a-half month election campaign, and it is already clear that the “alternative” government of Tony Abbott is out on a seek and destroy mission on any policy that might serve to promote the development of renewable energy, in particular those emerging renewables that will seal the fate of the incumbent coal generators.
First it was the promise to repeal the carbon price, then the ambiguity over the renewable energy target, and then the attempt to neuter the Clean Energy Finance Corporation even before it was up and running. Then they unleashed Barnaby Joyce in The Senate.
“What is this insane lemming-like desire to go to renewables going to do to our economy?” Joyce told the Senate, before veering off into a rant about wind farms in every back garden, how they were expensive, didn’t work half the time, and will never replace coal, gas, hydro or nuclear.
Again, he betrayed the reason for his antipathy to renewables – the climate, he said, had barely changed despite the introduction of the carbon price six months ago – repeating the idiotic statement made by Tony Abbott in his first address of the year.
It would be tempting to think that this was just Barnaby Joyce, and attacking renewables with his incoherent gusto would have been laughable – were it not for the fact that he will be a senior minister in an Abbott government, and that his views are shared by the likes of Abbott, finance spokesman Andrew Robb, treasurer in waiting Joe Hockey, and the energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane – and dozens of others.
Remember last year, when Macfarlane stood up at the clean energy conference and told renewables executives that solar and wind were expensive and unreliable. You can find that quote, and those of Abbott king-maker Nick Minchin in this story, Australia’s energy future: The scary vision of the Right. The Coalition, as Senator Simon Birmingham did yesterday, like to boast they were the first to introduce a renewable energy target. What they forget to mention was that they were also the first to ditch one.
Joyce was followed by Liberal Senator Sean Edwards (right) who, like Birmingham, represents South Australia, the state with one of the highest penetrations of both utility scale wind energy and rooftop solar PV in the world.
Edwards, more incoherent even than Barnaby, sought to dismiss a report from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who had visited solar thermal energy facilities in Spain, and suggested Australia should be doing likewise.
“Stop the press!” Edwards said. “We have the manufacturing capacity to build solar plants. Great! We have the technology—I suppose we do, thanks for that. What the senator failed to mention was the cost, and the comparative cost.”
Funny you should mention that Senator Edwards.
As we report today, Bloomberg New Energy Finance have released an analysis that shows wind energy – unsubsidised – is already cheaper than new build coal and gas fired generation in Australia. Solar PV will follow soon, and then will come solar thermal and other technologies.
This is critical, because there is no point comparing renewables with the cost of coal fired generators build decades ago and long since amortised. As the Australian Energy Market Operator, and all the major utilities have made clear, the country does not need any new base-load power before 2020 – so the question to be asked is not what a coal-fired power station cost to build in 1970, but how much it will cost after 2020 – would anyone finance it – and how that compares with renewables, particularly solar thermal.
The answer is pretty simple and obvious to anyone who succeeded in 3rd grade maths. According to BNEF, no bank is going to risk its reputation on financing a new coal fired generator, but if they did, it would likely cost $143/MWh. A gas plant would cost $116/MWh. Wind energy now costs around $80/MWh.
By 2020, solar PV would likely have already bettered wind – some suggest it is close to happening now – and solar thermal technologies, with storage, able to produce dispatchable energy that is “better than baseload” at a price of around $120/MWH, according to the industry itself. By that time, the cost of coal and gas could well be in orbit. Even the government’s own official forecasts recognise that wind and solar will be cheaper than coal and gas.
To get there, however, Australia needs to build the stuff. Which is why you need something like the CEFC. Currently, Australia trails China, Japan, the US, England, Spain, Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, South Africa, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Turkey and the Dominican Republic (among others) in the deployment of large scale solar.
But the Coalition continues to speak from a position of ignorance – or possible from regulatory capture from the industry incumbents. If you piece together Abbott’s position on the carbon price, the CEFC and more lately, support for a hydro scheme from PNG, it begins to look a lot like an amalgam of the wish list from the major fossil fuel generators.
All this comes at a time when China is committing to building 3,000MW of solar thermal and 35,000MW of solar PV by 2015, along with another 100,000MW of wind, US Energy Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu says big solar will be cheaper than coal and gas in the US quicker than anyone expects – in fact it may already be there – and the conservative Prime Minister David Cameron this week was banging on about making the UK a “global showcase for green innovation and energy efficiency”, because it was “the right thing for our planet and, just as important, do the right thing for our economy too.”
The renewable energy debate in the Senate on Wednesday was revealing. A couple of Labor Senators spoke some sensible words on the carbon price, renewables, and the opportunity for business.
But the most informed speech came from Ludlam (right) and it worth a read. We won’t republish it in entirety, but here is a good excerpt. And here is a link.
“I think that many people, when they consider solar energy, think of rooftop solar panels. That is fine. We have seen huge falls in the cost of that technology as economies of scale kick in, particularly with the research and development leadership that Australia has shown over previous years, coupled with the massive manufacturing capacity of China. This has led to huge falls in the cost of PV. For example, in Perth—the latest figures I have from last September—218 megawatts of peak electricity was generated from the rooftops of the residents of Perth. It is interesting to note that the largest renewable energy installation in Western Australia is actually the city of metropolitan Perth. Because costs have fallen so fast—with halting policy assistance from both federal and state that comes and goes; rebates that get slashed and reintroduced, different schemes that come and go and even so people have done the right thing—we are now seeing large-scale deployment of solar energy in Western Australia and right around the world. So, PV is a big deal.
“But, what we want to raise today—and the reason the motion is worded as it is—is that there are major changes occurring in concentrating solar thermal technology which does not use photovoltaics, it does not require the rare earth minerals, it does not require advanced electronics or miniaturisation or particularly advanced manufacturing technologies. These are fields of glass, a kilometre or more across, that reflect the sunlight onto a central receiving tower which heats some kind of thermal storage mechanism—whether it be water, or hot oil, or molten salt, as was the case in some of the plants that we visited, and other technologies, including one that is proposed to get up and running in Western Australia using the solid thermal storage medium of graphite—and that thermal energy can be stored and dispatched later.
“That is how you get better than baseload solar plants that can run around the clock. It changes absolutely everything. It certainly should change—although I suspect he would be one of the last people on the planet to get the message—the determined, unhinged, pig ignorance of people like Senator Barnaby Joyce and the display he put on for us just now. That a senior policymaker in 2013 can still hold and express views like that is dangerous. And, it is a leadership example set by his leader, Tony Abbott, and premiers like Premier Barnett in Western Australia which is dangerous. Crossing the road with a blindfold on is dangerous. We cannot allow people like these to hold leadership positions in Australia while the ship heads towards the rocks.
“We have the technology, we have the institutional set-up and now we have the funding mechanism to make plants like this a reality in Australia, largely in part because of the leadership shown by Senator Milne, by Adam Bandt and by our former leader, Senator Bob Brown, in bringing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation into being. We are not simply taxing the several hundred largest polluters in the country, but we are using a large fraction of that revenue to build the platform to replace the polluting infrastructure. This technology is good because it gives you the thermal storage, it is responsive to demand, unlike coal and nuclear power plants, it is relatively simple to build and it can happen on a large scale, on a utility scale. That is what has been missing from this debate up until now.”
The rest of the speech isn’t bad either.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.