In the 2010 Budget documents and associated media releases by energy minister Martin Ferguson — no less than eight, under the boastful rubric Australia’s biggest ever renewable energy rollout — the government tries to create an impression of active support for Australian scientific and engineering research efforts in the renewable energy field: solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels.

Yet in terms of new money, it’s still small beer. There is $650 million in the trumpeted $5.1 billion Expanded Renewable Energy Future Fund — the remaining $4.5 billion recycles previous Budget pledges. More importantly, money from previous Budgets for renewable energy is still being doled out at a snail’s pace, with the emphasis on spreading the (thin) gravy around Australia as widely as possible, rather than on achieving fast greenhouse gas emissions cuts (which is what climate change mitigation policy is supposed to be about). Again, the story is being spun.

The selection of one 1000MW solar flagship power station now seems one year behind schedule. The 2010 Budget papers say that the two final successful flagships applicants — one solar and one coal carbon capture and storage — will be announced in the first half of 2011 (originally promised for the first half of 2010). Meanwhile, four short-listed solar photovoltaic and four solar thermal company projects (totalling 1425 MW, in the range of 150-250 MW each, and spread over all states except WA and Tasmania), will share $15 million in feasibility funding. Separately, there is $92 million for two “large-scale” (actually, quite small — 23 and 40 MW) solar energy demonstration projects in Queensland and SA. There is another $20 million odd to be spread around five research projects in advanced solar energy technologies.

As in Catch-22, everyone gets a share. But this is all peanut money, which won’t begin to spend the vaunted $5.1 billion on Australian renewable energy installation. It’s all experimental, prototype stuff. The proposed 1000MW solar flagship power station seems many years away. There is no sense of urgency — rather, of dribbling a few million dollars around the country, to keep the renewable energy lobbies happy, or at least quiet. It is still climate change policy à la Rudd: clever interest group politics. For all Wayne Swan’s good words on “investing in renewable energy” in his Budget speech, there is still no national decarbonisation vision, no appreciation of the real urgency of the task before the nation if the government really believes the warnings of climate science.

The other flagship program, coal carbon capture and storage, was noticeably de-emphasised in the 2010 Budget. Maybe the government now quietly understands that, as a counter-global warming strategy, CCS is going nowhere. The coal industry won’t be sorry — it was only paying lip service to CCS, and it still gets its huge transport infrastructure subsidy.

There are good things. There is a new board of a new body, the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy, chaired by the NSW Chief Scientist, Professor Mary O’Kane, who advises government and companies on innovation, research, education and development. She has expertise in process and information (smart systems) engineering; let’s hope she is a fast learner on climate change science. There are welcome tax concessions for geothermal energy. There is recent or new support for international renewable energy and energy efficiency bodies. There is $30 million for a public education program in climate science — sorely needed, after the damage done by the denialist lobby over the past two years to public understanding of climate change.

But there is still no sign of any overriding national policy vision for climate policy. The Rudd government seems to be still just indolently trying things out — fiddling while Australia’s climate security burns.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey