Opposition leader Tony Abbott is clearly aware that electricity costs are a hot topic in the political and social debate around carbon pricing and energy policies.

With this in mind, it’s a little surprising that the Coalition’s policies appear to be outdated and out-moded, barely two years since they were formed. Indeed, the 137-page policy cheat notes revealed by Crikey earlier this month shows scant details, and no apparent connection to reality, or even political opportunity — even if they were more a quick guide to media sound bites than a formal policy document. But sound bites are what appear to dictate policies these days.

Among the cheat notes are two claims that can’t go without comment. They are that Labor had:

  • Failed to recognise that Australia faces a medium-term electricity generation capacity shortage that must be addressed immediately;
  • Failed to clarify the future pricing of carbon in Australia, making major energy industry investment decisions unacceptably hazardous.

The first seems to ignore the fact that Australia’s electricity demand has fallen for the past three years, and official forecasts made by the Australian Energy Market Operator out to 2022 have been cut by up to 30%, and no large utility can see the need for any new baseload capacity until that time. The Coalition can’t be blamed for misreading this, because the industry did too. But it needs to update its rhetoric.

The second point seems to ignore the fact that the greatest uncertainty around investment decisions has been created by the opposition’s threat to repeal the carbon price. Energy traders and utility boards are having to make a judgment about whether Abbott is serious about repealing the tax, playing with words, or even if he can implement his threat. Some of those questions can only be answered once the numbers in the Senate are clear.

The other great element of the Coalition’s energy policy may also need reviewing. The Coalition placed great store in its commitment to have 1 million additional homes connected with solar power — either solar PV or solar hot water.

But at current rates of deployment — and even taking in official forecasts such as that of AEMO — this policy is starting to look a lot less ambitious than it once was. The Direct Action policy acknowledged that more than 1.3 million homes might have solar PV or SHW by the time it is elected, and promised to ensure that another one million homes were connected by 2020.

That policy was based on there being about 275,000 homes connected with solar PV by the end of 2012. But there is already nearly triple that number. (And about half a million had SHW by the end of 2008).

But private and even official forecasts suggest that the slump in technology costs, higher retail prices for electricity and new financing options will mean that about 3 million Australian homes will have solar PV by 2020 just based on current policies.

The Direct Action document was designed to offer to pay $100 million a year in rebates on the installation of solar systems, or $1000 to 100,000 homes — although to actually deliver on its commitment it would have to lift that annual target to 143,000 homes or $143 million a year.

But given that the 1kW systems targeted by Coalition only cost about $3500, and will likely fall further in coming years, this appears to be a hefty subsidy, particularly given the anticipated take-up of solar leasing financing options, which allows households to install rooftop solar with zero upfront cost.

If the opposition were smart, it would target these support measures to areas that would struggle even with solar leasing — renters, for example, community projects, those whose incomes would still not qualify for leasing contracts, or assisting homes to dump their electric hot water systems for much more efficient solar (effectively relaunching the hot water rebates cut short by Labor).

That will likely deliver more emissions reductions, which seems to be the Coalition’s key criteria. If it can tailor its policy to ensure that more households get cheap access to solar — cutting emissions and reducing their electricity bills — then perhaps it can deliver a solar solution well beyond even the more optimistic private forecasts. And then it can explain to electricity retailers why they have just lost a third of their household business.

Greg Hunt, the Coalition’s climate change action spokesman, told RenewEconomy that while the solar policy does remain in place, it is being worked on. “At this stage there is no change, but we have a watching brief on the solar side and we have got flexibility if we need to adjust,” he said.

Of particular interest is finding a mechanism to offer solar hot water to low income households. Hunt appears to recognise that, on this, the Coalition could claim greater abatement and cheaper electricity prices.

Along the same lines, Hunt says another aspect of the policy the Coalition is working on is on demand management. He dropped a few ideas about this on the ABC’s Lateline a few weeks ago, suggesting that means of rewarding reduced demand should be built into the National Electricity Market, to avoid the “gold plating” of the networks that is now recognised by all and sundry in the political arena.

“Demand reduction is where we’ve signalled that we are going next, and to our complete surprise the energy majors have come on board with us,” Hunt said. That would likely be the generators, though, and not the state-owned distribution networks. But at least it’s a start.

*This article was first published at RenewEconomy

Peter Fray

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