Australian clean energy groups put on plenty of bravado when the federal government unveiled the members and the terms of reference of its long-threatened review of the Renewable Energy Target on Monday. "Bring it on," challenged the Clean Energy Council. Other groups like Vestas, the world's biggest wind turbine maker, and Pacific Hydro, Australia’s biggest specialist investor in renewables, suggested the facts would speak for themselves.
If the clean energy industry thinks facts will win this argument, it is kidding itself. It has taken the government several months to work out how it will get around its statutory obligation for the Climate Change Authority to conduct the next review. In choosing climate change science denier Dick Warburton
to head its inquiry, the Abbott government has chosen someone who has not let facts get in the way of his ideology and policy positions.
Warburton says he is
not a climate change denier but a "sceptic" about the role of humans in climate change. He doesn’t accept the science. Given the consensus of thousands of scientists, all major scientific bodies and all but a couple of rogue governments, denial and what he calls "scepticism" amount to the same thing.
Warburton has also surrounded himself with people who, like himself, have spent much of their careers fighting environmental initiatives (carbon pricing, renewables) in an effort to protect the interests of the companies they managed or represented. Warburton did this as head of Manufacturing Australia, Shirley In’t Veld as head of Verve Energy, and Brian Fisher, the former head of ABARE and more recently a fossil fuel lobbyist, had a long history of creating modelling that argued against environmental mechanisms.
The purpose of the RET review is supposed to be about the cost of the RET on consumers, but these are as well documented and verifiable as the scores from the last cricket Test in South Africa. Each year, the costs are documented by state-run pricing bodies, and they have been assessed by the Climate Change Authority, the Australian Energy Market Commission and countless others. And they all come to the same conclusion: the cost is sweet bugger-all, at best 3% of electricity bills even after retailers have been allowed to profit from the inflated prices they charge back to consumers.
What this is really about is protecting the interests of the incumbent retailers, generators and network providers, many of which are government owned. They are losing money, and their assets are being forced out of the market. This is very much about self-preservation for these businesses. But it’s a hard argument to reconcile if the head of the review does not even accept the science that fossil fuels have contributed to climate change and should be curtailed.
To an extent, the public relations battle has already been lost by the clean energy industry. It was interesting to note how ABC’s Q&A discussion
centred almost entirely on the perceived high cost of renewables and the fact that there would be "too much" of it. The Labor representative, Tony Burke, was hopeless in its defence and simply wasn't on top of the brief, despite being a former environment minister.
On the ABC TV’s flagship 7.30,
the person chosen to give an independent perspective was Burchell Wilson, the chief economist from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a right-wing ideologue and a fierce anti-renewable campaigner
. Last week, Renew Economy pointed out
that he was using costings invented by the Institute of Public Affairs that are pure fiction. He was at it again on Monday on the ABC, unchallenged by the interviewer, quoting the same nonsense.
Wilson claimed Fisher would approach the issue like an "economist" and not have "any predetermined views on the matter". Then, in virtually the same breath, Wilson said of Fisher: "What he will tell you is the Renewable Energy Target is high-cost, it's inefficient as a means of abating carbon, and if that's your primary objective with respect to the RET, then we should scrap it altogether." It's all decided, then. And Wilson accused the renewable energy industry of being "disingenuous".
In the written media, the position of the clean energy companies -- which is now largely based around the attraction of renewables in the face of soaring gas prices -- was hardly heard. The Australian
had several opinion pieces, including one from its ill-informed chief political correspondent Dennis Shanahan, who suggested
that in dumping the RET, Australia would merely be following in the footsteps of Germany.
Not so. Germany continues to reduce its feed-in tariffs, as Australia has done, but is committed to rolling out renewables. It has a 35% target for 2020, and the new "grand coalition" of centre-right and centre-left parties has reaffirmed a commitment to 60% renewable energy by 2035. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said last month:
"The world looks with a mixture of a lack of understanding and curiosity on whether and how the Energiewende [Germany’s move from nuclear to renewable energy] will succeed ... If we succeed, then she [the Energiewende] -- and I’m convinced of it -- will become another German export hit. And I’m also convinced that if any country can succeed with this Energiewende, then it’s Germany."