Just like his broadband policy, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he wants energy policy to be technology neutral. Perhaps he should re-examine his broadband policy before embarking on clean coal projects.
When Turnbull kicked off his 2017 by targeting Labor on energy prices and security, he said the government needed to be technology agnostic — meaning coal was just as good as wind farms and gas and solar. Or as Barnaby Joyce put it, he treats every electron as equal.
The line was familiar for anyone who had covered Turnbull back in the day when he was shadow communications minister because it was the exact same approach he adopted for broadband. Rather than continue the future-proof fibre-to-the-premises project, the Coalition decided to put a stop to it and to try to use a mish-mash of technologies to achieve faster (than currently available) broadband quicker, and at a lower cost. Labor is made of “fibre zealots” who only want one particular type of technology while the Coalition’s approach meant NBN Co could choose whatever worked best in a particular area.
Some components of his proposal, like the Optus and Telstra cable networks, could be upgraded quickly and everyone would be on it by the end of 2016, he claimed. In reality, it has been nowhere near as simple. The process of investigating alternatives that ultimately haven’t panned out has cost the company millions of dollars and delayed the promised upgrade by years.
In the company’s half-year report earlier this month, NBN said that the Telstra component of the cable network was only made commercially available in June this year, and that as of the end of December last year, is available to just 158,938, with only 14,615 houses actually connected to it. A far cry from the more than 3 million Turnbull had promised in opposition.
Worse still, as the leaked documents that led to an AFP raid on ALP headquarters during an election campaign revealed, the Optus cable was just simply not up to the job — something predicted by technology advocates before the election but ignored by Turnbull in his pursuit of the technology-neutral approach. NBN had wasted years and millions on it.
In response to a recent question on notice from estimates, NBN revealed it had spent $4.2 million on its trial for the Optus cable it ultimately abandoned. Some 24,000 homes will still be connected on this network, but another 95,000 will now instead be connected by a different type of technology. As of the end of October last year, just 4000 homes were accessing the internet on this service. That $4 million isn’t a huge amount in the context of a $50 billion network, but it raises questions about what the company could have achieved if it hadn’t been so focused on being “technology neutral”.
The cable network was supposed to be the easiest component of the network upgrade, according to Turnbull, but it now appears to have been one of the most complex.
Given the reluctance to fund the construction of new coal-fired power plants, and the potential high cost in retro-fitting existing coal power plants to be “clean”, the government could find itself having to put up the cash to fund the project — just like it did with NBN — and being left with something that just isn’t up to the job, just like the NBN.
In the NBN debate, Turnbull did his best to reframe it from being a debate about what technology would suit Australia in the future to one about what is the fastest way to improve Australians’ internet access today. The energy debate is headed in a similar direction. Invest in renewable energy for Australia’s long-term future, or focus on the immediate need for cheap and reliable power through risky investment in retrofitting old technology.