George Christensen

At least one climate denialist is prepared to admit the truth of their position on electricity. Far-right Queensland MP George Christensen wants governments to return to the power-generation industry and build coal-fired power plants.

We knew they hated market-based policies and preferred big government — thus the loathing of a carbon price, and its replacement with Direct Action, under which bureaucrats picked winners to get handouts. But Christensen has gone the full socialist, with governments building and owning industry.

That’s where you end up when you back coal-fired power, but investors are not prepared to do the same. Investors won’t put their money into coal, but Christensen et al will happily put your money into coal.

How much would it cost? New ultra-supercritical “clean coal” plants cost a couple of billion dollars a go, at least. But you’d need a lot of them, especially if you wanted to meet the carbon emissions abatement goal to which Tony Abbott committed Australia when prime minister, because no matter how many prefixes like super, ultra, advanced, hyper and mega you put in front of these plants, they still produce a lot of emissions, meaning there are only limited net reductions from taking existing coal-fired plants offline and replacing them with new ones.

How much would taxpayers be up for? Earlier this year, Dylan McConnell of the Melbourne Energy Institute had a crack at estimating the cost of achieving the kinds of emissions reductions claimed for clean coal by Coalition coal spruikers like Matt Canavan, which are around 27%. In McConnell’s estimate, you won’t get any change from $60 billion.

[Matthewson: Turnbull should crash through on Finkel — he’s crashing anyway]

And that wouldn’t come from the capital account of the budget — it would go straight onto the budget deficit bottom line. Unless the coal spruikers decided that consumers and business must pay high enough prices to recover the full cost of all those billions, plus a small return on the investment — which would entail dramatically higher prices than available from renewable energy sources.

And the costs of coal-fired power would be even higher than that because it is an inflexible power source, unable to ramp up when energy from renewable sources drops at night or when there’s no wind. Leaving these new plants not running part of the time would drive prices up even more. Which Green MP or radical sandal-wearing leftist claims that? Erm, the employer peak body Australian Industry Group’s Principal National Adviser.

Of course, that problem could be addressed by taking renewable sources of power offline so that coal-fired power could operate continuously without needing interruptions for intermittent sources. That would bring the per MW/h cost down a little. But then you’d have to replace all that renewable capacity you’ve removed with still more new coal-fired stations. More cash please, taxpayers! Plus a few billion in compensation for the operators of renewable energy sources whose plants you disconnected.

You’d also have to ban renewables altogether. After all, they’ll be cheaper — probably significantly cheaper — than coal-fired power and businesses and consumers might prefer to use them. But then they’d compete with the government’s new coal-fired power supplies and recreate the ramp-up problem you had before you took all the renewable sources out of the grid. So best just to ban all non-coal-fired power.

That’s the proper Soviet way, of course: government controls everything, private enterprise not allowed.

Or you can build the things and run them at a loss, pumping out carbon emissions when no one needs their power, watching them become ever more obsolete as other energy technologies get cheaper and cheaper, a vast dead weight on the budget papers.

If Christensen and Co. really want to go down the Soviet path, they can do it far more efficiently and effectively: simply force LNG exporters to provide enough gas to the east coast energy market to drive gas-fired power prices down to an affordable level. Gas-fired power is far more flexible than coal, has much lower emissions, and — best of all — it’s a fossil fuel as well, so there’s no concern about those filthy renewables. And you don’t have to ban anything except LNG exporters selling gas at an international price.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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