renewable energy in Australia

Sue Boyce gives her final senate speech in 2014

Few outside the political class remember Sue Boyce, the thoughtful Liberal, and then LNP, senator from Queensland who left politics when her term expired in 2014. Boyce, with colleague Judith Troeth, crossed the floor in the Senate in 2009 to vote for the Rudd government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme as amended in negotiations with the, by then, ex-leader Malcolm Turnbull.

In addition to taking the courageous walk across the chamber, Boyce — a successful businesswoman before politics — gave an interesting speech on her motives. She told the Senate:

“My own background is as a manufacturer. In that sphere, I know the benefits of early adoption. I would just like to point out to the Senate that it was the Shergold task force, commissioned by the Howard government, who said, long before we got to this place, that Australia should not wait until a genuinely global agreement has been negotiated, because there are benefits which outweigh the costs in early adoption by Australia of an appropriate emissions constraint.”

And, she added presciently, “if you look at the areas of Northern Queensland and around the Great Barrier Reef, there is immense concern that action must start globally and it must start quickly. Part of starting that global action is for us to start. I do not see any problems with us being a first adopter; in fact, I see benefits.”

But Australia, it seems, is devoted to the benefits — such as they are — of late adoption. The economics of power generation have changed fundamentally since Boyce spoke in 2009. For example, US government figures show that both residential and commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) costs, fully installed, have more than halved between 2009 and 2016 and utility-scale PV costs have fallen by more than two-thirds. And those numbers are already out of date — solar PV at utility scale costs fell another 11% across 2016 and will continue to fall at a substantial pace, regularly rendering price projections out of date.

This has so comprehensively wrecked the business model for coal-fired power that investors can’t be found for new coal-fired generators, forcing fossil fuel enthusiasts like Matt Canavan and Tony Abbott to propose the federal government use taxpayer money to build coal-fired plants. Meanwhile, the global leadership that Australia had on solar power technology development up until the 1990s has been lost as other countries dramatically scale up their own industries. Australia could never have competed in the manufacture of solar power systems given our lack of scale but there were immense opportunities in developing the technology itself, emerging just as we dropped the ball in the 1990s when the Howard government abolished renewable energy research funding. Now we’re playing catch-up in a field where we have no excuse not to lead.

And now our efforts to find a way out of the mess bequeathed us by the Coalition’s climate denialism are complicated by the fact that the world is leaving us behind on energy, and heading in a direction that a politically influential bloc of denialists in politics and the media want to resist.

A similar dynamic is at play on electric vehicles. This week, the Tory government in the UK announced combustion engines in cars would be banned from sale from 2040. The French government made the same announcement last week.

The bans may be symbolic because, as the sage Ambrose Evans-Pritchard pointed out in the UK Telegraph, the combustion engine may be a relic in a shorter time frame than a couple of decades — although car fleets take a lot long to turn over than, say, those old analogue cameras we used to lug around. 

But compare and contrast Australia where, as recently as this month, tighter vehicle emissions standards were being compared to a “carbon tax” by a News Corp tabloid in an effort to whip up a scare campaign, which sent politicians scurrying to take cover/take advantage.

Australia will be fully importing its car fleet from next year. Again, the economics of global markets will drive shifts in transport technology, not the rantings of Murdoch hacks or opportunistic politicians. Australia has long had some of the weakest vehicle emissions standards in the developed world — we’ve only recently caught up to standards that Europe has had in place for five years. That has been good for Australian motorists, because foreign manufacturers could dump their high-polluting vehicles here. But eventually it will no longer be economic to keep manufacturing vehicles to lower standards. And our poorer standards have done nothing for our automotive technology development sector, which we’re notionally committed to retaining even as we farewell actual vehicle manufacturing.

If we’d listened to people like Sue Boyce, who spoke with the voice of experience, we might have tried to seize, rather than cede, our advantage of having a highly educated, technologically experienced population that has persistently demonstrated over the last 200 years an aptitude for innovation. Instead, we’re stuck watching the world move on while we play facile games.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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