For many reasons, 2018 felt like a breaking point for energy policy in Australia.

While Abbott’s scorched-earth approach laid the groundwork, and all the Turnbull years gave us was capitulation and stalling, Scott Morrison will very likely end this Coalition government’s reign with the worst climate policies and carbon emissions in Australia’s recorded history.

But for one reason or another, this may have been as bad as it gets. Here are the year’s top energy stories, and why 2019 is likely to be at least slightly better.

Death of the NEG

Amongst all the very valid criticism of an energy revolt that helped bring down Malcolm Turnbull, a key point is often overlooked: Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee would have done roughly zero for renewables. Its 2030 emissions reduction target for the energy sector was expected to be met by 2021, and while the Energy Security Board still claimed the NEG would slightly increase the renewables share, it never released modelling demonstrating how.

It’s a shame because, unlike the Coalition’s next key energy policy, the NEG had almost a year’s worth of work put into it. Whatever you want to say about former energy and environment minister Josh Frydenberg, there was real effort put into a policy so tepid that both the Monash Forum and Labor could feasibly back it.

Government-funded coal plants

Post-leadership spill, the Coalition dropped any pretense of climate action, with every new minister wrongly insisting our spiking emissions will fall to Paris targets “at a canter”. Now, it’s all about price, and also probably coal subsidies.

Where Frydenberg hinted that the NEG could indirectly prop up fossil fuels, new Energy Minister Angus Taylor announced two more proactive policies about a day into his job: a divestment package that, at best, sounds like socialism, at worst could force retiring coal plants to remain operating; and plans to underwrite new or, against the inciting ACCC’s initial recommendation, existing 24/7 generation in time for the next election.

While projects could include hydro or gas, last week’s vague call for EOIs and Taylor’s rhetoric make the government sound awfully keen on reverse engineering the final tenders for proposed extensions for existing coal plants. Stakeholder consultation now points to the Vales Point plant in NSW co-owned by coal baron/Monash Forum buddy Trevor St Baker.

The two biggest questions here come down to whether the Coalition can lock in projects by May 2019, with their most optimistic scenario an East-West Link situation; and whether they need new legislation to underwrite coal projects.

Taylor has been coy about that last one. Meanwhile, critics are split between the fact that any changes to the go-to option — the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — would require new legislation, and that, if the Coalition can give the Great Barrier Reef Foundation roughly half a billion dollars on a whim, they can probably do this too.

ALP embraces direct action, cynicism

Labor’s announced energy policy is an amazing display of both practicality and cynicism.

First up, the $10 billion top up to the CEFC will ensure the organisation continues real, profitable investments in renewables, and the $5 billion for a new “Energy Modernisation Fund” will build on AEMO’s crucial 2018 Integrated System Plan for new grid connections. Other projects include battery subsidies, transition funds for coal workers, and community led-projects.

However Labor has somewhat surrendered the fight over emissions policies, picking a retooled NEG over a carbon price for the energy sector in an effort to preempt Coalition criticism. Almost doubling the Coalition’s 2030 renewable target to 50% sets up the real fight, but, considering Australia is meant to get there on current policies anyway, that figure is hardly ambitious.

Most importantly, none of this really relies on bipartisanship. The Coalition, if in opposition, can and probably will block the NEG 2.0 from the senate but won’t be able to do a thing to stop the cash. This is Labor admitting that democracy simply doesn’t work, but finding a way to do something imperfect anyway.

Record growth for renewables and emissions

Despite the five year policy vacuum, there’s a lot to celebrate in 2018. Western Australia locked in plans for the supermassive 11GW combined solar/wind/hydrogen Asia Renewable Energy Hub; South Australia’s Tesla battery turned one year old with $50 million in grid savings; and, for the first time ever, new renewable projects are now the same cost as, or cheaper than, existing coal plants in NSW and Queensland.

Australia’s increase to 19% renewable generation makes it all the more depressing that, hidden amongst public holidays, Australia recorded its highest ever carbon emissions. This is largely because of a newfound love of coal-seam-gas mining, which is set to take us to the world’s number one exporter by next year now that most states have lifted moratoriums.

Further, the Adani-Carmichael coal mine continues to limp on, despite ongoing lawsuits from “impecunious” traditional owners, and neither major party is set to limit Australia’s role in mining and exporting fossil fuels.

But there’s some silver lining there too, with our coal exports already peaking in the face of high prices and shrinking global demand. Which only shows that, at what will hopefully be the end to Australia’s ten-year energy war, almost everyone else on Earth has been putting out this fire while our politicians fiddled.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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