Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

Some rare goods news on the climate and energy front: Australia is on track to beat its 2020 renewable energy target (RET).

The Clean Energy Regulator says it has recently approved enough new renewable energy projects to ensure the target of generating 33,000 gigawatt hours of renewable energy will be met a year ahead of the 2020 deadline. That means about 20% of Australia’s electricity use will be coming from large-scale and rooftop solar energy, wind farms and hydro power plants.

The RET was initially put in place by prime minister John Howard in 2001, to source an additional 2% of electricity from renewable energy by 2010. Since then it has been adjusted several times — most notably when the Rudd government expanded the scheme, followed by the Abbott government’s appointment of climate sceptic Dick Warburton to review the target with a view to getting rid of it all together. Investment in large-scale renewable energy dropped by 90% in the year after the review was announced and 2300 people lost their jobs in the sector.

Thankfully, despite a bipartisan deal to weaken the RET, investment recovered, building new renewable energy projects got cheaper and now here we are: about to source 20% of electricity from renewable energy ahead of schedule.

Minister for Energy and Emissions Reductions Angus Taylor is this week celebrating Australia reaching our RET. But this must be a bitter pill to swallow; Taylor has been one of the RET’s fiercest opponents over many years.

“There’s no question that the cost of energy coming from solar and wind is now low,” Taylor said this week. “So the real challenge now — and I’ve had this view for many years — is that this will become a challenge and it is, is to get balance in our system.”

Governments subsidise what they want more of and the Morrison government has made it very clear it wants more coal-burning power, and maybe nuclear too. But not renewables.

Minister Angus Taylor is looking to underwrite six gas and coal power plants through the Underwriting New Generation Investment program. The government has even ordered a review into an element of its flagship Climate Solutions Fund to make it easier for coal companies to access taxpayer support that’s supposed to reduce emissions, to pay for upgrades to power stations that burn coal.

That is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing to address the energy trilemma: to reduce emissions and electricity prices while increasing reliability of the grid.

According to the CSIRO, renewable energy is now the cheapest form of new electricity in the nation. So now the self-described “minister for lower energy prices” needs to explain why he is so keen to leave the cheapest form of energy in the nation — renewables — on the shelf, while looking to underwrite new coal plants and even going so far as holding an inquiry into nuclear energy, the most expensive new energy source on Earth. That’s a recipe for pushing electricity prices up.

The prime minister claimed his government can now close the chapter on the RET because renewable energy “doesn’t need government to hold its hand anymore. It’s grown up. And I think that’s a tremendous thing”.

But gas and coal power plants have had decades of government hand holding. Most coal power plants in Australia were built with taxpayer funding. So why does renewable energy need to “stand on its own two feet” while gas and coal continue to get a handout? Especially when fossil fuels are directly contributing to Australia’s high greenhouse gas emissions.

Last week, new government data confirmed Australia’s national emissions have risen for a fifth year in a row. This is not news to Angus Taylor, who has the unique title of minister for energy and emissions reductions. More renewables can benefit both parts of his portfolio. Renewables provide the lowest cost form of electricity and has helped lowered electricity sector emissions, which is the most high-polluting sector of the Australian economy.

It is Angus Taylor’s job to pick and choose what forms of energy the Australian government supports with taxpayer funds. What is then in the best interests of all Australians is as clear as daylight; whether the minister will make the sensible decision is as clear as mud.

Richie Merzian is the climate and energy director at independent think-tank The Australia Institute. He tweets at @RichieMerzian.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey