climate change denial renewables

How does Australia top a year where the Monash Forum, Adani, and “soil magic” won again?

Gaze into Crikey’s solar-powered crystal ball and see what 2020 has in store for energy news!

Australia loses its last federal renewables policy

2020 will officially mark the completion of a primary mechanism for renewable growth over the past decade — the first Rudd government’s 20%, large-scale Renewable Energy Target (RET).

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Technically, Australia already hit our 33,000 giggawatt hour (GWh) target — slashed from 45,000GWh by Tony Abbott after he failed to kill it entirely — with a Tasmanian wind farm approved in August.

So six years since the carbon price was replaced with “nothing”, Australia will enter 2020 with no targeted renewables policy, leaving just the Gillard era’s investment bodies — the large-scale Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and innovation-focused Australian Renewable Energy Agency — as active drivers at the federal level. Their priorities will also evolve, largely in terms of new technologies, grid requirements, and investment ecosystem.

But in the face of the RET’s likely completion and that ongoing policy vacuum, investment continues to dip after an early 2018 peak. With Angus Taylor refusing an extension and even the aggressively-useless NEG still dead in the water, that slowdown is likely to continue into 2020.

“Emissions aren’t rising as fast as they would be because the RET is doing its thing for its last year of growth,” says Ketan Joshi, an Oslo-based climate communicator. “In 2020, the government will keep taking credit for the Labor party’s policy — even though it desperately tried to scrap it. In 2021, 22, 23, they won’t be able to do this.”

Pumped-hydro, hydrogen, and other hodge-podge ‘firming’ plans

While the Morrison government’s central climate policy, the $2 billion “soil magic” fund, is effectively a repackaged Abbott-era fig leaf, the party actually does have a few energy-related plans. Some even tangentially relate to decarbonisation, although many go the exact opposite way.

Come December 31, Angus Taylor’s pet underwriting scheme is expected to have approved up to six of its 12 shortlisted projects: six pumped-hydro projects — which store energy from renewables by pumping water up and down hills — five gas projects, and one small coal-fired power plant owned by a coal baron and Coalition donor Trevor St Baker.

There’s the Coalition’s retail price caps and yet-to-be-passed “forced divestment” legislation, an ad-hoc, interventionist package that’s been slammed by Grattan Institute for blocking more crucial investment.

The Coalition also supports two long-term pumped-hydro projects: Snowy Hydro 2.0, which, subject to NSW environmental approval, will commence main works in 2020; and Tasmania’s “Battery of the Nation” (BOTN) and Marinus Link to Victoria, which has entered public consultation. Both will (only) become useful if Australia ramps up renewable generation.

Finally, the National Hydrogen Strategy — agreed to by the federal and state governments last month at COAG — will see the CEFC and ARENA inject a combined $370 million to kickstart the very early stage industry.

But COAG also rejected a Greens-led push to limit funds to “clean hydrogen” sourced from renewables, meaning that there’s the very real likelihood of the Coalition positioning hydrogen as a Trojan horse for fossil fuels.

See also: the resurgence of the expensive, inefficient carbon capture and storage thought bubble.

State action

Holding the fort, and likely the only hope for decarbonising Australia over the next three years, are the state and territory governments.

The golden child, South Australia, sits at just over 50% renewables with a slate of new projects set to enter the grid next year — including a 50% expansion of its Tesla battery, co-funded, hilariously, by a federal government that once mocked it as a publicity stunt.

The ACT has technically just hit its 2020 target of 100% “sourced” renewables, while Tasmania, currently at about 95%, will continue work on the BOTN which, as early as 2027, could see that number jump to 200% and beyond.

Victoria should hit its own RET of 25% next year, while Queensland will keep jumping between legitimate progress and several new coal mines in the Carmichael region — expect plenty of fights over the Adani mine, which has only technically begun preliminary works.

“State of Play: Renewable Energy Leaders and Losers” Climate Council, 25 November 2019

For the dud states, smart money says NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean finally pulls NSW out of neutral.

Even the two worst performers will see updates on export projects: the Northern Territory’s $20 billion Sun Cable solar energy link to Singapore, and Western Australia’s massive solar-wind-hydrogen Asia Renewable Energy Hub. WA will also release a new climate policy next year.

Finally, 2020 gives voters in Queensland, the Northern Territory, and the ACT a chance to push all parties on climate action. Don’t fuck it up, voters!

Growing pains

The combination of new renewables, ageing coal plants, climate emergency-exacerbated weather extremes and a complete lack of federal planning means Australia’s grid is sure to make plenty of headlines next year.

“Despite the high probability of big improvements in storage, the stuff that replaces old fossil fuels needs strong, certain and clear planning, climate and energy policy for deployment to work well,” Joshi told Crikey. “None of that is being delivered by the government, and so what we’ll see in 2020 energy news is the consequences of a lack of planning, such as [blackouts], blamed on renewables.”

For guidance, we have the Australian Energy Market Operator’s 2018 Integrated Systems Plan — a two-decade infrastructure forecast that’s due for an update next year — although AEMO predicts that marginal loss factors will only increase as generation outstrips transmission infrastructure.

As Joshi notes, there are evolving controversies of who should pay for the changing grid requirements: the generator, retailer, customer, state and/or federal government. The Coalition, to its credit, addressed the funding problem in part in October with a $1 billion investment for the CEFC’s Grid Reliability Fund.

Finally, an upside to this stage of the transition, according to Joshi, is that for Australia “a very significant change will be the ‘shape’ of new facilities — co-located wind, solar and storage that is competitive with existing fossil fuel plants, but better because it is newer, more stable, more flexible and more responsive”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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