Australia faces a number of unique challenges, in particular the strength of the coal mining sector in the country. This has split politicians, with Tony Abbott, Australian Prime Minister from 2013-2015 being a very vocal supporter of coal, even dismantling the carbon tax during his time in office. This was a key milestone in Australia’s tumultuous energy politics, helping Abbott to secure power but dramatically affecting the country’s ability to meeting the targets it agreed to in the Paris Agreement.
But it isn’t. Today the cheapest form of new dispatchable or base load energy is renewables plus storage. We are now able to have lower emissions and lower prices but we need to plan it using engineering & economics rather than ideology and innumerate idiocy
— Malcolm Turnbull (@TurnbullMalcolm) March 7, 2019
While his successors have pushed for more renewables, their promises have often been contradictory. In 2018, the Malcolm Turnbull-led government put forward the National Energy Guarantee (Neg) in an effort to secure an energy policy. It included two key points, that energy providers had to have sufficient quantities of “reliable” power and that they had to reduce their emissions.
It was widely criticised by environmental groups, who claimed that it would not lower emissions.
The Turnbull Government's own consultants have slammed Turnbull's dirty power plan – the National Energy Guarantee – on their website. Pick up the phone and tell your energy minister to reject this dodgy deal! >> https://t.co/PufKbi8iSD #neg #auspol #savesolar pic.twitter.com/eqwYFeowjt
— Greenpeace Aus Pac (@GreenpeaceAP) July 30, 2018
Following an election in the summer of 2018, Turnbull was replaced by Scott Morrison as Prime Minister who made it clear that the Neg was dead.
The political infighting around the Neg is exemplary of the wilder energy debate in Australia, which has meant progress has stagnated as investment has been tentative. Often the debate is seen as between those backing coal to generate export income and those backing renewables due to environmental concerns.
Those within the National party and the Liberal party Coalition currently in power, often support the coal sector due to its ability to create long-term sustainable jobs. Turnbull came under fire for his support of the controversial Carmichael thermal coal mine, claiming it would create “tens of thousands of jobs”.
The importance of coal mining for jobs in Australia however, is a belief shared by many, including resources minister Matt Canavan, one of the most vocal critics of energy policy in the country.
So the Qld Treasurer tells Qld coal miners they no longer have a future! She is wrong … Last year was a record for coal fired power. But worse the modern Labor party lacks any compassion. They don't care about people's jobs or livelihoods!
— Matthew Canavan (@mattjcan) February 26, 2019
The role of coal in Australia, a major exporter set to become the world’s largest exporter of coal by the late 2020s, is potentially the most contentious aspect of the energy debate.
— Greenpeace Aus Pac (@GreenpeaceAP) April 1, 2019
Critics of the government, particularly those on the political left, highlight the large number of miners who are donors to the party. This includes former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s son, Alex Turnbull, who in a radio interview last year said those who “own a lot of coal in the Galilee Basin (Queensland)” were exercising “undue influence on Liberal Party policy”.
But there are also ideological differences within the Australian House of Representatives, which have contributed to the stalling nature of the debate.
“There are a significant number of members who do not believe in climate change, who would like to get out of Paris and who would rather build a new coal-fired power station,” said Turnbull speaking at an event in December 2018. He said that the MPs pushing for coal power stations were driven by ‘ideology and idiocy.’
Beyond political infighting, a major challenge for the country is just how high electricity prices are. Wholesale electricity prices rose by 130% between 2015 and 2017, leading the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission to call the energy market ‘unacceptable and unsustainable’ in a report published in July 2018.
We’ve made 56 recommendations to improve electricity affordability for Australian consumers and businesses. If adopted, the average household can save between 20-25% on their electricity bill. https://t.co/lVugLJagRi
— ACCC (@acccgovau) July 10, 2018
Exactly how to lower electricity prices has created almost as much political sniping as coal has.
The ACCC has recommeded the government underwrite baseload power investments. Once again common sense of @The_Nationals is vindicated!
— Matthew Canavan (@mattjcan) July 10, 2018
How to balance lowering energy prices, lower emissions and protect Australian jobs remains a huge challenge for Australia. But the argument for renewables appears to be growing, as they increasingly become the economical option, appeasing those concerned with emissions and those with high electricity prices.
Just like any nation, switching to increased renewables will mean that Australia will have to balance its grid. The intermittency of solar and wind power is one of the most common criticisms of the technology.
Australia has already had great success with battery technology however, most notably the Tesla mega-battery built in South Australia. The battery was activated in December 2017, within the 100 days promised by Tesla CEO Elon Musk in a tweet.
Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 10, 2017