Sunday, February 23, 2014

Five things we learned: Fossil fuels and fools rule Australia

Australia solar lacks corporate muscle 
In a visit to California last year I interviewed the head of the energy division of the utilities regulator, and we discussed the incentives offered to rooftop solar. California currently offers a 1:1 net tariff, which means that solar households get as much for the electricity they export as they pay for the electricity they import. The utilities hate it and want it wound back, and the regulator has some sympathy with their position. Why don’t you do it, I asked. Because the solar industry is too powerful, he replied.
He’s right. Solar is a powerful industry in California, comprising multi-billion dollar companies such as SunPower, SolarCity, Sungevity and many others. It is an industry supported by the likes of Google, Apple and Tesla, and has the backing of the major banks such as Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and others. Warren Buffett and the country’s biggest generation companies are significant investors. When California governor Jerry Brown addressed a solar conference in San Francisco last July he told them: if anyone gets in the way of the solar industry, I want to know about it.
California, like the most progressive states in Australia – South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT – is able to be this way because it has virtually no fossil fuel industry to speak of. Contrast this with Australia, where the solar industry is disparate, and fossil fuel interests have long been powerful, and now dominate thanks to conservative government in the major states and in Canberra who are convinced that their ideologies, their business interests, and their take on climate science align.
The recycling of old fossils
The head of the newly constituted renewable energy target review panel, Dick Warburton says he is no “denier”, he just doesn’t believe any of the science that says human activities contribute to climate change. And he’s rather proud of his position. Asking someone like Warburton to review a renewable energy policy would be like appointing a flat-earther to organise a round-the-world trip, or asking a Creationist to design a science syllabus, or to appoint an Institute of Public Affairs policy advisor to the Human Rights Commission. What? Oh.
In any case, it makes Warburton a perfect choice to head Tony Abbott’s review of the renewable energy target. The addition of former ABARE chief Brian Fisher, former Verve Energy CEO Shirley In’t Veld, and the housing of the secretariat within Abbott’s office will ensure that it does not sway too far from the script.
There are two things that we can be certain of about the RET now. One is that the 41,000GWh target by 2020 will not stay in place, so the anticipated development of wind farms and solar farms will be delayed. The other certainty is that the RET will not be canned altogether, because that would invite too much legal action. But there is plenty of scope to effectively bring large-scale, and even some small-scale development to a halt, with no other motivation other than to protect the interests of incumbents and delaying the inevitable.

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