Leadership means being out front, leading the way. Yet the 'Innovation Prime Minister' has missed an easy win on an issue formerly close to his heart.
In a 'climate' where even energy giants are baying for leadership and certainty, will 'Turnbull the Turncoat' end up being the PM's legacy?
Back to the future
On March 16 2017, SA Premier Jay Weatherill gate-crashed a press conference arranged by federal Energy Minsiter Josh Frydenberg to announce an $20 million AGL designed residential virtual power plant (VPP), to which the federal government contributed $5 million.
At the same time, Prime Minister Turnbull announced a $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Mountains Hydro plant in NSW to raise its energy output by 50% (as long as droughts don’t interfere). According the ABC, ‘Mr Weatherill said it was “galling” to be standing beside Mr Frydenberg after he and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull had spent the past six months "bagging South Australia at every step of the way".’ He told Mr Frydenberg that it was ‘a disgrace the way in which your Government has treated our state,’ and called it ‘the most anti-South Australian Commonwealth government in living history.’
Source: Sydney Morning Herald
The Snowy Hydro expansion is a complete surprise, and shows all the elements of a hasty grab for a quick fix. Peter Harcher wrote a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald headed Life copied satire when Turnbull needed a plan, which began with a scene from the ABC satire UTOPIA. ‘It was nation-building,’ Harcher wrote. 'It was It was Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme 2.0. It was ”an electricity game changer" …’ It just needed a feasibility study, and then it was ready to go by the end of the year. It would be completed in about 4 years.
According to Harcher, when the chief of the Snowy Hydro Scheme Paul Broad was interviewed on Sky News, he conceded that this was more of a concept than a plan, a concept that needed geological, technological and financial feasibility studies. Danny Price at Frontier Economics, a former adviser to Mr Turnbull on energy, told Radio National: ‘At this stage I would regard the Snowy proposal as a thought bubble.’
Mr Weatherill called the expansion of the Snowy River Hydro Scheme a "$2 billion insult" to South Australia, the Sydney Morning Herald reported. In a addition, the SA premier labelled the Turnbull government’s approach as ‘reactive’ and ‘panic-driven’ after years doing nothing. ‘It shows that they’re in a white knuckled panic about national energy policy,’ Mr Weatherill said, ‘… It is a $2 billion admission that the national energy market has broken … We won't wait four to seven years to invest in some Snowy Hydro scheme. We are investing here so that SA can become self-sufficient.’
How Dirty is Clean Coal?
The Snowy Hydro idea is a change from the clean coal concept Mr Turnbull has been promoting in recent months. Sadly, ‘clean coal’ is a misnomer since even the most efficient new plants only reduce C02 emissions by about 40%, according to the Stephen Long at the ABC. Another way of putting it is that ‘clean coal’ plants reduce emission from 100% to 70%. ‘They're prohibitively expensive,’ says the Financial Review's Ben Potter, ‘and although they emit less carbon per megawatt hour than existing plants, they still emit a hell of a lot of carbon – about 700 kilograms per MWh.’
‘Major Australian energy companies have ruled out building new coal plants,’ writes Frank Jotzo in The Conversation. ‘The Australian Energy Council sees them as “uninvestable”.’ AEC CEOMathew Warren says, ‘While lower emissions coal-fired power stations could be considered theoretically, in practice there is no current investment appetite to develop new coal-fired power in Australia.’ In order words: none of the AEC’s members plans to build such a plant.
Carbon Capture and Storage schemes can strip up to 90% of C02 from coal but their exorbitant cost makes them even less viable. ‘The notion that coal will deliver clean, cheap, reliable electricity ‘is a seductive political soundbite but a world away from hard reality,’ says Andrew Stock of the Climate Council. Again, very few CCS plants are likely to be built for economic reasons.
No Leadership on Renewables
Mr Turnbull won office in part on an innovation platform, but his deeds haven’t matched his words so far. Instead of taking a leadership position and supporting South Australia’s advances in renewable energy, Mr Turnbull decided to use the state as a big stick to beat the Labor Party with. He blamed S.A’s ambitious renewable targets for its power cuts last September – even though they were caused by storm damage to poles and wires – and again in February this year when a gas-fired power station wasn’t powered up in heatwave.
Mr Turnbull missed the chance to show leadership and announce an overhaul of a broken system. Catherine Tanna did not. The CEO of Energy Australia, the country’s largest operator of coal-fired power stations, took out full-page newspaper ads calling for a non-partisan push for clean energy. She said Australia needed a transition strategy to cleaner energy sources and a roadmap for investors.
The ABC reported that ‘Her comments echo the sentiments voiced in a joint statement issued from an unlikely alliance of 18 groups — including the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Aluminium Council and World Wildlife Fund — demanding a non-partisan approach to energy policy.
What did the government do? Mr Turnbull accused Labor of a ‘mindless rush’ to renewables (The Australian), and Treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament, waved it around and passed it to his colleagues. Did none of them see how out-of-step this gesture was in 2017? Successful leaders have a keen sense for the mood of their time. It appears Mr Turnbull does not.
Source: The NEWDAILY
It’s not just lack of timing, vision and leadership, it’s also the weaving of a fabric of alternative facts as Donald Trump would call them, that support the government’s cheap point scoring. One of many examples was that of Mr Turnbull blaming high renewables targets for the high energy prices in South Australia. As Paul Bongiorno reports in the NEWDAILY, the highest price rises for electricity over the past decade occurred in the three states with the highest reliance on coal power and the lowest on renewables: New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria.
People trust leaders who give them the facts. They don’t trust politicians who play fast and loose with the truth.
The Blame Game
Tom McIlroy wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘The Prime Minister said looming domestic shortfalls, coming amid record overseas exports of Australian gas, had been created by state government policies. He singled out Victoria and South Australia - which both have Labor governments - for criticism.’
‘You know the situation is bad,’ says Paul Bongiorno, ‘ when the nation’s biggest energy users like the Australian Aluminium Council, The Australian Steel Institute and the Cement Industry Federation, joined 15 other groups urging the politicians to stop the blame game and come up with a bi-partisan policy that will survive the three-yearly electoral cycle.’
When Mr Weatherill announced South Australia’s new energy plan, Mr Frydenberg immediately attacked his decision and demanded that ‘state governments follow a federal lead to ensure homes and businesses aren't left without adequate gas supply.’ That leaves us with an obvious question in this sad spectacle: ‘Where is the federal lead?’ Surely South Australia went its own way because there was no leadership forthcoming from Canberra.
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