27 June 2009

Power failure

Here is a post in favour of renewable energy that doesn't really address environmental issues, but rather the business and political impacts of the current non-policies of this country.

(I believe that human pollution leads to a rise in global temperatures and that rising temperatures affect our environment dramatically, and for the worse. I take that as a given in what follows and am not interested in hair-splitting and water-muddying that might indicate otherwise: I have always been offended by pumping filth into the sky, and its climate impact just makes this worse. Like most people I'm not a scientist, so I'm ill-equipped to wage a scientific discussion anyway: but from a risk perspective it's better to act against carbon pollution than to accept fud as an excuse for doing nothing.)

The Federal government sent a whole lot of solar-power installers to the wall after it was first elected. People had been encouraged by small-scale incentives from then-Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, invested in solar power and waited for the Rudd government to be even more environmentally-friendly than the Howard government ... only to be horribly let down and financially disadvantaged.

Surely, those from coalmining and -burning companies should have seen that as a stay of execution rather than a win.

Renewable energy was raised at the 2020 Summit and we were promised a clear response to that: nothing yet. Again, we were promised a response after Garnaut: still nothing, a bit of faffing about 5% in the face of climate-driven deterioration of the Antarctic and the Great Barrier Reef.

Then, finally, we were promised that something would happen once the US put legislation in place. For sure! Well, that legislation has just passed the House, it may well pass the Senate and is hardly likely to be vetoed by President Obama in its current form. Time to get a move on people.

At this rate the Rudd government will be the first Australian government to go to a major international conference without a clearly-defined national interest. This isn't to say that Australia should dictate terms but it never goes empty-handed:

  • When Billy Hughes went to the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919, he had a clear agenda for what Australia wanted (and didn't want).

  • When Crazy Herb Evatt went to the UN conference in San Francisco, he acted from a clear national interest.

  • Same with ANZUS, the Colombo Plan, you name it; throw in your own idea of an important international treaty and the same thing applies.

  • Even at Kyoto, then-Environment Minister Robert Hill had some idea what Australia's national interest was, only to have Howard pull it out from under him (you should've resigned Robert; might not've had a cushy pad in Manhattan but at least you'd have some pride and moderates would have something to work with. Oh well.).

I dread to imagine if Rudd had been PM nine decades earlier, with all the concessions given to stablehands, farriers, saddlers and Cobb & Co with the rise of motor vehicles, and handing New Guinea off to the Japanese at Versailles.

When Rudd and Penny Wong go to Copenhagen, they'll be going empty-handed (or to use dramatic wording from another age, "naked into the conference chamber" - but that's too gruesome an image so I'll just go on). Australia's policy and negotiating position would seem to be: I've got no idea, have you?

We can't be sure what the outcomes of Copenhagen might be (even less as we're not in a position to influence them), but the sheer poverty of dithering and trying to please everyone is illustrated by emerging trends which stand to leave Australia far worse off than we are already, but which we would normally expect to put to good use and be much, much better off in all sorts of ways:

  • This article suggests that China will rely increasingly on solar power. Three cheers for UNSW for providing the education to Zhengrong Shi, but is it too much to expect that Australia and Australians could have gotten more out of the prospect of a solar-powered China?

  • One of the little-reported aspects of the February fires in Victoria was the deployment of the army and other resources to fires that had broken out near Victoria's coalfields. If those coalfields had ignited it would not only have denied that state its entire power source but created a vast underground fire that would have rendered much of the state, including much of Melbourne, uninhabitable - and warmed our part of the planet considerably.

  • This one talks about baseload power - but surely it is a nineteenth-century idea that power has to be generated remotely on a massive scale and piped across distance, further dispersing energy wastefully, to multiple undifferentiated users (especially as coal-fired power plants expend something like half their energy cooling themselves). Coal-fired power stations will decline in output over time and other forms of energy such as solar must take up that slack - whether or not you use old-fashioned terms like "baseload".

Solar power should be installed on all new buildings to cater for at least 25% of that building's anticipated usage - never mind the feds, it should be part of local government building permits. This instance of missed opportunity is telling:
Brilliant Australian-listed Dyesol, which makes third generation photovoltaic cells, had to go to Wales and partner with giant manufacturer Corus to commercialise its power-generating "Colourcoat" steel panels. (One wonders how colorbond maker Bluescope Steel missed this opportunity.)

Because Bluescope, presumably, is a typical large Australian company which thinks that the only incentives in business are those created or limited by public policy. Its lobbyists are the sorts of clowns who were either Howard government staffers, or who were so conditioned by the environment of the Howard government that they've internalised that way of thinking, to the commercial detriment of their employer.
Mighell says the supply and installation of PV panels is a "massive opportunity" for his members.

"Show me another industry with the potential for growth for blue-collar workers. There could be 20,000 jobs in the solar industry, if we get our act together."

When old-school union boofheads start to make sense, the impossibility of further dithering or pissant responses like the current ETS become clear.

I believe that Malcolm Turnbull is keen on some form of policy response and is being hamstrung by the same people who persuaded Howard that climate change was a crock, outlined by Guy Pearse and others. They see a number of advantages in keeping up appearances, the poor lambs:

  • The "clear air" of policy differentiation from Labor, which"as I've said is a recipe for failure, and what could be clearer for the air than reducing pollution?

  • The idea that those companies will provide money and other resources to aid the Coalition, just like they did in '96: with decreasing corporate profits and the polls the way they are, large-scale listed companies are going to donate the same to each major party at best. The Coalition can suck up to them all they like, but when they put their hands out for donations these guys will simply not be there. They can cheer from the sidelines and talk doom-and-gloom about an ETS, but if the Coalition is going to win in 2010 it needs the sort of support that the banks gave Menzies in 1948-49. I can't see that happening, can you?

Hopefully the Liberals will get tired of being made to look out-of-touch and foolish for the sake of people who cannot - and can't have any serious intention to - fulfill their pathetic man-on-horseback rescue fantasies. It may take a landslide to do that - but even then my experience (confirmed by recent history nationally and across different states) shows you can bet there'll be a muffled voice from under the rubble saying "let's not be too hasty".

Rudd doesn't have that excuse for dithering - he doesn't have any excuse at all. Let's see Peter Garrett escape from his cage and really sell a policy like he once sold tickets and albums. Rudd could and should use this as our escape hatch from the current global financial crisis rather than dither - the risk of forcing carbon industries into the arms of the Liberals isn't that great, and who thinks they'd make best use of any opportunity?


  1. Hi Andrew,

    I have made a tongue-in-cheek post around you!

    Enjoy :)

  2. Thanks invig, I'm flattered.