Australia is one of the best-placed countries in the world to take advantage of wind and solar energy. The country should lead the world in the use of renewable energy. Everyone could be winners: consumers, producers, our children, their children and of course the planet. And it is the people’s choice. The Australia Institute found 86 per cent of respondents want to see more renewable energy and 79 per cent think governments should support an expansion in renewable energy. There is also very strong support for more electricity generated from hydro (72 per cent), wind (80 per cent) and solar (90 per cent). By comparison, only 11 per cent wanted more electricity generated from coal. So not only are we are naturally blessed with abundant resources of sun and wind, surveys suggest that we have a population which is strongly in favour. You would think that any sane government would act in accordance with these facts.
Yet, instead, a dirty business is set to be the winner if our government gets its way. Solar will be stopped in its tracks in favour of dirty old king coal and later, nuclear. Power companies and industry associations will demonstrate once again that the Abbott government is their puppet. Some dirty work has been deployed to contravene the will of the people.
The coalition’s dirty work was brazen. When the Abbott government made a big effort to appoint climate change denier, businessman and former RBA member, Mr Richard Francis Egerton-Warburton, aka `Dick’, in charge of a ‘review’ of Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, it sent a clear signal to all parties that its previous commitment to renewable energy targets was to end. And, as it did with the commission of audit and the national curriculum review, the coalition pulled a dirty trick. It hired a third party to do the dirty work.
The decision to mount its own inquiry was, in itself, cause for concern for those in the renewable energy sector. Why did Abbott not leave the review in the hands of the climate change authority? The authority was already scheduled to carry out a review. It seems, however, there are reviews and ‘reviews’. The Abbott government did not, in fact, want any independent evaluation or analysis, it simply wanted to justify turning back the clock to support its allies in the coal-fired electricity generation business. And as the cynical old adage has it: only commission an inquiry when you know the outcome beforehand. On this Tony Abbott and Vladimir Putin should have something in common should they meet in a fortnight in Brisbane during the G20 shindig.
In the case of Tony and Dick’s RET review, it was not a review which the government was after: it wanted a result. It wanted to stop the renewable energy industry in its tracks by watering down the RET, a closing of the scheme to newcomers and, if Abbott’s instructions were to be adhered to, abolished altogether. Old king coal stood to gain a new lease on life; his backers stood to pocket billions.
As things turned out, it was not an easy scheme to pull off. The appointment became a little controversial when Warburton, the favoured candidate, attracted the attention of the federal police. Hand-picked by Abbott, who faced down more than a whiff of scandal over allegations of bribery in a foreign venture, Warburton was engaged as Abbott’s hired gun. It was to be a double-barrelled gun. A self-professed climate sceptic, with connections to fossil fuels, Warburton was also the author of a Quadrant essay in 2008 in which he argued that Australia’s only alternative fuel option was nuclear. For many observers, the outcome of Warburton’s review appeared a foregone conclusion.
And so it has proved. Despite his disavowal that being a climate change sceptic would not in any way affect the outcome, Warburton’s panel report is clearly the product of those who cannot see the need for renewables; those who see all too clearly their duty to protect dirty coal powered generation. It recommended the RET either be closed to new entrants or increases in the RET be limited to half the increase in electricity demand — a “real 20 per cent’’ scenario. It must be noted that the RET is 41GWH. It has never been a percentage. Australia’s RET goal is for large-scale generators to deliver 41,000 gigawatt-hours or enough to power about 6.2 million households.
In proposing a ‘real 20%’, the government will cut the RET by 40% to 25-26 GWH. If adopted, the recommendations will decimate the local industry. The lights will go out in local wind and solar industries. Estimates are that 13 billion dollars of investment would be lost or one per cent of Australia’s GDP. Regional areas would bear the brunt of the lost investment in manufacturing wind turbine towers from Australian steel, and for other Australian products and services.
Obsolete coal burning plant will, however, be given a new lease on life. Existing power suppliers who are chiefly in the dirty business of burning coal to produce electricity stand to gain as much as $8 billion. Old, inefficient, obsolete plants previously decommissioned would be recommissioned. Power costs to consumers will rise. Research by Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows wholesale electricity prices could increase by $5 a megawatt hour by 2020.
Abbott’s appointment of Dick Warburton reveals his own and his party’s connection to big business and obsolete, dirty technology. It also hints at a potential nuclear future. Warburton is a highly successful businessman who has enjoyed lucrative directorships on many business boards including Caltex Australia. Yet his career has not been free from controversy. A director of Note Printing Australia, his firm was investigated by Federal police for alleged bribery throughout Asia between 1998 and 2008. Consequently there was some discussion over his suitability to head the review, but Abbott was prepared to make his captain’s call and appoint Warburton personally.
Abbott was aware at the time of appointment of a secret internal investigation into Warburton’s role as a former director of a firm involved in Australia’s worst foreign bribery scandal. Abbott personally approved the appointment despite serious questions about the role of Mr Warburton and his fellow former NPA directors in overseeing a company that police allege engaged in repeated foreign bribery. Accordingly, it has come as no surprise that the recommendations of his review represent bad news for the renewable energy sector, the Australian people and the planet.