We have a rare chance to make our electricity system fair again, but we need to act fast
While some politicians pretend there is still a choice between dirty and clean energy, the reality is like the dinosaurs they are being left behind. Our choice is actually about how we will transition to clean energy.
We have already failed to stop climate change, we now need to manage the effects and prevent it from getting worse. The path we take to renewables could be slow, bumpy, costly and unjust. Or it could be a rare chance to make our electricity system fair again, but only if we act fast.
The inevitable transition
The good news is the transition to clean energy is now inevitable. It is happening and will continue and ultimately we will move to a system powered by renewable energy and storage.
This long-term trajectory is now locked-in because the economics of energy are such that it is now cheaper to build solar and wind, backed-up by batteries or pumped-hydro than to build a new coal, gas or nuclear power station. That means that when Australia’s 19 operating coal power stations close they will be replaced with clean energy solutions.
Because Australia has some of the best renewable resources in the world, forward looking business people such as Sanjeev Gupta are seeing the long-term economic opportunity of clean energy in Australia and are working to speed it up. And businesses aren’t the only ones – more than two million Australian households and businesses have installed rooftop solar and this trend is set to continue.
The bad news is, that while Australia will move to clean, renewable energy in the long run, there is no guarantee that it will happen fast enough or in a way that doesn’t entrench existing inequality.
A fast transition
Analysis by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that if the world is to have a hope of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, countries like Australia must move beyond coal by 2030. That means that just waiting for coal power plants to naturally retire and be replaced with cleaner alternatives will take too long.
Burning coal for longer means more floods, more droughts, more record-breaking heatwaves, more coral bleaching, more heat-related deaths and the list goes on.
The great news – a faster transition to clean energy is entirely possible. Australia is in the midst of a renewables boom, we are building 6GWs of renewables and storage this year. If we can keep this rate going, we can move beyond coal generation for electricity by 2032 according to analysis by ANU.
Unfortunately, what their analysis doesn’t state is that to keep building renewables at the current rate for the next decade, will require the removal of a number of significant barriers. Specifically, speeding up the timeframes for upgrading our transmission infrastructure (big poles and wires) and putting in place more ambitious policy support than either the ALP or Coalition currently has on the table.
The current plans by the federal energy minister Angus Taylor to use taxpayer funds to support a new coal power station is just one example of Australia choosing the slow and costly path to clean energy. These efforts are tantamount to Taylor standing in front of the Townsville dam last week, trying to keep the floodgates closed. With a year’s worth of rain falling in nine days, the flooding of Townsville was unfortunately inevitable, the water was going to come over the spillway whether we liked it or not. Keeping the floodgates closed any longer would have just made the flooding worse and damaged the dam in the process.
Taylor’s plans to support a new coal power station, delays the inevitable transition to clean energy. However, it damages the climate, investor confidence, Australia’s international reputation, will cost taxpayers billions of dollars in the process.
While Labor is no doubt better than the Coalition on climate, even the ALP’s plans do little to put us on the right path.
Indeed, everyone from the market operator, to the ALP are developing plans that are slower than the science says is necessary and what current industry growth shows is possible.
Current industry and ALP plans only get only half of the job done by 2030. This is not good enough and it comes at a cost. Analysis of the ALP’s 50% renewables target by 2030 shows that the rate of renewables deployment would drop by 65% from current rates. That means a 75% reduction in renewable jobs between 2020 and 2030.
A fair transition
As we move to replace coal power stations with renewables and storage, there is no guarantee that we will look after the people most affected. The owners of Hazelwood gave their workers a mere five months warning that they would be out of a job. Meanwhile AGL which owns Liddell coal power station gave its workers a five-year warning, only to be subject to a scare campaign by the Federal Government, discouraging actions to drive a fairer transition.
While more than six million Australians enjoy the opportunity to lower their carbon pollution and electricity bills through rooftop solar, the most vulnerable low-income renters are not able to enjoy the same benefits.
Then there are the people most affected by climate change, be they Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory battling fracking or households in Western Sydney suffering from intense urban heat islands.
There are practical and popular policy solutions to all these injustices – from the ALP’s proposed Just Transition Agency, to a new Solar for All rebate idea, to banning fracking and planting trees and upgrading building standards. We know what to do, we merely need our political leaders to get on with it.
A fairer pathway is also faster. A fair energy transition involves everyone in the task be they the 30% of households locked out of solar or Australia’s coal communities and helps to remove opposition in the process.
In the transition to renewables, people as well as the environment matter.
For those of us who care deeply for this planet we call Earth and all that live on it, our job is clear: to ensure Australia and all other countries around the world choose the faster and fairer path to a clean energy future.
Nicky Ison is the founding director of the Community Power Agency and research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney.
Article & Image Source: The Guardian