Energy policy and the emperor with no clothes

Renewable energy must be part of Australia's climate policy writes George Browning

By George Browning

March 16 2017Strange how fairy tales contain so much hard hitting truth! Two years ago Margaret and I took ‘selfies’ beside Hans Christian Anderson’s statue in Copenhagen. His best known fairy story about the tailor who tricked the emperor into believing his new clothes were of the highest quality while in fact they were non-existent is hard hitting. Seldom has this fairy tale been more apt than in its application to the non-existent Australian Federal Government energy policy.

It has been clear for at least a decade that we are in the midst of an energy revolution which was initially being driven by environmental concerns, but which is now also being driven by the market and its inability to invest without clear policy. One of the costs of energy production is pollution. A failure to cost pollution has seen Australia’s energy market living in a la la land of stagnation. It is clear that for the sake of the planet energy needs to be harvested from the bountiful solar resources available every day, not from energy stored over millennia. It is also clear that technology that enables this harvesting is now and will increasingly be cheaper than 20th century technology based on fossil fuels. Talking about clean coal is like talking about dry water.
Why are politicians so incapable of enacting policy that will enable this revolution to serve both the environment and the economy, swiftly and efficiently? An obvious answer is the fractious and adversarial state into which politics has fallen. When one side of politics proposes the other side automatically opposes. This is not how the Westminster system is supposed to work. Governments and oppositions are not supposed to automatically shoot down the proposal of the other, but to hone proposals so that they serve the best, or ‘common interests’ of the citizenry. While this trend has many parents, there is no doubt that Tony Abbott accentuated this race to the bottom, both as leader of the Opposition and then as Prime Minister.
Another reason why policy is so absent is because the energy revolution is challenging a sacrosanct, fortress-like, neo-liberal capitalist view of the world. The revolution will enable thousands, indeed millions of people to generate their own energy and not be dependent upon large stock market listed companies to deliver energy for them. It will enable groups of people in a street, suburb, or locality to share energy between one another. As we are seeing in South Australia it will enable a State to go it alone without dependence upon the Federal Government to enact policy, or the national grid to deliver it. Privatisation will begin to take on an entirely different meaning. Rather than meaning someone producing a product to sell to someone else, it will mean ordinary people capturing the energy of the sun for their purposes in a similar manner to the way we capture oxygen through breathing.
It has been clear for some time that the normal capitalist approach of privatising everything does not work in relation to energy for two reasons. The first is that energy is an essential commodity that lies above and beyond the right of any institution or company to have total ownership or control. South Australia is right to have decided to take public control of a gas fired power station to ensure that public interest within the State is secure from profit gouging in emergencies. The second reason is that privatisation is about profit, not about service. As we saw recently in South Australia, in an emergency a company will look to its profit bottom line in deciding how to respond to an immediate need, not to the public good. Energy is an essential service, not just another product.
It is becoming abundantly clear that the now unstoppable energy revolution will contribute to the enhancement of human life, not return it to the Stone Age as those on the right of politics have tried to scare us into believing in order to sure up greedy profiteering in 20th century technology.
It is also the reason why all stops should be pulled out to stop the Adani mine in the Galilee Basin. It is clear that this mine will do immense harm to the Australian environment, not least potentially the Great Barrier Reef, and for what gain? Yes, there would be jobs in the construction phase, but we are going to put $1 billion of tax payers’ money into the railway and the Adani family are going to put all the money into the Cayman Islands. Let’s put those jobs into tourism and the renewable energy revolution.
It will not be very long before every new house in Australia will be constructed with enough solar energy generating capacity and storage to be self-sufficient. Nor will it be long before people are fuelling their cars from electric energy produced in their own homes. That this is a frightening thought for large profit gauging companies is not a matter over which most of us, or the governments nationally or regionally, should shed too many tears.

Dr George Browning is the former Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn. This is a slightly edited version of an article he wrote for his blog on 14 March 2017. See http://www.georgebrowning.com.au