An election weekend in need of some energy

Parties from both sides have served up a familiar menu of poorly developed policies that appeal to public prejudices and lack of knowledge about energy markets.

This weekend will see state elections in both Tasmania and South Australia with the betting websites predicting a change of government in both cases. The election campaigns have left few ripples on the national scene and even fewer in relation to energy policy.

Although the parties have taken fairly predictable positions, there are some unexpected differences.

Firstly, there has been a totally different pitch taken by Labor in Tasmania,where it centres on renewables, and South Australia where the word is barely spoken.

The economic importance of Hydro Tasmania means both sides of politics there are committed to its future health, and reliant on its dividends.

The Tasmanian ALP has gone full bore with a centerpiece policy to invest $1.5 million investigating a second Bass Strait interconnector while also backing the feasibility study for the $2 billion Hydro Tasmania’s TasWind for King Island. This has been topped by the Liberals who have committed $2.5 million for essentially the same study.

Labor has strongly supported the Renewables Energy Target, highlighting its underpinning for growth in the wind sector. They claim that the Coalition’s commitment to tearing up the carbon price will cost the state $150 million in dividends from Hydro Tasmania.

However, energy does not feature at the top of Labor’s election agenda. These positions seem mainly aimed at shoring up their position with a constituency which is still fairly Green – despite the big swing back to the centre in Tasmania at last year’s federal election.

The Liberals have been less enthusiastic but have also committed to the RET. They promise to cut “green tape” and list energy as one of the state’s strengths. They promise to lower prices by “effective competition and choice”.

One potentially contentious policy is the Liberals' support for commercial use of forestry residues for alternative energy generation.

The Liberals' central promise is a comprehensive State Energy Strategy by the end of 2014. They commit to ensuring Hydro assets “remain in Tasmanian hands” (not necessarily the government) and want to boost hydro generation by 10 per cent through upgrading power stations, raising dams, mini hydro and pumped storage schemes.

The Tasmanian Greens have predictably attacked both the major parties and claimed they would become the official opposition in the next parliament. Interestingly they have steered away from energy policy with their main commitments being on health and a light rail line to north Hobart. The ALP have returned fire, pointing out the Greens have opposed major energy projects (code for hydro) and opposed Basslink.

In contrast, the South Australian ALP has effectively run on a seven-point platform that consigns energy policy to the back row.

Clearly reacting to the perception that the carbon tax remains toxic with voters, there is no reference to renewables – despite the dramatic success wind has had in South Australia.

The renewable sector does get a mention by inclusion in the economic policy, being highlighted as part of the “new industries of the future”.

The exception is a commitment to install solar panels on 200 public housing properties. This is to be put to tender and “the manufacturer will then recoup the remainder of the costs from the excess energy generated by the panels”. If successful the scheme would be expanded to cover 5000 homes.

The South Australian Liberal leader, Steven Marshall, is being a bit more circumspect. Like the Tasmanian Liberals, his first priority is a Energy White Paper to “spell out the details of this policy”.

The goals are to “reduce bill shock”, lower household usage and “empower families to take control of their energy usage”. The Liberals see the sharp demand peaks in the evening as a core problem but are a bit vague about how they intend redistributing this demand.

Smart meters will be available on a voluntary basis, with no upfront costs. Consumers will “own their meters“ so retailers cannot prevent customers switching suppliers. There is no mention of time-of-use pricing but billing will become monthly, on a voluntary basis.

The Labor Government is blamed for a 133 per cent rise in electricity costs since 2002 as a result of a flawed regulatory system. The fact prices are now controlled nationally does not prevent a promise for a further state review and a number of promised reforms, including more efficient planning, constraining spiralling network costs, reducing gold plating and improved demand management. Yet the SA Residential Energy Efficiency Scheme is to be scrapped on the grounds it is poorly targeted.

Overall, parties from both sides have served up a depressingly familiar menu of populism and poorly developed policies that appeal to public prejudices, misunderstanding and lack of knowledge about energy markets.

Whoever sits down in the respective premiers’ offices on Monday may find their public servants scratching their heads about how to implement the election  promises they have been landed with.

Andrew Herington is a former Labor adviser and Melbourne based freelance writer.