No country for clean energy

The long-term 'clean energy future' that Julia Gillard will portray in Rio this week depends on technology which the Labor government has been unable to drive forward in any meaningful fashion in its term of office.

Imagine a country with twice the area of France and Germany put together but with only 7.5 per cent of their combined population.

This is a country where electricity supply requirements have risen 66 per cent in 20 years.

Where residential power demand has risen 61 per cent in two decades.

Where business consumption has risen 118 per cent.

Where peak power demand has shot up nearly 78 per cent in 20 years.

And where power prices have risen more than 50 per cent in the past four years.

Where black coal is the principal fuel for generating electricity, with demand having risen 63 per cent since 1992 when the first "Earth summit” was held in Rio de Janeiro, the venue for the 20th such event this week.

This is a country where, as the world’s governments have meandered from Rio through venues like Copenhagen, Cancun and Durban in search of a means of curbing global greenhouse gas emissions, has increased its coal-burning generation capacity by 41 per cent.

Have you worked out where it is yet?

It is a 'country' situated north of the Murray River which, thanks to lines drawn on a map in colonial times, we know as New South Wales and Queensland.

This is Australia’s black coal country, home to almost 58 per cent of our total electricity consumption today and heading towards accounting for about 61 per cent of demand at the end of the decade.

It is where all the political tosh about the "clean energy future” meets reality and where realistic policy steps are hard and getting harder as power demand rises by about 1.4 per cent a year over the next quarter century.

It is a 'country' where neither of its governments has a say in adopting the biggest zero-emission power option of all, nuclear, because its uber-government in Canberra, and that administration’s green prop, is implacably opposed.

It is a 'country' where the wind power prospects in its north are not brilliant and the much better resource in its south is hobbled by community opposition and a government leader who would prefer the technology was not used.

It is a 'country' where heavily-subsidised large-scale solar power stations have not even been able to find purchasers for their product in the past two years because of the technology’s costs.

It is a 'country' that also happens to be rich in another fossil fuel, coal seam methane, but where the resource has been corralled in to a major LNG development in the north and where the farming communities in northern NSW, aided and abetted by their "natural enemies” (to quote the National Farmers’ Federation), the Greens, are bitterly opposed to CSM intrusions on their land and deeply concerned about its impacts on water quantity and quality.

It is a 'country' where the most populous bit, NSW, depends for 95 per cent of its gas supplies (fuelling 1.1 million business and household customers) on imports from South Australia and Victoria – and where these contracts run out between 2014 and 2016.

NSW, according to the state energy minister, is facing an "energy crisis” in the midst of plenty by mid-decade.

It is a 'country' that represents a large part of the reality behind the posturing Prime Minister Gillard will pursue at the Rio summit this week, spruiking, mainly for domestic consumption, her "clean energy future” policies.

These are policies that, on the federal government’s own modelling, will see another billion or so tonnes of black coal burned in NSW and Queensland over the next 25 years in addition to about 6,000 PJ of natural gas.

North of the Murray is also a 'country' where a consumer obsession with domestic comfort will see peak power demand rise another third this decade in a region where consumption spikes, reliability requirements and the need to replace aged assets are causing an outlay of almost $30 billion on distribution networks between 2005 and 2014 and perhaps half as much again by the decade’s end, helping to drive up retail power bills to painful levels.

Some observers – Port Jackson Partners for one – see household bills doubling north of the Murray between 2011 and 2017.

Some – AGL Energy for one – see the number of households mired in "fuel poverty,” where, to quote Anglicare this month, families are choosing in the winter between heating and eating, rising to about 300,000 by mid-decade.

The long-term "clean energy future” that Gillard will portray to another 129 governments and thousands of hangers-on in Rio this week depends for its 2050 power mix to a large extent on the introduction of carbon capture and sequestration for both coal plants and gas-fired turbines.

It is technology which her government has been unable to drive forward in any meaningful fashion in its term of office.

In the case of NSW, home to the nation’s largest volume of emissions, no-one knows where the sequestered carbon can be stored.

Gillard’s government, Barry O’Farrell’s government and the coal industry have just created a $58 million pot to support a search for suitable burial places.

North of the Murray is also a 'country' where Gillard’s government is not prepared to give the taxpayer-owned black coal generators one cent of federal compensation for the impact on them of the carbon price.

And it is home to the largest number of small businesses in Australia, firms faced with the nation’s highest power price rises. They also will not get a cent of compensation.

This is a 'country' contributing $44 billion a year to the national trade balance through black coal exports and which is currently enmeshed in problems dealing with the federal government (and some local communities) over new project infrastructure and the impact of the carbon tax on some existing ones.

When Julia Gillard performs her set-piece 'how good are we?' talk to the Rio summit this week – fervently hoping that some benefit will accrue to her at home from the television news coverage – it is not unreasonable to ask which country she claims to represent, perhaps not least because North of the Murray is a 'country' that has massively rejected her party and its ways at two state elections in a year and looks set to do the same to her as soon as she gives its voters an opportunity.

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd and editor of Powering Australia yearbook, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the energy industry in 2004.


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