23 July 2010
Response to Julia Gillard Climate policy announcement, or why baseload renewable energy is the keystone in the bridge to a safe climate
This was also published by the ABC on the Drum today.
However, to be honest, PM Julia Gillard is right that there was no community consensus for the ETS. There is a consensus on climate change and taking immediate action to stop it, but not on the idea that it can be solved by a complex, abstract financial mechanism which involves paying billions of dollars to big polluters.
There was begrudging acceptance in the community that the ETS might work. People thought that if the Government, experts and environmentalists said it was good, then it must be. But there was no more than a few percent of people who had even a rudimentary understanding of carbon trading and a carbon cap on big polluters.
So what can be done?
I think that what the public needs and what the Government needs are the same – a big, renewable energy, baseload power station for Australia to be proud of.
It is clear from focus groups done in recent months that the picture of a solar plant tells a thousand words and generates deeply positive responses. Conversely, pictures of a coal station such as Hazelwood generate unanimously negative responses.
By way of comparison, what does a ‘carbon price’ conjure up in the public imagination? We run the country on coal. How can we replace that with a ‘carbon price’?
We also hear from electoral campaigners in marginals that they have recorded unprompted, positive awareness of Abbott’s ‘direct action’ climate approach. People want to see the concrete poured and the solar towers built, not more talk and abstract measures.
The Government needs to step out of the fog of elitist, complex policy mechanisms and just build some big baseload solar stations. They will look impressive on the evening news. They will prove that renewable energy can run the economy.
Nothing less than that can ever lead to a useful consensus at large, nor inspire inner-city voters who are flocking to the Greens.
Only weeks ago, President Obama announced multi-billion dollar loan funding for solar thermal plants. Labor can use this to justify an even relatively modest spending initiative to fast-track a few plants, with electricity storage on site. Once we have built even a few of these facilities, it will start to become economically efficient to scale up very fast and start shutting down coal plants.
Barack Obama and the Labor Government would of course face criticism from the climate complainers on the far right and in the coal industry. One simple retort that will work on the evening news is that the advice to develop solar thermal baseload comes with the authority of US Energy Secretary, Nobel laureate Steven Chu.
If the Government plugs baseload renewable energy into the grid, it would earn green, business and academic endorsement, because baseload is the obstacle to a clean energy transition, here and in every country of the world.
The big policy announcement today is that Labor will build new coal power stations. I cannot think of a more decisive slap in the face for the key environment groups and Climate Minister Penny Wong and a big win to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Labor’s Resources Minister Martin Ferguson and the coal industry. This might just spark a protest movement on the scale that Australia has not seen since the Franklin Dam days and all end in delay, economic risk and lost opportunities.
If PM Gillard is serious about using her Citizens Assembly, then it has to be asked the right questions. A debate about climate science will never end. A debate about how to build renewable energy baseload power would be useful.
It is not clear yet what the business incentives part of the announcement really means at this stage, but it could be useful for driving energy efficiency.
PM Gillard announced $1billion over 10 years for a smart grid, that can deliver renewable energy. This is good but will have to be increased many times over, because high voltage power lines are expensive and the distances between the cities and our best solar and wind regions are vast.
Picture the climate challenge like building a bridge. We are on the shore of the past, where fossil fuels powered the world. The other shore is our safe climate future. To get there from here we have to build a bridge.
The keystone of that bridge is renewable, baseload electricity. All the other stones have to be put in place eventually, but without the keystone, the bridge cannot stand.
My political intuition tells me that this keystone is also the most important factor missing in the public enthusiasm for climate action. Lets win over the public and put the keystone in place, without delay. Until we start to do this, everything else is commentary.