09 March 2011
The climate and energy politics that President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard should be talking about
A version of this article was published by the ABC on The Drum
Coverage of the meetings between Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the administration of US President Barack Obama is missing one of the biggest stories of them all. The President is achieving through energy and defence policy, what he can not do as climate policy.
The Labor Government should take a minute out from its carbon tax fight to learn how President Obama is losing the ‘negative’ debate about saving the climate, but he is winning the ‘positive’ debate about energy independence, security and cost.
Prime Minister Gillard should bump the ceremonial fluff of Congress and instead have work meetings with two of most important people in the world: Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy. These two talented officials are beginning the switch away from fossil fuels, without waiting for Godot (a carbon trading system under the United Nations).
Secretary Chu’s SunShot initiative will fund solar so that it provides electricity for the same cost as coal in 9 years. That means that between now and 2020, a wave of new investment in solar power will wash over the USA. Crucially, the subprogram for Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) will get it to parity, along with thermal storage that gives it the ability to dispatch 12 to 17 hours of “baseload” power, when the sun goes down. Forget the carbon markets and the UN, that one shift will mark the end of the age of coal.
Solar PV will reach parity in Sydney by 2019, but this will not have the “baseload” capacity to deliver large amounts of electricity at night. (Download the latest projections here ).
While President Obama argues with the climate denialists in Congress, Secretary Chu is quietly his Nobel-prize winning physics mind to micro-manage the renewable energy sector into a powerhouse. He is also overseeing a smart grid that makes ours look truly dumb.
Secretary Flournoy took the concept of ‘natural security’ into the Pentagon. The Department of Defence is now fast-tracking renewable energy deployment and R&D, with an emphasis on replacements for fossil fuels for transport. The Centre for a New American Security has proposed that “To ready America’s armed forces for tomorrow’s challenges, DOD should ensure that it can operate all of its systems on non-petroleum fuels by 2040.”
Here are some of the propositions that our Government should be discussing with the Obama administration:
If Australia is to have any future operational relevance in the US-Australia alliance it will be because our Navy can brings its own biofuels into theatre, along lengthy supply chains.
If Australia’s economy is to have long term resilience, it will be because we have decoupled energy prices from the volatility of gas, oil and coal markets, by building baseload renewable electricity.
If Australia’s consumers are to save money on energy, it is because they will have access to a genuinely smart grid, that will help them cut waste.
When Prime Minister Gillard returns to Australia she should dispatch the right Ministers to Washington, for briefings with Chu and Flournoy:
- Greg Combet, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency
- Mark Dreyfus, Cabinet Secretary and Combet’s Parliamentary Secretary
- Stephen Smith, Minister for Defence
- Anthony Albanese MP, Minister for Infrastructure and Transport
- Richard Marles, Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs