Not even time travel will save the fossil fuel industry

September 28, 2013 by  
Filed under Wind Energy Tips

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Remember the Terminator films? Those were the ones starring  Arnold Schwarzenneger  where the few people surviving in a few decades hence sent back a cyborg in an attempt to stop the development of robotics technology that ends up destroying the human race.  The robots had done the same thing.

It could be that the fossil fuel industry has got a similar plan. The few remaining coal and gas fired plants that remain several decades in the future have sent back emissaries to warn the world of the perils of clean energy and a low carbon world, and try to stop the development of new technologies that threaten their very future.

They were all there in Sydney on Thursday, gathered at the Convention Centre in Darling Harbour, circling wagons, ignoring science, and dismissing technology and economic reality in grim determination to protect their interests and save the world from, well, wind turbines and solar farms.

What’s wrong with emissions anyway, asked one gentleman of a certain age. Australia should be proud of them, and even double or triple them, he said. Although he didn’t make it clear why. Perhaps it would be good for plants.

David Frith from the NSW Minerals Council assured the meeting that coal has a strong future globally as an energy source. NSW Energy Minister Chris Hartcher said “alternative sources of energy [to coal and gas] are expensive and unfeasible”.

And Hartcher wasn’t about to find out if that was true or not. The Energy Security summit did not invite a single presentation from the renewables industry. Wind and solar were barely mentioned, obvious possibilities to address energy security issues such as demand response, energy efficiency, distributed solar, and co-generation were considered only in passing.

It was, in the estimates of some observers, such an orgy or self-interest, myopia and ignorance, that it quite took the breath away. “They were delusional,” said one.

The fossil fuel industry has gotten itself into a right pickle. And consumers and businesses are about to pay for the mess. Coal survives only because it is subsidised and its health and environmental impacts ignored, gas will not only be expensive, but possibly in short supply. As Grant King, the head of Origin Energy, said last month: “There is no such thing as cheap gas.” And he should know, because he produces and contracts most of it.

The response of the fossil fuel industry, and the manufacturing and other industrial groups who have a similarly blinkered view of the energy world, is to seek to dig up more coal, and extract more gas. Their greatest fear is having their clothes  removed by the “democratisation” of energy, where rooftop solar and other distributed generation tips the cart of the centralised model. They seek to repel this threat by profiting from ignorance, willful or otherwise, misinformation and a scare campaign against the perils of “intermittent” renewables.

Piece by piece, however, this scare campaign is being pulled apart. Over the course of the last few months, reports and analyses from leading universities such as Stanford, the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, global investment banks and even Australia’s Energy Market Operator have produced reports that make it clear wind and solar will offer the cheapest and cleanest options for the future.

In many countries, including Australia, they do so already. Even a 100 per cent or majority renewable grid would not cost more than business as usual, and it would remove the fuel price risk. Common myths about the need for back-up, the reductions in carbon emissions, and health impacts of wind turbines have all been debunked.

But in the absence of economic, environmental or even technology reasons to stay with fossil fuels, the one ace left in the pack of the incumbents is regulatory protection, and the conservative governments that dominate at state and federal level, and many of the “independent” pricing and policy regulators, seem ready to serve.

Indeed, the current government regime in Australia offers the incumbent fossil fuel industry the best opportunity to do this.  Cash-strapped state governments are determined to protect their fossil fuel interests, even to the extent of spending hundreds of millions of dollars extending the life of useless, ageing coal fired generators.

On the federal level, the new Tony Abbott government is winding back the carbon tax, attempting to stop the Clean Energy Finance Corporation in its tracks, and intends to review the renewable energy target. And it is seeking to remove the institutions and the individuals that can offer independent advice and policy recommendations that may go against this ideology. The Climate Commission is gone, key public servants have been removed, and the Climate Change Authority is on notice.

Like the NSW Energy Summit, the new federal government’s six page energy plan virtually ignores renewables altogether. New energy minister Ian Macfarlane’s only stated policy position so far is to remove impediments to new coal mines and to extract every molecule of gas that can possibly be done.

That is something that his predecessor Martin Ferguson would have wanted to do, were it not for the forced coalition with the Greens. The interim energy minister Gary Gray once noted that Ferguson and Macfarlane were like two peas in a pod, and their “bro-mance” was evident for many in the audience.

Now out of politics, Ferguson has re-emerged as a champion of the status quo. On Thursday, he chaired meetings, rebuked the manufacturing council for supporting the renewable energy target, and repeated his admiration for nuclear – although he did admit that it would not happen in Australia because it was too expensive.

But will time travel work for the fossil fuel industry. Sadly, Terminator was not a real story, although it does seem that many in energy industry, the bureaucracies that run them, the regulators and the commentators remain stuck in some sort of time warp, where the 1960s centralised model remains the only solution they can imagine.

And remember what happened to Schwarzenneger. In real life he turned to politics and got to be governor of California, a Republican in name who turned out to be quite the greeny.

According to one story told to RenewEconomy during our recent visit to California, soon after his election, the Terminator was discussing with his policy advisors his desire to encourage solar. Like true conservatives, they were finding all sorts of reasons not to support the idea and to stick with what they knew. “No, you don’t understand,” he reportedly said in that wonderful accent.  “I  … want …. solar.” And they got it.

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