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Stuck in the coal age, when the solar century has already begun

ABC Online kindly published this piece of mine today here. It's very encouraging to see the overwhelmingly positive comments thread thus far.

Martin Ferguson, let the cat out of the bag shortly after the Budget, when he said that carbon capture and storage would be “essential for the long-term sustainability of coal-fired power generation.” With those words, he betrayed the fact that his government prioritises the coal sector’s profits over climate protection. If that seems like a long bow to draw, look at the evidence that the Budget presents.

In the vital area of commercialisation of technologies, the myriad of renewable energy options that are ready to roll out now were allocated precisely zero for the coming year, with only $125 million in this term of government. Next to that, the pipedream that is ‘clean coal’ received $35 million this year and $250 million this term.

When immediately called to task by the geothermal industry, which was, like many other renewable technology developers, calling for urgent commercialisation funding, the government chose to make that sector an ad hoc $40 million grant, instead of shifting funding priorities. What’s worse, instead of taking the $40 million from the coal sector’s windfall, the government took it out of the Energy Innovation Fund, money that had been earmarked for research into storage of solar energy.

That blow to the solar sector came on top of the extraordinary decision to means test the rooftop solar rebate, making it available only to those on a family income of less than $100,000. My immediate reaction – “how many families on less than $100,000 can afford to spend thousands on solar panels?” – was backed up by the flood of calls to my office from installers, manufacturers and individuals, telling me that 80-90% of solar business has evaporated since this decision, and the industry is on the point of collapse. Comments in recent days from those as high as the Treasurer and Prime Minister suggest that this was not a foolish and ill-considered mistake, but a deliberate decision.

The full rebate must be restored until such time as the government introduces a comprehensive feed-in tariff to guarantee a market for renewable energy, such as the one I introduced as a Private Member’s Bill in the Senate last week, based on the one which created the world-leading German renewable energy industry.

The government’s strategy appears to be to delay renewables to give coal the chance to catch up. The Budget’s funding timing and arrangements, alongside draft legislation for carbon capture and storage, are clearly geared to make renewables seem way off in the future, while ‘clean coal’ is portrayed as a reality. The reverse is true.

Amidst the Budget flurry last week, the news was lost of yet another collapse of a geosequestration trial. The Western Australian joint venture between BP and Rio Tinto, announced to great fanfare last year, was pulled when it was discovered that the storage site proposed was geologically unstable. This comes after the collapse of the FutureGen project in the USA, the world ‘clean coal’ pin-up, after the Bush Administration discovered that it was far behind schedule and its budget had blown out. Australia’s leading project, ZeroGen in Queensland, is yet to turn a sod. Parts of the traditional energy sector are losing patience and suggesting that the promise of a few years ago is not being demonstrated.

On the other hand, large-scale renewables are ready to go now. Australian solar thermal engineer, DavidMills, having gone to California to get the support that was lacking here, is on the cusp of building a gigawatt of cheap, zero emissions power, while Spain has ten new solar thermal power plants about to be built. Wind energy is rapidly being deployed across the globe, occasionally powering more than the entire demand of both Spain and Germany in recent months. Geothermal and wave energy both hold great promise, and bioenergy, subject to environmental conditions, can provide an additional stabiliser for the energy grid and potentially suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

The urgency of climate change is such that we need to pull out all stops. The science is clear that we have already entered dangerous climate change, and we are playing a game with unimaginably high stakes. When there is clearly no risk that we could cut emissions faster than necessary, we must move to a post-carbon economy immediately.

Renewable energy has the potential to power our whole country with zero emissions within the near future, something coal cannot dream of. However, in terms of fast, cheap emissions reductions, nothing can beat energy efficiency. The Greens’ proposal for a systemic infrastructure upgrade across Australia, to increase efficiency by 30% or more across the economy, stands in stark contrast to the government’s piecemeal, tokenistic approach. A few tens of millions in rebates, grants and loans will cover a tiny percentage of homes, businesses and industry, while the cash-only offer fails to address the other well-known barriers to energy efficiency, such as lack of information and priority. Tackling energy efficiency provides a tremendous economic and social opportunity, let alone the climate benefits. Yet it was largely ignored by the Rudd Government.

Where is the urgency? Where is the priority? What can you say about a Budget which allocates $2.3 billion over 5 years to climate change and 50 times that much - $125 billion over 5 years – to Defence? If climate change were prioritised the way Defence is prioritised, the vision of an energy efficient Australia powered completely by renewable energy by 2020 would be entirely within our grasp.

Martin Ferguson’s dreams of liquefied coal fuelling our cars, and of exporting Victoria’s dirty, wet coal, are a climate nightmare that can only appeal to those whose eyes are filled with coal dust. They are trying to hold back the tide of history, maintaining the coal age when the solar century has already begun. King Canute wisely proved a thousand years ago that no one can stop the tide.

Those of us who can see clearly have noticed that Australia is richer by far in sun, wind, hot rocks, waves, and brilliant ideas, than in coal. Where some see only a threat to the resource based status quo, we see an exciting future in which imagination is the key resource.

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