The coal club can huff and puff but it’s too late to blow the renewable house down

Peter Lewis

Tuesday 12 September 2017 02.23 BST

The prime minister has been upping his rhetoric on energy security and power prices to eleven as he struggles to regain control of the runaway train he let loose when he turned his back on climate action.

The cheap shots on renewables, the stern words with energy company executives, even the prime minister’s newfound love of coal, may be portrayed by the conservative media as a shrewd political counterpunch.

But make no mistake, the shrill tone betrays a sense of panic within a government that has lost control of energy prices.

This is a government paying the price for putting ideology ahead of considered policy, a government that has seen power prices nearly double since it made its bellicose promise to “axe the (so-called carbon) tax”.

This is a government whose agrarian flank wants to ban government support for renewables – one of Australia’s fastest-growing industries – and channel taxpayer funds into coal projects that even the big banks won’t touch.

This is a government, led by a PM who once put his commitment to climate action ahead of his job, who can’t even agree to set a modest clean energy target in order to give the energy market the certainty it needs to make the investments required for us to have the energy we need.

That this government sees rising power prices as an opportunity to attack its opponents shows a degree of political chutzpah that, if the stakes weren’t so high, would be worthy of grudging respect. But the reality – as it usually is with bullying – is that this is more about the insecurities of the bully than the particularities of the bullied.

And as questions over the past two weeks’ Essential Reports show, the public isn’t spooked by the renewable energy scare.
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Clearly punters know how to read a power bill. They also have lived through waves of privatisations that have seen energy transformed from an essential service to a national market. For the majority of voters, increased prices are regarded as a natural consequence of a private market.

So when the prime minister hauls in energy executives to lecture them on prices, it’s a bit like a zookeeper entreating its scorpions to keep their venom to themselves. And there’s a sting in their tails when they rightly argue back that in failing to come up with any sort of long-term energy transition plan the government is fuelling the price rises.

The government has amped it up this week, lecturing AGL for making the commercial decision to retire one of its coal power plants. Given that AGL valued this particular coal power plant at zero when it bought it a few years ago, this is mainstream business practice taking account of both financial and reputational risks and opportunities. But for a government desperate to divert the attention of angry consumers, this can be portrayed as akin to national sabotage. They should know.

Now like a Soviet regime struggling to revise its five-year plan after a couple of years of chaos, the Coalition proposes seizing the means of energy production and belching out more coal themselves – and if Labor refuses to back them, well, that is proof that a Labor government would be a recipe for higher prices.

While the Coalition desperately tries to regain control of energy politics, Labor remains in the box seat when it comes to a showdown between coal and renewables.

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Forced to choose – on the environment, on prices, on the economy and on jobs – renewables are seen as a better bet. While the debate is still contested with high “don’t know” and “no difference” responses, the public does not see coal as an elixir. What they actually want is government to step up and retake control of an energy market that has ceased to serve the public interest.

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The public will support anything that looks like leadership on energy. But behind the headline numbers there are some cautions for Labor about how to prosecute its own energy response. While people want to see the transition to renewables, they have no more appetite for an ideological war against coal than they do in favour of it.


The message is clear: address climate change, take measures to control the private energy companies and make the transition to renewables in an orderly, pragmatic and predictable manner.

Australians aren’t anti-coal. If clean, smart energy wasn’t taking off and the coal power industry could point to actual, cost-effective coal capture and storage, then a lot more people would happily support coal.

But, of course, the opposite is true. Clean energy is plummeting in cost, and the smart technology solutions that will make it work are proving themselves.

Meanwhile, coal generation CCS is a nice idea with no real prospect of being part of the market without a high carbon price, and the health impacts of coal are getting more attention.

Australians understand that when it comes to the shift from coal to clean, the train has left the station and it isn’t going back. And they would much prefer the government drive the train rather than the energy companies, whom they don’t trust at all.

Despite an extraordinarily concentrated, concerted and expensive campaign by the coal club, Australians are not buying the idea they can turn back the energy clock.

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In what could be the ultimate battleground that will determine the next government, despite the bluster and positioning, Labor holds a significant, if not decisive lead, on who will deliver lower energy prices.

As prices continue to rise and Australia continues its interminable climate policy circle-work, as the coal club throws more millions at persuasion, the government will no doubt continue to huff and puff. But all indications are it’s too late for the coal club to blow the renewable house down.