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Keep the lights on if you want to stay, Malcolm Turnbull

By Gary Johns - posted Thursday, 2 February 2017

Forget fighting old battles. The renewable energy target is bad policy, but there is no use spending political capital trying to change it. Instead, Malcolm Turnbull should announce a stand on the future of electricity generation.

What was once a given - a cheap and reliable supply of electricity - is no longer. And, if the Greens get their way, it will never return. The Prime Minister has to argue for efficient coal generation, and make bankable guarantees of new investment when old stocks retire.

In October last year, the Senate started an inquiry into retirement of coal-fired power stations in Australia, to report in March this year. The Greens and a swarm of mouthpieces in NGOs and universities took this as a signal that there should be a transition to non-renewables. Ah no, it is not.


Take Australian National University researcher Frank Jotzo's submission. "Replacing coal-fired power with carbon-free alternatives is essential to help decarbonise the economy. Australia's ageing coal-fired pow­er fleet can be replaced by a predominantly renewable power sup­ply." Thanks, Frank, but who wants to decarbonise the economy?

Lowering CO2emissions does not require decarbonising the economy. Jotzo, like many others, has taken the "deep decarbonisation" brief that reads: Destroy the coal industry and replace it with renewables (and damn the consequences). Jotzo and the "deep decarbonisation" crowd have to patch together 10 different forms of renewable sources to achieve their dream of making Australia entirely reliant on renewables.

He admits that reliance on these is "subject to assumptions about technological development and the evolution of technology costs". In other words, he hopes it comes to pass.

Jotzo admits "the overall average costs of power supply in this scenario increases". But that is OK, according to Jotzo, because "the increase is compensated for by greatly improved energy efficiency". But some of that energy efficiency comes from "the electrification of transport and energy use in buildings and industry, emissions savings in industry and agriculture and carbon sequestration on the land". In other words, not from renewables.

In deep decarbonisation, we change the entire economy to suit yet-to-be-invented renewable technologies and pay a higher price for gains, much of which we can have by other means. Meanwhile, in the real word, coal is burned for electricity. Southeast Asia doubled the size of its economy between 2000 and 2013, and, as a consequence, electricity generation tripled.

The International Energy Agency projects electricity generation will almost triple again from 2013 to 2040. And "coal is expected to overtake gas to become the No 1 fuel source for power generation in the coming years".


Australia's efforts at deep decarbonisation would be completely useless. Fortunately for greenhouse warriors, there is a sensible path. In the real world, countries are deploying high efficiency, low emission coal technologies to meet their emissions targets under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

There are 725 HELE units in place in Asia, with another 1150 planned or under construction.

According to the Australian government's 2015 energy white paper, our nation has an oversupply of electricity generation, and the largest portion of our power is generated by coal-fired power stations, three-quarters of which are operating beyond their original life. The reason many of these plants are limping on is because renewables are being forced into the grid.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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