The renewables debate is won, but we may still lose the war

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In the last few years, vested interests have changed their strategy for opposing action on climate change. Where they once focused on denying the problem, they’re now putting their efforts into sabotaging the solutions. Instead of funding fake experts to say the ‘science isn’t settled’, fossil fuel companies and their political backers have been running a smear campaign against renewable energy technologies like wind turbines, solar panels and batteries.

xxxxxWe can see this in Australia, where, in just a few short years, the ‘climate debate’ has morphed into the ‘energy debate’. Right-wing ideologues like Tony Abbott, who previously rejected climate change as ‘crap’, now concede it’s happening but retaliate with attacks on renewable energy. Since September last year, the coal mining lobby has been pushing the myth of ‘clean coal’ and a branch of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia was even caught using fake Twitter accounts to spread misinformation about the cause of blackouts in South Australia.

Al Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel, brings this ‘solutions denial’ out into the open. In one scene, Gore meets with an Attorney-General to discuss ExxonMobil’s PR campaign against solar power in the US.

The film covers many other topics—particularly the devastating impact of extreme weather events—but the main source of hope throughout is the exponential growth of clean energy, which has become a proxy battleground for public discourse on climate change.

The focus on energy solutions rather than the climate problem has huge implications for the role of government. Previously, many environment groups were calling for government to intervene in the market by making polluters pay for the damage they cause (e.g. Australia’s carbon price laws, now repealed); or by giving government agencies the power to regular greenhouse gases more directly (e.g. Obama’s Clean Power Plan in the US).

But now it’s cheaper to build new solar and wind power stations than it is to build coal or gas. The economics have flipped, and it is easy to mount a financial argument in favor of cleaner energy sources and cutting emissions. In fact, even the lobby group representing big polluting energy companies is calling for a national Clean Energy Target.

Environment groups, and the many millions of people who want stronger action on climate change, are surprised to find themselves arguing for less government intervention in the market. We can see this in Australia when they say a big new coal mine or coal-fired power station won’t go ahead because ‘banks won’t fund it’.

What they’re implicitly saying here is ‘leave it to the market’ because that means coal will wither for lack of capital. Whereas previously the green Left was criticising capitalism, they’re now in the strange position of defending the economic status quo.

 

"The economics have flipped and renewable energy will progressively replace coal and gas, but it won't happen fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of an overheated planet."

 

I’ve made this argument myself. But I now think it’s dangerously short-sighted, for two reasons.

First, we still need more government intervention to solve the climate crisis. Yes, the economics have flipped and renewable energy will progressively replace coal and gas, but it won’t happen fast enough to avoid the worst impacts of an overheated planet. We need governments to close power stations, regulate pollution and apply stricter standards for energy efficiency and vehicle emissions. Saying ‘let the market decide’ might be a strong argument against government funding of a new coal-fired power station today, but it’s self-defeating in the long run.

Second, if the focus is on economics in the energy market, what role do citizens have to play? At least when the target is governments, citizens can pressure them to do the right thing—after all, politicians are supposed to represent the people’s views. Yes, there’s a lot of cynicism about this, but the link is a logical one.

However, now the climate change argument is about the falling costs of wind and solar power, the role of concerned citizens is less clear. If the economics are changing rapidly and coal can’t compete, why do we, the people, have to do anything? Can’t we just sit on our bums and let the invisible hand of the market do the heavy lifting? The answer, as described above, is that the transition won’t happen fast enough—but is that compelling to the general public?

Gore’s new film highlights this conundrum. The big hero isn’t Gore himself, or the people he inspires, but the changing economics. Even his insider’s view of the Paris climate agreement, which could have emphasised the crucial role of government, becomes another example of ‘markets to the rescue!’.

Gore makes a deal with US company SolarCity to transfer solar panel technology patents to India, overcoming a crucial stumbling block to that country’s co-operation.

The film ends on a speech about the power of social movements and calls for political pressure to reach 100 per cent renewable energy, but doesn’t give much detail about what concerned citizens can do to speed up the transition of our energy market.

If the falling cost of clean energy is our savior, how are members of the audience supposed to help it along? Calls to switch to green electricity or install solar panels at home aren’t enough. Without an explicit political strategy, this risks repeating the failed ‘your dollar is your vote’ approach environmentalists adopted in the late 1980s.

The manufactured opposition to cutting greenhouse gas pollution has now definitely shifted from climate denial to solutions denial. Gore’s new film confirms it, but doesn’t fully explain how to combat this new approach.

 

 


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears. He saw An Inconvenient Sequel as a guest of the Transitions Film Festival (www.transitionsfilmfestival.com)

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, renewables


 

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A lot of opposition, or at least 'bad press' about solar and wind generated power is that they are intermittent. But this won't matter if they are used to store power for when it IS needed. This can be done by pumping water into high dams or storage tanks from which the water can be released to generate electricity. This will be doubly beneficial if the water is released onto the other side of the Great Dividing Range to irrigate the parched interior.
Robert Liddy | 18 August 2017


Great, thoughtful, informed, article, Greg.
Brendan | 18 August 2017


We used to dream that the great inland sea would come into being again. Perhaps the release of stored water onto the other side of the Great Dividing Range would alter conditions enough that this sea could come back. It may be impossible, but wouldn't it be amazing, to have an inland sea in Australia? Real estate prices in the desert would go through the roof!
sylvia | 18 August 2017


Thank you so much Greg, Step by tiny step, we move forward. As you say, we need governments to be on board too. Here's to public pressure for getting them to make some sensible and tough decisions. Jorie
Jorie Ryan | 18 August 2017


Greg, your articles are well researched and especially well written. My difficulty with this one is it cherry picks particular views in the market place and represents those views as "determining"and outside the reach of reasonable scientific debate. Sensible and logical people can still draw very different conclusions on climate and the earths trajectory for warming. I think it disingenuous to suggest the debate has been "won"?... Read William Kennenmonths article from June to understand a very well thought out scientific view on the science behind global warming. William worked at the BOM for decades and was well respected by colleagues and peers globally. Bill is not a "denialist". Indeed, he observes as every other meteorological scientist does today, the earth has warmed. The debate occurs as we try to predict changes and their quantum. It's worth a read : http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/blueprints-author-didnt-ask-about-the-weather/news-story/516144b6640714f7141798d1ee230f8a Regarding cost, I have just been advised in Sydney that my costs to use electric have risen by 20%. Business owners I know have been advised their costs will be up 100% year on year as they renegotiate annual contract prices. Some of these businesses will fail. South Australia has already seen the effect of their unstable energy supply with multiple big businesses leaving the state and setting up elsewhere. Your own state government in South Australia is now installing diesel GE generators to keep the power on. Jay Weatherill advises of course this to be a temporary solution but will not detail the cost citing "confidentiality clauses". temporary solution ? ). The SA government released its own funded research back in March and concluded gas was the cheapest new power source. Mr. Finkel is perhaps. It the person to understand the economics as much as he would like. http://www.aemo.com.au/-/media/Files/PDF/2015_South_Australian_Fuel_and_Technology_Report.pdf I love reading this forum because of the diversity of opinion. You have a good understanding of this sphere and is it not reasonable to suggest as you do that the debate and economics are as cut and dry as you say they are. Recent reports contradict your strong conclusions.
Patrick | 19 August 2017


I suggest readers watch 'Tony Seba - Disruptive Technologies, 2017 YouTube. He states, "Clean Disruption projections ... show that by 2030: - All new energy will be provided by solar and wind. - All new mass-market vehicles will be electric. All of these vehicles will be autonomous (self-driving). The new car market will shrink by 80%. Gasoline will be obselete. Nuclear is already obselete. - Up to 80% of highway will be redundant. - Up to 80% of parking spaces will be redundant. - The concept of individual car ownership will be redundant. - The Car Insurance industry will be disrupted." Tony Seba points out that countries that embrace Disruptive Technologies quickly will make their citizens richer, but those that don't will make their citizens poorer. With the current COALition Government so slow to embrace solar, wind and batteries, Australians will be poorer. The Australian Greens are the party that has quickly embraced these disruptive technologies. Labor are still wanting to open up new coal mines, including the Adani mega-mine in the Galilee Basin. View the video, 'Guardians of the Galilee'.
Grant Allen | 19 August 2017


Great article. I have been teaching Renewable Energy and Sustainability for over 10 years. Indeed, it is great to see the tide turning for Renewable Energy but as is pointed out, it is too late to avoid to massive impacts of climate change. We need to look at mitigation strategies against these impacts. Unfortunately it wil be the poorest countries that have the least resilience against theses impacts.
Garry Barbuto | 19 August 2017


This is a very thought-provoking article , Greg. I have to agree with Patrick, though, when he questions your claim that the renewables debate has been won. It is true that we are seeing some significant changes in favour of renewable energy resources and that renewables are becoming cheaper than fossil fuels to provide energy. Because of this , the executives of fossil fuel corporations and major energy providers want people who have solar panels to be taxed. And we have a federal government that is prepared to go along with this. In addition, the Turnbull Government is supporting coal seam gas extraction ("fracking") and Adani's irresponsible coal mine venture in the Gallilee Basin in Queensland. Our PMwants to use our taxes to pay for a very expensive rail line from the coal mine to Abbott Point so that the coal can be shipped to India. This madness not only puts many people at risk because of inhaling tars and toxic gases when it is burnt and miners when they inhale coal dust, it will also contribute to the greenhouse gas problem and hasten climate change. The battle is far from over when the executives of fossil fuel energy corporations are virtually dictating our energy policies with a totally supine federal government that is only too happy to accede to their demands.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 21 August 2017


Hi Patrick and Andy, Thanks for your comments - I appreciate the thoughtful criticism. The headline is inaccurate, perhaps, to say the debate is 'won' in the short term. In the long-term trajectory, though, there is no question about moving to an electricity grid powered by mostly renewable energy. Finkel said it, big energy company says it, the Australian Industry Group says it, the Australian Energy Council says it. The only large lobby group opposing this at the moment is the Minerals Council, and they seem to have a lot of sway over the federal Coalition. However, even then it's just about slowing the transition, not stopping it altogether. Here's the thing large Australian energy generators are saying that doesn't get heard enough: the way to lower power prices now is through increased supply, and the only new supply will be renewable energy or gas because banks won't loan to build new coal. The government is considering funding coal, that's true, but even if it happens it would be just one power station while Coalition is in power. Again, it's stalling for time, not changing the trajectory. All of this has been clearly spelled out in documents from AEMO for many years...anticipated new supply is all renewables. We do need to address 'frequency' issues of this new system - something I haven't had space to write about - but the overall trajectory is clear. I haven't done enough research on Adani to comment, unfortunately, but will write about it when I have! Thanks again for all the comments...
Greg Foyster | 23 August 2017