ABC’s QandA: Old fossils versus smart advocates of clean energy transition

This must have been a set-up. Two middle aged men and three younger women arguing the toss on climate change and energy policies on the ABC’s Q&A program. Two old fossils putting the case for dirty, old, and incumbent technologies. Three smart women putting forward the environmental, economic and engineering case for a clean energy transition.

Cut it any way you like, this was a contest of dirty versus clean, dumb versus smart, inaction over action, science versus myth, the past versus the future, incumbents over upstarts, status quo over change. And yes, it also pitched a generation and gender gap, which will not have gone un-noticed to many in the industry. It shouldn’t be the case, and not every middle aged man backs coal and gas, and not every woman supports wind, solar and storage, but there is a trend.

At least Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon represents a slightly more evolved version than the LNP Senator Matt Canavan, even if the difference is marginal. Canavan, who likes to wear a coal miner’s hat and shirt, might be a mere Senator these days, having resigned his position as Resources Minister and his self-described role as “Mr Coal”, but his views represent the forces that have put a handbrake on any shift by the government’s ever dwindling number of moderates.

Canavan wants to push the Morrison government further towards Trumpian territory while it has the opportunity, and take Australia out of the Paris climate agreement and have the government intervene in the market and cause new coal fired power stations to be built, presumably at extraordinary taxpayer expense.

Fitzgibbon has finally accepted that the market is not going to build any new coal fired generation – because of costs and the environmental impact – so it’s probably best the government doesn’t either.

But Fitzgibbon wants more gas. Lots of it. Ninety per cent of the NSW coal fired generators are going to retire over the next 10-15 years, he notes, and there is no way that renewables can make up the difference. “You will absolutely need a lot of gas,” he told Qanda.

That’s not what the experts say. And what Canavan and Fitzgibbon share in common is a disregard for climate and energy experts. And the question that went poorly answered through the program was why the two mainstream parties in Australia refuse to accept the expert advice and the evidence when it comes to climate and energy, as they did in response to Covid-19.

Canavan told the audience that coal was cheaper than renewables because generators such as Kogan Creek in Queensland, the most recent coal addition to the national grid, could bid into the market at around $45/MWh.

As BloombergNEF analyst Kobad Bhavnagri pointed out, if short term marginal cost is the definition, then wind and solar bid into the market at zero. Whether it’s on short run marginal cost, or levellised cost of energy, coal loses out to renewables.

Canavan also protested that Germany has just opened a new coal fired power station. It has, and it has taken 15 years to build and it won’t even operate for much longer than that. Germany has already reached 56 per cent renewables and plans its coal exit by 2038. Coal output has declined dramatically in the past year.

The subject matter experts on Australia’s electricity grids, the Australian Energy Market Operator and the CSIRO, say that Australia’s electricity grid can make a rapid transition to renewables – 75 per cent “instantaneous” by 2025 – (important because so many doubters said it couldn’t be done), and more than 90 per cent on an annual basis by 2040.[1][2]

On the subject of NSW, AEMO says yes the main coal generators that supply more than 70 per cent of its electricity supply now will retire in the next 10-15 years, but they should not be replaced by gas, they will be replaced by wind, solar and storage, and demand management options and virtual power plants.


This graph above shows what the annual generation in NSW might look like over the coming two decades. While the graph below shows what an average day might look like. Gas plays no greater role than it does today. The same is true of the national grid, despite the insistence of the Coalition government and even the chief scientist Alan Finkel that gas generation must expand.

In South Australia, gas – which now accounts for more than 40 per cent – will be reduced to just a fraction, likely no more than 5 per cent, due to new wind and solar, new storage, demand management, new machinery that can deliver some of the key system services, and added links to other states.[4]

AEMO and CSIRO say this transition will be cheaper, cleaner and smarter than what we have now and the alternative that is championed by Canavan and Fitzgibbon. They say it will usher in the needed and compelling transitions to electric mobility and green manufacturing. Australia’s declining manufacturing base – including steel, aluminium and so many others – could be re-born.

Gas, too, is only marginally less polluting than coal, so it doesn’t solve the environmental issue.

The core problem for both mainstream parties is that they grapple with the science. Canavan and Fitzgibbon feign acceptance of the climate science but treat it with contempt because they choose to do nothing, or as little as possible about it.

Canavan thinks that the Coalition’s 26-28 per cent target – already well below what is needed for a 2°C world, let alone a 1.5°C target, is too much. Fitzgibbon thinks that Labor’s more ambitious targets will never get them elected and wants them to scrap their targets and hold the Coalition to account on theirs. Because, you know, Labor are so good at holding the Coalition to account.

On the other hand, we heard from three smarter, younger women who are now subject matter experts in their field. Sophia Hamblin Wang is  a technologist, working with a company that is using to use captured carbon in making new products, in her case concrete. She understands and represents the new technology thinking that could transform Australia’s economy, and the planet’s environment,.

Zoe Whitton is a banker and now director of the IGCC (Investor Group on Climate Change), who understands capital flows and where they will find a home – it won’t be in sunset industries being propped up by governments, and where the risk of stranded assets is immense.

It will be in the new technologies and the transition to a clean energy economy. These industries are not looking for subsidies, just a government that has a vision and a plan, even if it is just to get out of the way and let the key institutions do their work.

Zali Steggall is the former Olympic skier and lawyer and now independent MP who kicked Tony Abbott out of parliament by taking the seat of Warringah in the election last May and has been a very impressive performer, both during the campaign and since.

She is championing a climate bill in an effort to obtain a pathway to bipartisan policy (unlikely given the Coalition’s current make-up, but you have to try) that finds a way to deliver on what the Paris climate treaty asks of its signatories – to deliver a net-zero emissions outcome by 2050.

She is on top of her brief, and now a powerful advocate for what should be the blindingly obvious economic, environmental and engineering choices Australia needs to make – mainly because she has been listening to the experts.

It’s not clear that Australia’s parliament needs fewer middle aged men. But it does need fewer old fossils, whatever their gender, and it does need its members to understand and act on the science, just as they did with Covid-19. Everyone’s future depends on it.

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