News | 16th May, 2011

Renewables in reverse

Monday, 16 May 2011
Mark Wakeham, Climate Spectator

Close observers of Australia’s climate and energy policy perhaps won’t be gobsmacked to hear that the share of renewable energy in the Australian energy mix has fallen over the past 50 years, while coal-fired power has dominated.

However the scale of the fall is surprising, as is the fact that the trend has continued over the past decade, despite an array of state and national climate change programs which were supposed to lead to a different outcome.

A report, Australia’s Electricity Generation Mix 1960-2009, released today, completed by Green Energy Markets for Environment Victoria, shows that renewable energy provided 19 percent of the nation’s electricity in 1960 but this fell to just 7 percent by 2008.

During the same period, Australia’s overall energy use grew dramatically so that the actual output of coal power increased twelve-fold from 16TWh to 202TWh, while renewable energy grew four-fold from 4TWh to 18TWh.

Between 2001 and 2009, the amount of electricity coming from coal in the National Electricity Market grew by almost 10 percent and annual greenhouse emissions from coal-fired power increased by 14 million tonnes.  Over the same period renewable energy generation remained constant at a touch over 20TWh. Hydropower declined throughout the drought, while the shortfall was made up by growing wind power and bioenergy.

What conclusions can we draw from these findings? Well the obvious point is that without a price on carbon the Australian economy will continue with pollution-as-usual. Anyone who suggests that we can change Australia’s energy mix and reduce emissions without a price on carbon is deluding themselves and ignoring our track record over the past decades.

But while a carbon price is essential, it is probably not sufficient. As well as a raft of complementary measures, we need to ensure that we’re using revenues from a price on carbon to diversify our energy mix and reduce emissions.

And we need to use some of the revenue to secure the replacement of our dirtiest power stations, like Hazelwood and Yallourn. It’s a simple point, but one that we sometimes miss in the complexity of the debate. Unless someone who is polluting stops polluting or pollutes less, we won’t succeed in reducing emissions. And, after all, isn’t that the goal of climate and energy policies in the 21st century?

We also need to use some of the revenue to fast-track renewable energy development, perhaps through helping to finance clean energy projects as suggested by ACF and others.

The history of Australia’s energy mix confirms that business-as-usual will mean pollution-as-usual. Without a strong carbon price and more effort to boost renewables, history is bound to repeat itself.


Download the report here

Read our media release here