Blog | 10th Mar, 2017

Reality check, Malcolm: you've already lost the war on renewables

The war on renewable energy is entering its final, desperate stages. It is inevitable that Australia and the world will soon be entirely powered by the wind, sun, waves and water. The only questions left are whether that will happen in time to prevent the worst impacts of global warming, if coal-mining communities will be supported through the transition, and exactly when the Coalition will crawl out of its ideological bunker and realise the battle is already over.

What makes me so sure that the game is up for fossil fuels? It’s not the increasing shrillness of a national Treasurer fondling a lump of coal in our parliament, or the “truth overboard” attempts to blame renewable energy for everything from South Australian blackouts to arrested production at Alcoa’s Portland aluminium smelter.

Neither is it the desperate parade of Coalition politicians, state and federal, promising to scrap renewable energy targets or bankroll new coal-burning power stations. Powerful industries will always have their political backers, and there’s no doubt the coal, oil and gas lobbies are powerful.

No, it’s the combination of three other factors – decisive financial markets, viral growth models and overwhelming community support for renewable energy.

Capital markets have decided that the future is renewable. For three years in a row, there’s been more investment globally in renewables than in fossil fuel power stations. And the gap is growing. In 2015, $286 billion was invested globally in renewable power projects, more than double the $130 billion in coal and gas power stations. (Data for 2016 is still being summarised.) In China, coal use has peaked and is now declining, but the renewable energy industry is growing at globally unprecedented rates.

In the US, coal-burning power stations are dropping like dominoes – 94 closed their doors in 2015 and another 41 closed last year. Even Donald Trump can’t stop this tide – another six coal power stations have announced their closure since he was elected.

Australia is not immune to this trend. When Hazelwood generates its last electricity at the end of this month it will be the ninth coal power station to close in the past five years. Last year, Australia retired 520 megawatts of coal, and built 1100 megawatts of renewable energy. This year, with the closure of Hazelwood, at least 1640 megawatts of coal will exit the market, and more than 3000 megawatts of renewables will be built. This shift is only heading in one direction, and it’s accelerating.

The second reason renewables will triumph is their decentralised and viral funding models make them more nimble and bankable than large, expensive fossil fuel projects. Each week there’s another addition to the list of electricity markets where it’s cheaper to build new renewable projects than coal or gas. And each time that tipping point is achieved, there’s a stampede of capital to clean energy.

In this financial landscape, ageing coal generators are like the last mature specimens of a once dominant species, unable to reproduce and therefore ultimately doomed to extinction.

In developed countries like Australia, new coal-burning power stations are ‘unbankable’. No wonder the Turnbull Government is turning to desperate and damaging measures such as offering them loans from the public purse.

Renewables projects, meanwhile, are financed every day by families and businesses trying to save on their energy bills. Last year in Australia the equivalent of 14 solar panels were installed for every minute of daylight. This year it will be more. As the remaining coal generators lose customers and hike up electricity prices, going solar or adding batteries is becoming even more attractive, leading to the so-called death spiral for electricity retailers – trying to recover increasing costs by gouging a decreasing customer base. Meanwhile, the 1.6 million Australian households with solar power have become passionate advocates for the technology with their friends and family.

That leads to the third reason. Renewable energy is enormously popular right across the political spectrum. Recent polling by government agency Sustainability Victoria found 84 percent of Victorians support the state’s target of 40 percent renewable energy by 2025. Even in the deeply conservative Queensland seat of Dawson – where One Nation is currently spooking the Coalition – the majority of voters support a 50 percent national renewable energy target by 2030. Only 28 percent oppose it. All this makes the Victorian and federal Coalition’s current culture war on renewables a rather “courageous” political strategy, as Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby would say.

Since being elected in 2013, the federal Coalition have sat on their hands and watched as seven coal power stations have closed, leaving communities to deal with the aftermath. Only with Hazelwood’s closure has there been modest, though late, financial support to diversify the Latrobe Valley economy. A responsible federal government would get behind renewable energy but also manage the transition away from fossil fuels. That’s why we need a schedule for retiring the remaining 20 coal-burning power stations in Australia and a plan to create new jobs and opportunities in affected communities.

It’s time for a ceasefire in the war on renewables. The Coalition needs to peek above the political trenches and see that financial markets and the Australian public have already called the victor. Clean energy won.

Instead of fighting against the future, we need politicians and business leaders who will embrace it and the accompanying jobs and investment. We need leaders positioning Australia to benefit from the trillions of dollars that will be spent on renewable energy globally in the next decade. And if we’re going to be 100 per cent powered by renewables then why not get on with it, do it by 2030 and play our part in halting the worst impacts of global warming.

Coal is going the way of the fax machine and typewriter – once useful, now superseded. If politicians keep fighting yesterday’s battles, they’ll make themselves redundant too.

This article first appeared in The Age.