The Federal Government continues to back coal-fired power, but with an election looming, it’s not too late to change, writes Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton.

Energy has once again dominated the headlines at the beginning of 2022, with the announcement that the closure of several coal-fired power generators will be brought forward, putting the clean energy transition front and centre in the national debate.

The Federal Government’s response to these developments has been to wheel out the same old tired fear campaigns about skyrocketing power prices and imminent blackouts. But the ongoing success of Australia’s clean energy transition, and the exposure of an increasing number of Australians to the positive benefits of clean energy, mean these arguments are no longer taken as seriously as they once were.

Instead, such rhetoric further damages the relationship between the energy industry and the current government, which is at a low point due to frequent unhelpful interventions and an ongoing lack of a clear strategy and policy.

However, with the federal election imminent, the government still has time to right past wrongs and unlock the enormous employment, investment and environmental benefits enabled by Australia becoming a global clean energy superpower.

Clean energy transition powering on

As shown in the Clean Energy Council’s recently released report, Clean Energy Australia 2022, the Australian renewable energy industry is growing faster than ever before. Renewable energy accounted for 32.5 per cent of the country’s total electricity generation in 2021, which was an increase of almost five percentage points compared to 2020. In the past five years alone, the proportion of Australia’s electricity that comes from renewables has nearly doubled, increasing from 16.9 per cent in 2017.

And the industry’s growth is showing no signs of slowing, with 66 large-scale wind and solar projects under construction or financially committed at the end of 2021, representing more than 7GW of new capacity. The rooftop solar sector is also expected to continue performing strongly throughout 2022.

When added to the 30 new utility-scale batteries that were being built at the end of last year, the ongoing construction of Snowy 2.0, the Kidston Pumped Storage Hydro Project, and the raft of new renewable hydrogen projects that have been announced, it’s clear Australia’s clean energy transition is no longer just a possibility – it is inevitable.

Coal-fired power approaching retirement age

The Australian clean energy industry’s rapid growth has positively impacted energy prices, emissions and regional employment. It has also had a dramatic impact on the ongoing viability of the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power stations. This has been driven home in the past few months, with AGL announcing it will bring forward the closure of its Bayswater and Loy Yang A coal-fired power plants; Origin Energy announcing the Eraring Power Station will close seven years ahead of schedule; and Mike Cannon-Brookes and Brookfield launching an audacious bid to purchase AGL so they can close all the company’s fossil fuel power stations by 2035.

These developments won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the Australian Energy Market Operator’s 2022 Draft Integrated System Plan, which assumed that at least 14GW of coal generation will retire by 2030, and potentially that all coal may be gone by 2032. But rather than accepting the inevitable decline of coal-fired power generation in Australia by coordinating its orderly retirement and preparing for its replacement with support for new clean energy generation, the Federal Government has continued to push back against the energy transition through scaremongering and threats of intervention.

However, people are no longer as susceptible to these types of tactics as they once were. This is because they’ve increasingly been exposed to the direct positive benefits of the clean energy transition through the rooftop solar system on their roof, or initiatives such as the Clean Energy Council’s “Renewable Energy is Here Now” campaign, which has convinced millions of previously cautious Australians about the considerable benefits of renewable energy.

The degree of mistrust that already exists between the Federal Government and the energy industry was plain to see following the recent announcements. Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor was only informed about Origin Energy’s decision to close the Eraring Power Plant the day before it was announced. In contrast, his counterpart in the NSW Government had been negotiating with the energy company for several months.

This mistrust has been built during a decade of Coalition governments, starting with the threat to abolish the Renewable Energy Target and continuing through its bullying of AGL over the closure of the Liddell Power Station and the introduction of its so-called “Big Stick” legislation. This has all come against a backdrop of the Federal Government refusing to heed the industry’s calls to develop a nationally coordinated approach to manage the retirement of fossil fuel generation and support the necessary clean energy capacity to replace it.

The Clean Energy Council is urging the Federal Government to commit to a clean energy future for Australia. Photo: Shutterstock.

Never too late to change course

While the Federal Government’s actions have damaged its relationship with the energy industry during the past decade, there is still time to right past wrongs in the lead up to the federal election.

An excellent way to do this would be to adopt the recommendations outlined in the Clean Energy Council’s “Roadmap for a Renewable Energy Future: Federal Election Policy Recommendations”. These include electrifying Australia; building a 21st-century electricity network; providing support for the coal industry as coal generation retires; modernising the governance of Australia’s energy market; and decarbonising Australian industry using clean energy.

Not only would this demonstrate the government’s commitment to its target of net-zero emissions by 2050, it would also attract billions of dollars in investment, create tens of thousands of jobs, and well and truly set up Australia to be a global clean energy superpower.

By showing the same leadership on clean energy as its state and territory counterparts, the Federal Government would drastically improve its environmental credentials and potentially even gain an electoral advantage over an opposition that is being cautious not to overcommit on energy or climate policy.

While recent history suggests such a turnaround from this government is improbable, past elections have shown that pragmatism often overrules ideology when electoral victory is on the line. We can only hope the coming campaign plays out this way so renewable energy is the winner, regardless of which party forms government.