Clean energy gets dirty as politics of transition flare

Marion Rae |

As the nation’s clean energy industry ramps up to join the global race to build new power sources, a cabinet minister has reignited the decades-long climate wars in Australia.

Climate and Energy Minister Chris Bowen on Tuesday overshadowed a long-awaited and important announcement about sector-by-sector net-zero plans by taking a swing at his political opponents.

A “cabal of climate denial” was running policy in the federal coalition, he told business leaders and financiers at an energy summit in Sydney.

Mr Bowen accused leader Peter Dutton of being “the alternative prime minister from the alt-right”, referring to the political movement linked to American far-right, white supremacists.

“The man who joked about water lapping at the homes of Pacific Islanders has not improved,” Mr Bowen said.

“Scott Morrison was a terrible prime minister for climate change … Peter Dutton would be worse.”

Mr Bowen dismissed Nationals leader David Littleproud’s call for a pause on the rollout of transmission lines, and accused LNP MPs Keith Pitt and Colin Boyce of also spreading “fear and falsities” about renewable energy.

Opposition climate and energy spokesman Ted O’Brien hit back, slamming federal Labor’s plan to spend the next 18 months figuring out the details of getting various industries to net-zero emissions.

“To use an industry event to attempt spiteful personal character assassinations is completely inappropriate,” he said, after attending the Clean Energy Council event.

The industry council’s CEO Kane Thornton opened the two-day summit with a rallying cry against naysayers.

“Emissions reductions of 43 per cent and renewable energy of 82 per cent by 2030 are ambitious for sure,” he said.

It won’t be easy after a decade of “an aversion to anything that looked like sensible, consistent energy policy and forward planning”, Mr Thornton said.

Australia was losing the global clean energy investment race, with the United States and its hefty subsidies becoming a magnet for capital, workers and technology.

But the local industry was “race-ready, we are fit, and our potential is limitless,” Mr Thornton said.

“We now need courage and leadership to become a global clean energy superpower.

“Oh, and to ignore anyone who tells you it can’t be done.”

Electrification will be crucial for heavy polluters to meet their climate pledges but the suburbs and shires of Australia will also be key.

“When someone shifts from grid power dominated by coal to rooftop solar, or from a petrol to electric car, they do more than change an energy source,” said Dan Cass, spokesman for grassroots organisation Rewiring Australia.

“They permanently lower their emissions and energy bills, and they never look back.”

Renewable energy remains Australia’s cheapest option for new sources of electricity but it’s not immune to cost pressures.

According to the CSIRO’s annual GenCost guide, construction and installation costs have risen by one-fifth on average but renewables remain more cost effective than new gas or coal plants.

Costs for Australian projects began to inflate in 2020 as the pandemic hit, making freight and raw materials more expensive, and the Russian war in Ukraine has further disrupted supply chains.

But the global race to clean up the world’s biggest source of emissions – burning fossil fuels to produce electricity – is adding further to the cost of renewable energy projects.

Some in the industry say the price bubble will become a permanent feature, and get worse.

The modelling also confirmed that grid-scale energy storage and electric car batteries – a future fleet of batteries on wheels – are set to play a crucial role.

Despite critics slamming nuclear as an expensive distraction, CSIRO pledged to firm up the cost of small modular reactors in future reports.