Tag Archives: renewable energy

Blame games and framing battles over renewables in South Australia

Adelaide and energy systems have one thing in common – they rarely  dominate the news agenda in Australia. However, twice in the past three months they have been front and centre. That reveals something interesting about the ‘framing battles’ taking place over renewable energy and whose vision for Australia’s future will win.

Price spike and blackouts
In July spot prices for electricity in South Australia briefly went through the roof. While some (mostly Murdoch-based) media and commentators were extremely quick  to blame this on the high levels of renewable energy generation in Australia, the truth was a) different and b) more complicated, as was later reported. And yes, as those among us old enough to remember Enron’s shenanigans in California 15 years ago, there was sharp practice afoot too.

Spot prices don’t really have a visceral impact though. According to Reneweconomy, one energy company CEO ‘that “99.999 per cent” of customers would not have been required to pay the higher electricity prices energy bill may be a little higher than you’d expected’ (and most businesses hedge against this sort of thing) but it doesn’t compare to the lights suddenly going out as they did all across South Australia as they did yesterday.

The actual cause of the blackout is well explained by a variety of experts asked to comment by The Conversation (full disclosure: I’ve written for the Conversation, and I think it’s brilliant)

While the price spike fight was a straightforward “renewables proponents versus those who would like to slow/stop/reverse the use of renewable energy” fight, the blackout battle is already more nuanced. As well as pro-and-anti renewables advocates there are also those who see the event as an opportunity to press for distributed energy.

Propagating an opinion about any contentious event that has affected people is a tricky. Too soon and you’re accused of ‘insensitivity’, too late and the relentless news cycle, with all the attention-span of a goldfish that hasn’t been taking its Ritalin, has moved on.

Some people –  Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce independent senator Nick Xenophon and State Liberals leader Stephen Marshall – were quick off the mark. In their eagerness, they may have mis-timed it.  Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten made the point

“If the Greens had blamed, while a bushfire was underway, if they had talked about climate change, Barnaby Joyce would have been all over them like a rash, calling them un-Australian and all the rest of the nonsense, yet here we have the conservatives trying to play politics about renewable energy when this is a storm, it is the weather blowing over towers,”

The slightly more sophisticated version that admits extreme weather was the cause of the blackout but still tries to mobilise the fear and uncertainty that it caused as part of the ‘slow down the states in their push for increased renewables’ campaign. In this camp you will find Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull – “What we know so far is that there was an extreme weather event that damaged a number of transmission line assets knocking over towers and lines, and that was the immediate cause of the blackout.” (source) and Environment Minister Josh Frydenburg, who had also been clear on the actual causes of the July price spike.

While admitting the present crisis is not caused by renewables, they still want to take the opportunity to try to de-legitimise the states’ renewables’ goals. Turnbull said that

it was time to stop the “political gamesmanship” between the states that has seen Queensland set a 50% renewable target when renewables account for only 4.5% of its mix currently.

“What’s the pathway to achieve that? Very hard to see it. It’s a political or ideological statement…. We’ve got to recognise that energy security is the key priority and targeting lower emissions is very important but it must be consistent with energy security.”

This antipathy to renewables should also be seen in the context of ongoing State-Federal government tensions on these issues. In the 2000s, while Liberal Prime Minister John Howard was resolutely blocking action on emissions reductions, Labor-led states began work on a states-based emissions reduction scheme instead. This was part of the pressure that forced Howard into a late-2006 U-turn, with both parties fighting the 2007 Federal election with an emissions trading scheme in their manifestos. The rest is history…   A similar dynamic is at play now, with Federal intransigence and outright hostility on a renewables target beyond 2020 being one of the factors behind ambitious action by states on the increase in renewables. The Federals simply don’t like being pushed around, forced into things that they don’t want to do.

What is interesting about this blackout though, is that it is also being used by proponents of distributed energy to boost their argument. This graphic, from here, captures that beautifully



Never let a serious crisis go to waste”
The use of events to try to shift the narrative about the proper place of technology is hardly new. When something goes “wrong”, there is an opportunity, as Raph Emanuel alludes to, to create a new ‘norm’.

For example, before World War 2, airships looked as if they might challenge heavier than air transport. Unfortunately for the industry, the (hydrogen-based) Hindenburg went up in flames at “the worst possible time to explode”, and so fixed the technology in the public mind as extremely dangerous.

If a technology doesn’t “fit” with a moral cosmology – a view of how the world ‘should be’-  its progress slowed or even stalled. My favourite example of this is the case of hookworm. As Deborah Stone writes, (1989)

“Bringing a condition under human control often poses a challenge to old hierarchies of wealth, privilege, or status. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, many poor rural whites in the South were afflicted with a chronic sickness later discovered to be caused by the hookworm parasite. People with the disease were listless and eventually became slow-witted. Popular belief held that the condition reflected the laziness and lax moral character of the victims. When Charles Stiles demonstrated in 1902 that hookworm was the cause and that the disease could easily be cured with a cheap medicine, he was widely ridiculed in the press for claiming to have discovered the “germ of laziness.” The discovery was resisted because it meant that southern elites had to stop blaming “poor white trash” for their laziness and stupidity and stop congratulating themselves for their superior ability to work hard and think fast – a supposed superiority that served to justify political hierarchy.”

Similar battles between technologies get fought all the time, whether it is over the legitimacy of nuclear power in the Netherlands and the UK, or the introduction of LED lighting and biofuels.

With our theory heads on, we should always remember that the appraisal of technology is not a ‘neutral’ process.

With our observers-of-current-events heads on, we can see  increasingly desperate attempts by advocates of the status quo – large, centralised (fossil fuel-based) electricity generation to blame any and all problems on the insurgent technology.  As the carbon accumulates in the atmosphere,  and the ‘1 in 50 year’ events happen more and more frequently, it will be a perverse kind of wonderful to watch.

Tony Abbott and his #climate record since becoming Prime Minister 2 years ago #auspol

By their fruit ye shall know them.”  Since September 7th 2013 Tony Abbott has done his best to undermine Australia’s response to climate change.  Here’s a guide to the ruins, under the following headings

  • Opposing robust climate action
  • Attacking green groups
  • In favour of coal
  • Undermining renewables
  • Symbolic action

[If I’ve missed anything, please let me know! Btw, for blistering critiques of Abbott’s reign more generally, see Michelle Grattan and Lenore Taylor.]

Opposing robust climate action
1)  Julia Gillard, as the price of Green Party support for her minority government, had skilfully guided the ‘Clean Energy Futures’ package through parliament, over protests. An emissions trading scheme became law in July 2012. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott swore a ‘blood oath’ that he would repeal it. And he was as good as his word. As a consequence, emissions from electricity generation, which were reducing, are going up.

2) Keeping climate out of domestic policy documents

  • The 2015 Energy White Paper got word-counted by the folks at Reneweconomy – “Gas leads still with 173, while coal gets 47 and nuclear 23. Solar gets 19 mentions, battery storage six and wind energy gets just the one mention – in a generic sentence that says Australia has “world class” solar, geothermal and wind resources.” (this is ongoing – the 2004 Energy White Paper was basically a fossil fuel industry wish list)

It will be interesting to see if climate gets more of a mention in the Defence White Paper due later this year. Could go either way ( see here and here).

3) Abbott attempted to keep climate change off the agenda at G20 meeting in Brisbane in 2014, resulting in embarrassment, a healthy dose of schadenfreude for everyone else.  In general he’s been snubbing the international process by not sending a minister to 2013 Warsaw Conference of the Parties (and undermining Julie Bishop at the 2014 COP in Lima by sending Andrew Robb to ride shotgun). Inevitably, his government didn’t put forward its targets for Paris until the last minute, and then feeble ones at that – “statistical sophistry and deceptive deadlines.”

Attacking green groups
In December 2013 Abbott defunded the Environmental Defence Organisations making it harder for civil society to know about, and challenge, dodgy ‘development’ decisions. Most infamously, in response to ‘green sabotage’ (er, using the law) that has delayed the Carmichael Mine, Abbott wants to strip people of their ability to participate in legal process unless they are ‘directly affected’.
At the behest of state-level resource councils, it is investigating the charitable status of green groups (to try to dry up their funding) This ties up these groups’ very limited resources.  Whether it ‘succeeds’ or fails, that’s how wars of attrition work.  Meanwhile, as The Australia Institute points out, the resources councils get even bigger tax breaks!
[Fun fact:  John  Howard also attacked civil society, and the Institute of Public Affairs got $50,000 of tax-payers money to help out].

In favour of coal
Rhetorical; Opening the Caval Ridge coal mine  in October 2014, Abbott intoned – ‘coal is good for humanity’, echoing the Peabody campaign ‘Advanced Energy for Life’  He offers ongoing (rhetorical) support for CCS, while cutting $460m from the research budget (no bad thing, many will think.)

Practical;In July 2014 Environment Minister Greg Hunt gave planning permission for the Carmichael Mine (won’t anyone think of the skinks?) In July 2015 the Abbott giving planning permission for the Shenhua Coal Mine on the Liverpool Plains. Abbott has als set up the $5bn Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (which is not just for coal of course!) There are of course ongoing federal subsidies, which beggar belief.

Undermining renewables
Australia should be an energy superpower. It was a world leader in renewables, but the CSIRO shut down its research in 1983, and alongside a more general ‘brain drain’ Australia’s lead evaporated.
In order to get around his election promise not to cut renewables, appointing climate denier Dick Warburton to re-examine (and in a shock move advocate cutting), for the gazillionth time, the Renewables Energy Target that came into force because John Howard had to promise it as part of his pre-Kyoto placation.
He’s appointed a wind-farm commissioner to ‘investigate’ spurious health claims.
Having reduced the Large Scale Renewable Energy Target (RET) Abbott is attacking the small-scale RET target
He’s tried to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, (CEFC), and then when he didn’t have the numbers, forcing it not to do its job of  supporting technologies that are near commercialisation. He’s also attempted to abolish Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Symbolic action
The main (already failed) plank of Abbott’s emissions reduction is ‘Direct Action’  (Independent Senator Nick Xenophon recently pointed out that the safeguards for an already dodgy scheme are not in place). Meanwhile he has claimed Australia has reached its Kyoto target, using ‘considerable diplomatic effort’ to hid actual levels of emissions. He’s attempted to set up ‘Climate Consensus’ centre, with Bjorn Lomborg, first at University of Western Australia and then at Flinders University in South Australia. He’s appointed arch denialist Maurice Newman as his chief business adviser, and Common-Grace-1refused a gift of solar panels for Kirribilli house (as did John Howard).  Oh, and for his ‘sins’ Kevin Rudd’s first climate act was to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Abbott’s was to… abolish the Climate Commission

What does it all mean?
People often think that the Liberals simply do what Big Business tell them.  Perhaps, but on climate change the picture has, for 15 years been complicated by the question ‘which bit of big business?’  Ten years ago it was only banks, insurance industry and bits of the energy industry who demurred from the mining-industry-led blocking.That began to break down in 2006.

Now, big business seems to be awake to the damage Mr Abbott is causing. Renewables investment is fleeing the country. In combination with Big Green, business has set up an Australian Climate Roundtable,. There has been some hand-wringing about ‘policy uncertainty’, but less about the coal exports…

There are two questions –

  • how come they didn’t fight harder in 2011 and 2012, when it could have made a difference?
  • do they think another three years of Tony Abbott will serve their interests any better?

Keeping up to date
There are two journalists I read whenever I can – Lenore Taylor and Mike Seccombe; both have been on the climate beat for decades, have great contacts and even greater insight.   Bob Burton’s work on  PR, Coal and corporate strategy makes him invaluable (see his latest project, Coalswarm).
There are of course, great writers on ‘The Conversation‘ (and I am on it too)
On renewable energy and incumbent strategies, Reneweconomy  (though I think they sometimes mishandle the knotty concept of grid parity)

Some (there are others – these mostly cover the politics) excellent books
Ian Lowe (2005) Living in the Hothouse: how global warming affects Australia
Clive Hamilton‘s “Running from the Storm” (2001) and “Scorcher” (2007)
Guy Pearse’s brilliant High and Dry (2007), his other work too (especially ‘Big Coal’)
Maria Taylor’s (2015) Global Warming and Climate Change: What Australians Knew… and then buried
Philip Chubb (2014) Power Failure: the inside story of climate politics under Rudd and Gillard
Chris Wright and Daniel Nyberg (2015) Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction (NB I’ve only read the first – good- few chapters so far and  Chris Wright is a friend.)

DISCLAIMERS:  I am very well aware that life was not a bed of roses under the Australian Labor Party, 2007-2013. The mitigation targets were hopelessly inadequate, adaptation got stuffed etc etc.  Oh, and  I am not now, nor at any time in the past have been a member of the Green Party (Australia, UK, Mars) or indeed of ANY political party. I’m just a bewildered and dispirited member of a species that is clearly unable to use its thin quantities of wisdom to solve the problems it is causing (for itself and other species) with its remarkably thick intelligence.

Images of our green future;  from politics to platitudes in 29 short years.

What hopes do ‘we’ have for the future?  What choices do we think we will have to make, or perhaps seek to avoid?  What do our old hopes tell us about our new fears?

All good questions, which I can’t really answer particularly well, until I’ve had a longer think/looting of other people’s thoughts.  But while failing, I will at least be able to share some interesting images I’ve stumbled across over the last few days, that come with words like energy, community, coal and so on.  They’re from 1978, 1992 and 2007; from just before neoliberalism properly took hold, from the beginning of its long peak and from the year before it should have imploded but didn’t…

First up; during his talk on Tuesday night, Dr Mark Diesendorf alluded to a conference he helped organise in Canberra in 1978, called ‘Energy and People’ (for a fascinating personal history of Australian wind power research, see here).  By coincidence, the following day I stumbled across a copy of the book that emerged from it, and scanned the cover.


So, on the left, low-rise and co-operative. On the right, autogeddon.    The war over whether our cities would have streets (for pedestrians, play) or roads (for cars) has been going on for a long time.  Battles are won and lost.  Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide accumulates….

Next up, the 1992 Australian Coal Association Conference.  The cover is a fairly crude ‘we’re one of you’ bid, about which not much more needs to be said perhaps. Oh, alright – this – White family, man in charge (it’s only natural), and none of them has any asthma or health issues. Oh, and ‘Community’ is a hard-working word…

1992 australian coal conference cover

Next up, from that same conference, from a presentation by Tamio Kawamata on ‘New Coal Technologies – How Critical in Ensuring Coal’s Acceptability’, here is one of the first images from an actual coal industry publication that I’ve found of what carbon capture and storage might look like.

1992 aus coal conf ccs image kawamata

So, we’re at the stage of ‘yes, there are serious problems with capital accumulation – insofar as it causes carbon accumulation, but Our Technology Can Solve It.’ This is classic ‘you don’t have to make a choice’ stuff, for a future that has been sold off, and folks atomised, aka ‘ecological modernisation‘.

That logic continued through the 1990s, with its soothing platitudes.  By 2007, in Australia at least, climate change rose (back) up the political agenda, for a host of reasons, to do with state-level action, prolonged drought, international events (Al Gore, the IPCC, the Stern Review, the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme), and the Labor oppositions’s use of climate as a stick to beat the incumbent Prime Minister with in the run up to the November election.  It’s in this context that  the ‘Your Eco Handbook’, published by the closest that Australian mainstream print media has to reasonable journalism – the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald – should be read.

yr ecohandbook covers



The final image here contains one of the hardest-working words in the English language – ‘balance.’

yrecohandbook inside back

We know there are problems.  We know that all the previous promises of technological resolution (if not revolution) have not worked.  But we can do Our Bit (since collective solutions are dead), and intone the magic incantations.  And she’ll be ‘right’ mate.  Except ‘she’ won’t.

Damn glad I am in my mid-40s, not my mid-20s…

Renewable Energy and South Australia – 100 per cent event…

On Tuesday 16th June, Dr Mark Diesendorf was in the hot seat.  In front of a capacity audience of about 120 people, he outlined the report [pdf] about achieving 100% renewable energy that he has just written for the Conservation Council of South Australia.  He also fielded a very wide variety of questions from the audience.

All in all, an excellent event; here’s a video of the first 80 minutes of his talk (at which point my camera battery died- there is an irony in there somewhere….).  Most of the rest of it was captured by someone else, and as soon as I get that footage, I’ll upload it too.