Time to stop pointing the finger at clean energy

By Cambell Klose and Charlie Wood, 350.org Australia

Renewable energy has received a hammering from many of our conservative politicians and media over the past week. This comes after an unprecedented attack by the Prime Minister on the South Australian government, still reeling from a "once in 50 year" destructive storm.

Right wing commentators have consistently blamed the resulting power blackout on the State's heavy reliance on renewable energy, despite advice from energy experts and a preliminary report stating that the real cause of the blackout was transmission failure. But, hey, never let facts get in the way of a good story, right?

At first glance this might just seem like a Federal Liberal Government trying to wedge and embarrass a state Labor government. This alone would be in poor taste, given the millions of people suffering without power after this extreme weather event. But there is more at stake than just scoring cheap political points.

Despite a minor uptick in coal prices, the industry remains in terminal decline. So, with its back against the wall, the coal lobby is taking every opportunity to hit its main competitor: cheap, clean renewable energy. Rather shockingly, part of the strategy seems to involve recruiting members of the Federal Government to help in these attacks.

Today the Federal and State energy ministers are meeting in Melbourne to seek a unified position on Australia's energy mix. However, listening to the rhetoric in the lead up to the meeting, it looks like it might be more of an excuse for Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg to pressure the states into less ambitious climate policies with lower renewable energy targets.

Despite signing the Paris Agreement to address climate change almost a year ago, (which would see Australia cut its greenhouse gas emissions to keep warming below 2 degrees) the Federal Government has taken absolutely no steps toward meeting this goal.

We remain one of the only developed countries in the world without an effective climate policy, and last year our carbon emissions began increasing rather than decreasing after the Coalition axed the carbon price.

With a vacuum of Federal leadership, many Australian states have stepped up. This includes South Australia, which is aiming to get 50 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025; Victoria, which is aiming for 40 percent generation by 2025; Queensland which committed to 50 percent by 2030 through the last state election; and the ACT, which is aiming for an impressive 100% percent by 2020.

As electricity generation makes up about one third of Australia's total emissions, this means much of Australia's heavy lifting on climate to the states, while a bellicose Federal Government, the recipient of millions in donations from the fossil fuel industry, does anything it can to stymie climate action.

The reason this is such dangerous politicking from the Federal Government is that it comes at a time when the effects of climate change are being felt across the world: 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record, beating the previous record holders of 2015 and 2014. Australia has been hit by a number of freak 'once in a lifetime storms' this year alone - including the one that caused the South Australian blackout. The Great Barrier Reef is still reeling from its worst bleaching in memory while the south is experiencing record floods, the rest is locked in drought. Make no mistake, climate change is taking its toll right now and this is only the beginning.

This anti-renewables campaign comes at a time when a number of state governments are seeking re-election. The Federal Government could be trying to bully the states into complying with its woefully inadequate energy and climate policies or fear the wrath of the conservative commentariat and Federal ministers. This is how the Victorian, Queensland and South Australian governments see it.

But, as our Energy and Climate Change Minister looks back in time for solutions to the problem of energy in a changing world, some business leaders are proposing ideas. As our elected leaders were busy crying wolf and painting renewables as the villain of the picture, CEO of Power company AGL, Andrew Vesey, reminded us that true energy security comes from a distributed energy grid, possible only through renewable energy and local battery storage.

Despite AGL's currently being the title holder as Australia's biggest carbon emitter, Vesey is backing a number of renewable energy projects and has made the point that "the policies and the practices and the mental models that we have don't seem to fit the current reality".

And herein lies the problem. The transition to clean forms of energy is inevitable. The world agreed in Paris last year that the era of fossil fuels must end, yet our elected leaders are acting as though business as usual is good enough. It's not.

Australia's energy grid is ageing and was designed to accommodate a 19th century form of energy production and supply. Rather than bashing renewables, blaming the states and kicking the can down the road for future governments to deal with, Josh Frydenberg, Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition must work with the States to create a comprehensive and ambitious renewable energy target that will see a smooth transition to clean energy.

It can be done. Countries like Denmark and Portugal, as well as states like California in the US, have similar levels of renewable energy as South Australia and have retained a stable grid. The problem here is not renewables. The problem is a lack of imagination and willingness to bring Australia into the 21st century.

Clean, safe sources of power like wind and solar are not the villains of this story. Frydenberg and Turnbull's renewable energy bashing is a dead-end game that will see Australia alienated from the rest of the world, left with a 20th century energy grid and missing out on the spoils of the new, innovation economy Turnbull touted so loudly when he became Prime Minister.

It is time all levels of government put politics aside and worked together toward a comprehensive vision for Australia's clean energy future.