In the battle between renewable energy and conventional forms of energy such as coal, renewables will win the public popularity contest every time – right up until households and industry are confronted by episodes of power failure and/or soaring power prices.
That is the reality of the political debate that is occurring at a federal level, with Labor clinging to its quixotic quest for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and the Turnbull Government adopting an “agnostic” policy on energy sources, but one that backs households and industry over advocacy for any particular energy form.
Recent episodes in the South Australia electricity grid have highlighted the vulnerabilities of that state’s feel-good policies; policies that are more about being seen to do the “right thing” on energy policy rather than to provide an inexpensive and constant energy source for its people.
After years of boasting how forward thinking the state of South Australia is, the SA Labor Government has been mugged by reality as their fragile power system, one that depends largely on wind, has been found vulnerable and businesses are beginning to vote with their feet to leave the state altogether.
South Australia is poorer than its eastern and western counterparts and has an ageing demographic, and South Australians are starting to realise that they have been sold a pup that could cost them dearly in the long run.
Like many “green” countries in Europe, including Germany, which has an electricity extension cord across the border to coal-fired Poland, South Australia relies ultimately on coal from the eastern states to prop up its clean-energy nirvana.
As more businesses close their doors in South Australia, it becomes more and more difficult to defend the Labor Government line about renewable energy being the energy of the future.
Judith Sloan, commentator in The Australian, recently put it like this: “Of course, we don’t need to rely on anecdotes to realise that the South Australian economy is performing badly. Just take a look at unemployment in the state. And the rate of workforce participation is much lower in South Australia compared with the nation. Also bear in mind that a much higher proportion of employed persons in South Australia works in the public sector than nationally.
“The South Australian Government is in panic mode over energy policy. The idea that the state can break away from the national electricity market is just fanciful.”
The politics of energy are set to dominate the political landscape for the coming two years as both major parties enter a standoff over the benefits of renewables.
It will certainly be one of the defining debates between the two major parties.
Labor wants a 50 per cent renewable energy target, or goal, or possibly an “aspiration”. The actual term itself is a moving target.
“This includes not just large-scale renewables but small and industry-based generation. We want to see solar panels become the norm on the rooftops of Australian homes and businesses, with millions more to be built and installed over the next 15 years,” ALP policy exclaims.
However, Labor’s policy is estimated to add around $400 a year to the cost of the average household’s energy bill.
Labor and green groups boast constantly that voters want to take action on climate change and have a strong preference for using renewable energy. But when the rubber hits the road it is a different story.
A recent Newspoll conducted exclusively for The Australian newspaper found that just 26 per cent of voters were willing to pay only $10 a month at the most for solar and wind power. It is likely that that figure would plummet even further when people started receiving their energy bills.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is also being challenged internally over the Government’s own policy to mandate 23.5 per cent renewable energy within three years.
Tony Abbott has called for the target to be scrapped to ease cost pressures on consumers, and urged Mr Turnbull to adopt a policy that would draw a sharper political difference between the two major parties.
Mr Turnbull describes himself as agnostic on the source of energy but, as on so many issues, is torn between being in sync with inner-city elites and the great mass of voters who live in the suburbs and the regions.
The PM has long memories of making the wrong call on energy policy, having lost the leadership of the Liberal Party in 2009. But this time he is comfortably on the right side of the debate.