THE future is in plain sight. I saw it over the past two weekends at either end of the country: in a house in Middleton south of Hobart and on Low Island, north-east of Cairns.
A family of five lives in the Middleton house. At Easter, my wife and I made it seven. The house is off-grid and off main water. On Low Island, a caretaker and several volunteers inhabit three houses and research the reef, take weather observations and look after the lighthouse. Again it is off the grid and there is obviously no mains water. The lighthouse is also run off solar power.
Imagine not getting an electricity or water bill.
There are some slight inconveniences: fewer power-guzzling appliances like hair-dryers and microwaves and a bit of battery monitoring.
The Middleton house is fairly new, so it was a no-brainer to install solar-power generation compared to the Immediate and future cost of connecting to the grid and using mains power.
The trend is clear. Appliances will get more efficient. Batteries, solar panels and domestic wind turbines will get cheaper and more powerful.
Meanwhile, the absurdly named Monash Forum of climate-science denying Federal MPs wants to perpetuate coal-fired electricity generation. Led by the Triple As – Abbott, Andrews and Abetz – and joined by Barnaby Joyce, it has engaged in one of the most profound about-faces in recent Australian political history, especially the Liberal Party members.
The Liberal Party was founded on the basis of free-enterprise, respect for private property, the market, states’ rights, small government and opposition to nationalisation.
In the party’s own words: “We believe . . . that, wherever possible, government should not compete with an efficient private sector; and . . . in preserving Australia’s natural beauty and the environment for future generations.”
Now some or all of the Monash MPs have argued for the Government to prevent a private company, AGL, dealing with its property as it sees fit by closing the Liddell power station when it wants to, nationalising the asset if necessary. They want the Federal Government to override states and territories that do not agree to its weak-emissions-target National Energy Guarantee. And they want the Government to build environmentally destructive coal-fired power stations.
In short, they are violating virtually every fundamental principle of the Liberal Party.
It shows just how utterly unprincipled they are. Never let good policy or consistency get in the way of a donor’s dollar or some leadership undermining.
With 30 Newspolls lost on the trot, Malcolm Turnbull would have nothing to lose in staring them down. Any energy policy they would agree to would not be worth having. Worse, it would be better than no policy at all. Indeed, small-government advocates often say government intervention often makes things worse.
But no. Turnbull has accepted his new barrister’s brief to include coal in Australia’s energy future when it has no place there.
It was a bit like the situation we found ourselves in at The Canberra Times newsroom in the early 1990s. Two Nikon (film) cameras had broken. We had a massive supply of Australian-made film. Should we repair or replace the film cameras or should we go for the then new, relatively untested and hideously expensive digital cameras?
Unencumbered by government pressure to support the Australian photographic film industry, the answer was obvious. Despite losing the present film stock, in future there would be no film or photographic-paper costs; no environmentally destructive chemical development liquids to dispose of; and a more efficient and timely delivery of images.
We were early adopters, just as there are early adopters of solar and wind energy now. Eventually, everyone would adopt digital photography and no-one would use film.
Eventually, most houses and business will generate their own electricity and what remains of the electricity grid will be 100 per cent renewable. The only question will be how to recycle the unused poles and wires.
That is what new technology does: it replaces the old technology thereby driving down costs and raising living standards – incidentally another core Liberal Party value the Monash Forum chooses to ignore.
With any luck the new technology it will also force the replacement of the MP fossils who cling to the old.
Instead of propping up coal there are more constructive actions to consider.
Only a quarter of dwellings have solar panels, despite the proven economic benefit to households who have them over the long term. ABS and other data shows wealthier households are more likely to have panels.
Why can’t renters and low-income people get a share of the action rather than being stuck with 100 percent expensive grid electricity?
Why is the resource of three-quarters of household roof space not being tapped? It should be easier and cheaper to tap than new coalmines and coal-fired power stations, aside from the fact that dangerous coal should, like asbestos, be left in the ground.
The states should use their tenancy laws to insist that a basic quota of electricity be provided to tenants. That would encourage landlords to go solar.
Next, it is now clear that solar and wind generation are cheaper from start-up than coal. As existing coal plants get more unreliable it will be cheaper to replace them with renewables, so that is what generators will do. They just want to generate and sell electricity. And more people are taking up solar.
Those trends are unstoppable. It means renewables will replace coal for baseload power generation.
The only downside to this is that coal can match demand more evenly over 24 hours (a day and a night) than renewables and so needs less instant top up from other sources (hydro, gas and now battery) than renewables.
But the answer to that is not to stick with coal but to deal with the need for more top-up capacity by building more large-scale batteries and encouraging households to buy batteries. That would overall be cheaper than sticking with coal with its high economic cost of new power stations and the provision of coal – leaving aside the environmental costs.
Even if the government does not acknowledge those realities and gives coal some undeserved advantage in the short term, in the medium a long term, coal will go the way of film cameras, as the house in Middleton and the lighthouse on Low Island show.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Fairfax Media on 14 April 2018.