Why the Australian 100% renewable energy debate is stuck at 0%

There’s a simple way of understanding what it’s like being a young full-time wonk in the world of renewable energy. The nature of our existence is this: we spend all of our time somewhere between hard science and passionate activism.

Last week, I went to the Clean Energy Summit, run by the industry body, the Clean Energy Council, in Sydney. The data-driven industry nerd half of my brain was over-joyed. I always enjoy it, but there’s an absence of strong emotion or rousing rhetoric. That weekend, I went to the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s conference, Power Shift, and the emotional half of my brain was satiated – the passion was unmatched but they didn’t spend a lot of time digging into the nuances and engineering of decarbonisation.

Neither of these are criticisms – both conferences serve specific audiences very well. But those two events reminded me how the renewable energy world spans both of these physical and psychological landscapes – the activists, and the wonks.

Policies that support change must be brought to life by energised and determined people, who form collectives that urge immediate political action to resolve the real, physical threat of climate change. It’s also true that the task of financing, building, integrating and operating these big new machines requires scientists, engineers and analysts.

It’s rare that the activists and the wonks openly conflict, but in America, there’s been an interesting instance in which they’ve rubbed each other the wrong way. The subject of this friction is a research paper that models 100% renewable energy for America – a fascinating story, and something that sits in awkward contrast to Australia’s horribly neutered national discourse on renewable energy.

Jacobson, et al

In 2015, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford professor, published a detailed study in Energy and Environmental Sciences outlining a bold and empirical vision of how US states could transition to 100% renewable energy:

“When you account for the health and climate costs – as well as the rising price of fossil fuels – wind, water and solar are half the cost of conventional systems. A conversion of this scale would also create jobs, stabilise fuel prices, reduce pollution-related health problems and eliminate emissions from the United States. There is very little downside to a conversion, at least based on this science”

Recently, a collection of authors published a peer-reviewed rebuttal in the same journal, writing that:

“In this paper, we evaluate that study and find significant shortcomings in the analysis. In particular, we point out that this work used invalid modelling tools, contained modelling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions. Policy makers should treat with caution any visions of a rapid, reliable, and low-cost transition to entire energy systems that relies almost exclusively on wind, solar, and hydroelectric power”

What followed, on social media and various other sites was, by renewable energy nerd standards, kind of heated.

If you’re interested in reading the guts of the criticism, this thread by US analyst Jesse Jenkins, here, is a simple explanation of why Jacobson’s paper was subject to the critique. You can also listen to Greentech Media’s interview with Jacobson here, where he responds to the critique.

As I spectated a multitude of twitter chains threading into each other among the renewable energy community on Twitter, I couldn’t help but have some sympathy for the position of those doing the critiquing – getting the numbers right in these estimates has real-world consequences for policy makers who use 100% renewable energy plans when designing legislation.

At the same time, I was very keenly aware of the inescapable fact that the critique would likely end up adopted by those urging for total inaction on climate change – something far from the original intention of the critique’s authors. As it happens, the critique paper was brashly championed by a far-right website, which wrote:

“The Clack paper proves that it’s well past time for the green Left and their political allies to quit claiming that we don’t need hydrocarbons or nuclear energy. Alas, it appears they prefer appalling delusions about renewables to real science and simple math”

This is a telling and vastly under-considered hazard – that something created with reasonable intentions and care is co-opted by those with extremely bad intentions. It’s a shame that, in these instances, those who create the original work don’t often put much effort into refuting the adoption of their work in nasty movements like the alt-right and climate denial.

Ultimately, these disagreements, though somewhat impassioned and sometimes misappropriated, are useful processes for teasing apart the feasibility of different pathways of decarbonisation. This is a healthy debate that needs to be had, due simply to the diverse, complex technicalities of modelling a future energy system, and the importance of getting it right the first time to ensure we avoid as many tonnes of emissions, as early as we can.

Australia’s energy policy debate is not healthy. It’s very, very far from healthy. We’re inflicted with a terrible malady that we prove ourselves unable to shake off.

Vengeful individuals and the feedstock of energy policy

Back in 2013, Australia’s chief renewable energy policy, the Renewable Energy Target (RET), was a subject of serious discontent from then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his environment minister, Greg Hunt.

At the very core of that emotion was anger at the idea that the forecasted amount of renewable energy that the target would result in, by 2020, was going to be around 27 percent of total demand – the protest was on the grounds that the original target aimed for ‘20% by 2020’, and that 27% was a dangerous, unacceptable over-shoot. The effort to install a hard limit of 20% renewable energy was branded as the “real 20%”. In 2014, Hunt wrote:

“The Australian Government is committed to renewable energy and a Renewable Energy Target that represents a real 20 per cent of electricity production in Australia, as was the original bipartisan intent”

It’s worth noting that the original RET was set at a total output from new renewable energy of 41,000 gigawatt hours in the year 2020. The amount of demand forecasted in 2020 was high – hence, 41,000 GWh worked out to be 20% by 2020. But then, the demand forecasted were revised downwards, and so the percentage of renewables went up to 27%.

This distinction sounds boring but it’s really, really important, because over-shooting emissions reductions is a good thing, not a bad thing, and there’s literally no reason to argue against this beyond a vague feeling that an extra 7% zero carbon energy is somehow bad. Two years of argument over vague, non-specific fears about percentages.

After roughly two years of attacks from the Abbott government but no change in policy, investors began abandoning the renewable energy industry. The renewable energy sector had little choice but to agree to a less significant reduction – a target of 23.5% – to return certainty to the sector.

Except, 23.5% is still too high for Abbott:

“Our own policy is to lift renewable power from 15% to 23% within four years at the cost of $1,000 per household. This is where the public are not mugs … this is why our first big fight this year must be to stop any further mandatory use of renewable power.”

Abbott’s estimate of $1,000 per household is roughly five times bigger than what the actual cost will be over four years, which is a significant and telling error. The issue here isn’t about the cost – to him, the actual cost is so irrelevant that he’s off by an incredible amount. It’s about the technology, and specifically, how it makes him feel.

A different era – then-opposition leader Tony Abbott posing with a solar hot water installer in 2010, as part of the party’s “1 million solar roofs by 2020” plan (We reached 1.5 million in Feb 2016).  Guardian Australia/ Alan Porritt / AAP

Abbott has now published a ‘manifesto’ demanding a freeze on new renewable energy support from the government, and the criminalisation of new wind farms (seriously).

These weird, confusing reactions get worse as more percentage proposals start flying around. Labor is proposing a 50% renewable energy target by 2030. Here, Abbott doesn’t specify a timeframe, but adds another $4,000 to his estimate of the costs of renewable energy policy:

“Abbott told the audience that Labor’s plan to lift the RET to 50% would lead to a $50bn overbuild of “unnecessary wind turbines” that would cost every household $5,000, but he provided no evidence for the claim”

He’s still going. Recently, he said:

“We’ve been going in the wrong direction for far too long, for the best part of a decade,” he said of the RET. He said Australia needs “need a jobs first power policy, not a policy that obsesses about reducing emissions”.

The recently released Finkel review proposed a clean energy target mechanism – like the RET, except one that rewards any technology that reduces emissions, rather than solely renewable energy. Chief scientist Alan Finkel also released detailed modelling, with extremely conservative assumptions, demonstrating the scheme would reduce electricity bills.

The detailed, lengthy modelling papers released by Finkel alongside his review, were ignored. Opponents immediately zeroed in on the proposed percentage of renewable energy with this response:

“[A query was raised in the party room about] whether the 42% renewables target was too high, both because renewables were less reliable and because it posed a political problem by being too close to Labor’s target of 50%”

I imagine you feel, having read these examples, roughly the same as I felt writing them: confusion, whiplash and the dull ache of pessimism.

For a long time I put these reactions down to ideology, but there’s more to it. Australia’s energy policy is influenced by bitter, invulnerable and momentous interpersonal vendettas that latch onto percentages of proposed renewables as feed-stock for sustained, ugly battles.

The ecosystem of reaction

Domestically, we’ve had some fascinating efforts to model what a 100% renewable energy system might look like in Australia, from a broad collection of acronym-heavy organisations.

In 2013, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released a vision for a fully decarbonised system. Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) have a growing collection of academic reports into total decarbonisation. The CSIRO and UTS’s Institute of Sustainable Futures have released models, along with academics from the Australian National University. Solar Citizens are campaigning for this, too. The University of New South Wales (UNSW)’s Centre for Environmental Markets (CEEM) published a great examination of this question. The seeds of an optimistic, determined and scientifically literate pathway for decarbonisation exist in great numbers.

CEEM’s examination of the costs of integrating variable energy – the middle of the curve shows a good mix between disptachable and variable technologies (note that this isn’t a chart of *renewable* energy)

Despite these scientific entry points, Australia is not ready for a debate about 100% renewable energy because influential decision makers are provoked into nervousness, anxiety and anger by the prospect of 15%, 20%, 23.5%, 27%, 42.5% and 50% renewable energy. The American spat over 100% renewables centres around Jacobson’s plans being used for shifts in policy – this isn’t something that’ll happen any time soon, in Australia (perhaps with some notable exceptions).

Reactionary assessments of inherently empirical questions persist in a media landscape in which there is zero requirement for elaboration, justification or explanation. There is an unspoken ecosystem of ‘balance’: suspicion, opinion and feeling will rarely be interrogated (again, with some notable exceptions).

Immediate and visceral reactions to percentages that feel like they’re too high serve as an almost-literal measurement of exactly how much predisposed antagonism someone has towards renewable energy.

One curious distinction between the debate in Australia and America is the absence of nuclear power in Australia. 100% renewable plans face a dim reception by American nuclear power advocates, simply because these plans pointedly exclude nuclear (and CCS), but it’s currently illegal to build nuclear power in Australia. Many of the big players stifling debate on future energy systems, future policy and climate science are also strong supporters of nuclear. Perhaps there is a place in the debate for nuclear power, as there is in America, but there’s little doubt that the problems plaguing all other forms of low-carbon technology would be far worse for nuclear power in Australia.

Australia and America have quite a lot in common, when it comes to climate action. We’re both similarly energy and carbon intensive, and climate denial both hold astonishing cultural and political influence, with fossil fuel lobby groups in both countries sharing marketing campaigns and denialism tactics.

Despite these similarities, the US has been more successful in reducing emissions, and is having a healthy debate about the next steps. In Australia, emissions are rising, and suggestions of even modest growth of renewable energy are suffocated within seconds. The process of carefully tweaking the parameters of decarbonisation is hard when people are screaming in your ears.

Header – a wind farm at sunset

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