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Australia’s energy policies are doctors’ business

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Power stations such as the decommissioned one at Hazelwood, Victoria, are damaging both the environment and our health (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Government's insistence on clinging to fossil fuel technology continues to have consequences on human health, writes Dr Graeme McLeay.

THE HEAVY HAND of Energy Minister Angus Taylor is all over the place on the National Electricity Market, something quite remarkable for a government which for a long time has worshipped the free market economy.

Firstly, there is the big stick legislation which Labor looks to support and which would target anti-competitive behaviour by the energy companies. If passed, the legislation would give the Government power to break up large energy companies if they engage in price gouging. The Energy Users Association has said it will harm investor confidence and drive prices up and Labor’s Mark Butler has suggested it could be used to force privatisation of some publicly-owned assets.

Whether this legislation will be effective remains to be seen and it has been criticised by experts, including the Grattan Institute’s Tony Wood, who don’t believe it is fit for purpose. A broader and critical question is whether public utilities should ever be privately held and is clearly debatable given the large profits that energy companies enjoy despite or because of sharply rising prices for the consumer.

Secondly, the Government aims to underwrite energy generation projects of their choosing by the end of the year — strictly speaking, they are not all generation projects, some are storage projects. The short list of projects consists or five gas generators, six pumped hydro plants and refurbishment of a coal-fired power station, namely Vales Point, part-owned by generous Liberal Party donor, Trevor St Baker.  

Vales Point, sold by the NSW Government for only $1 million in 2015, is now valued at over $700 million thanks to high energy prices and a shortfall of capacity with the closure of Hazelwood Power Station in Victoria. Located on the shores of Lake Macquarie, Vales Point is a polluting old clunker which produces around 700 million tonnes of global warming CO2 per year to provide some 11% of NSW electricity.

Vales Point is also a source of serious air pollution linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases while the coal ash dam is polluting groundwater and Lake Macquarie with heavy metals. GP and epidemiologist Dr Ben Ewald has estimated that air pollution from coal-fired power in NSW is responsible for around 279 premature deaths each year and, as he has pointed out, an upgrade could not only reduce the air pollution from Vales Point but could also extend the life of the plant, displacing clean energy in the future and further driving emissions up, despite its so-called “efficiency”.

The Energy Minister is fond of misleading terms like “reliable” and “technology neutral”. According to research from the Australia Institute, coal generators, even including the newer so-called high efficiency, low emission (HELE) plants, are not reliable and in 2018, failed at the rate of one every three days. There is nothing “neutral” about a technology which continues to harm human health; a little-known statistic is that air pollution contributes to around 3,000 premature deaths each year in Australia.

Five of the projects considered for underwriting are gas plants. This is perhaps predicated on the supposition that Australia will produce huge amounts of gas in the future. Indeed, that is happening in Western Australia and on such a scale that the emissions, including escaped “fugitive” methane emissions, constitute a climate “bomb” which will see Australia’s contribution to global heating rise to 12-17% of the global total. Gas extraction elsewhere in Australia is causing environmental and health damage and dividing many rural communities. Because most of it is exported, gas in Australia remains expensive and is one reason for high consumer electricity prices.

The head of energy giant NextEra Energy in the United States said recently that the cost of renewable energy with battery storage and without subsidies is becoming cheaper than gas, as well as existing coal and nuclear energy. This statement is even more stunning in the Australian context, considering that gas is much cheaper in the U.S. The Rocky Mountain Institute this month reported that solar, wind, storage, efficiency and demand response are now less expensive than most gas power plant projects, which highlights the significant risk for investors in gas. They warn that as much as U.S. $100 million of investment in gas is at risk of being stranded as renewables become cheaper. Despite President Trump’s pro-fossil fuel stance, many U.S. States are pursuing a low carbon future.

Energy generation also needs to be efficient with minimal wastage. Alcoa has voiced the possibility of closing their uneconomic aluminium smelter in Portland where it uses about 10% of Victoria’s power. Although Alcoa’s contract is with Victoria, supporting its closure with attention to workers’ welfare and alternative opportunities for the local community deserves a place in the Minister’s project list.

Angus Taylor, the Minister for Emissions Reduction, is apparently ignoring both AEMO and the Energy Security Board. AEMO has modelled in their Integrated System Plan a number of scenarios which reflect the need to transition to a low carbon economy in line with the Paris Agreement.

It is extraordinary that Mr Taylor continues to cling to a fossil fuel past at a time when Australia’s emissions are still rising and the urgency required for global action on climate change mounts. In Australia, medical organisations such as the AMA and DEA have declared a climate emergency — in the middle of the worst drought on record, with serious spring bushfires in Queensland and NSW and warnings from experienced fire chiefs that the bushfire season is longer and more dangerous than in the past.

What we really need is the Energy Minister and his government to see the tremendous opportunities in sun, wind and wave with which Australia is richly endowed and to steer our country towards a clean energy future that doesn’t cost our health, our planet or our pockets.

Dr Graeme McLeay is a retired anaesthetist and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia. You can follow Doctors for the Environment Australia on Twitter @DocsEnvAus.

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