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Coalition-backed broken-down coal burners fuel energy crisis

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

Coal is a dud. Gas is a pretend solution spruiked by vested interests. Renewable energy resources are the cheapest form of new power generation, so where are they? David Ritter reports.

"UNRELIABLE" MEANS "an inability to be relied upon or trusted".

In the events of the last few weeks, coal has been shown up as utterly unreliable. The technology of coal-burning cannot be relied upon and the corporations that burn the stuff cannot be trusted.

Australian Financial Review (AFR) revealed in early June that nearly a quarter of Australia’s coal capacity is offline due to unplanned outages from the ageing, fault-filled infrastructure.

Energy company AGL has confirmed that Loy Yang A’s unit 2 will not be fixed until the second half of September after an electrical fault in the decrepit infrastructure caused an unplanned outage at the peak of Victorian winter energy demand.

Earlier this week, the ABC reported that Yallourn Power Station – which provides 20 per cent of Victoria’s electricity needs – had lost two of its four units, adding to the pressure on the national electricity market.

This dismal unreliability extends to the boardrooms of the businesses that are operating these polluting, broken-down clunkers and have failed to move at the speed required on the transition to cheaper, cleaner renewables.

The chaotic antics at AGL have been revealed for all to see, with the company’s demerger plans turning out to be implausible to a critical mass of stakeholders and investors, prompting an extraordinary corporate about-face followed by an overdue leadership exodus. If nothing else, AGL’s experience now acts as a clear warning signal for any business that relies on fossil fuels and fails to get out in time.

Then this week came the bombshell that the Australian Energy Regulator has effectively warned energy companies of willfully driving energy power shortages in order to become the recipient of increased taxpayer largesse.

In a must-read piece in RenewEconomy, longtime observer of Australia’s energy system Australian Energy Regulator wrote that:

... this is yet more confirmation, if any was needed, that Australia’s electricity market – designed as it was by and for the fossil fuel industry – is irreparably broken. What happened on Monday and again on Tuesday, suggests that many energy utilities have completely lost the plot. They have lost all perspective on what it is they are supposed to be doing. As one senior director told RenewEconomy: "They are throwing away their social licence."

Since this time, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has taken the unprecedented step of taking control of the National Electricity Market (NEM) to ensure enough power supply remains available, indicating a new extraordinary level of poor faith in generators.

Yet another level of untrustworthiness belongs to the politicians who have enabled this fiasco to develop and now sit crowing fecklessly from Opposition benches.

ABC Business Editor Ian Verrender recently said that:

... a near 20-year battle over the science of climate — primarily waged by the Coalition for political purposes — resulted in a critical shortage of investment in energy generation. That has left us reliant upon an ageing and unreliable fleet of coal-fired generators that spew huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and frequently break down.

Underpinning all of this is a fundamental ideological question about the ability of privatized utilities to deliver essential public goods — when the latter are hard-wired to be in the pursuit of amoral profit maximisation rather than vital public services. The creation of ever-more complex sets of regulations, attempting to square the circle, simply results in more opportunities for arbitrage and gaming of the system. 

In a report written almost a decade ago entitled 'Electricity privatisation in Australia: a record of failure', leading Australian economist John Quiggin examined 20 years of energy policy making across two states and concluded that ‘there is no fiscal or economic justification to continue electricity privatisation’.

Australians should be seething. In a nation with vast fossil fuel deposits – and even greater renewable energy resources – the willful greed of a few fossil fuel corporations is creating artificial scarcity, driving up prices, spreading fear and anxiety and creating political turbulence. 

As we face the current energy situation, there are two fundamentals to observe: there is no shortage of energy supply and there is no shortfall in anticipated wind or solar output.

Coal is a dud. Gas is a pretend solution spruiked by vested interests. Only renewables are climate-safe. Renewables are the cheapest form of new power generation. And renewables are the new reliable.

David Ritter is the chief executive officer of Greenpeace Australia Pacific. You can follow David on Twitter @David_Ritter.

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