Is Malcolm Turnbull truly a champion for clean energy?

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Speaking at a clean energy conference, Malcolm Turnbull told his audience everything they wanted to hear, which turned out to be classic political misdirection, writes Giles Parkinson.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, private citizen, on Tuesday, did what he had not done as Prime Minister of Australia over three years and spoke at a major clean energy conference. He used the Smart Energy Council’s NSW energy summit in Sydney to deliver a predictably staunch defence of his record on energy and climate.

“I gave it my best shot,” Turnbull said in his speech. But he claimed he was thwarted by the “significant” number of Coalition MPs who denied climate science, lived in a “fact-free zone”, urged an exit from the Paris Climate Treaty and would rather build a coal-fired generator than the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme.

Turnbull’s speech was largely focused on the need for storage, particularly the promise of pumped hydro and his pet scheme, the $6 billion-plus Snowy 2.0 project on which Snowy Hydro is due to make a decision soon.

He also defended his efforts to introduce the National Energy Guarantee, since dumped by his party but embraced by Labor, albeit with a significantly higher emissions reduction target — 45% by 2030 compared with the Coalition’s 26-28%.

Turnbull said Coalition policy decisions on climate and energy had been derailed by “ideology and idiocy” and noted there were people in his party who would “look you in the eye” and claim that new coal-fired generation was cheaper than renewables.

In his speech, Turnbull said:

There is a significant percentage of the Coalition members who do not believe climate change is real, who think we should get out of Paris for example, who would rather, even some, who would rather the government, instead of building Snowy 2, built a new coal-fired power station.

This is not a religious issue. This is an issue that has to be grounded in engineering and economics. We know that we need to decarbonise.

Turnbull pointed to Snowy Hydro’s recent game-changing tender for wind and solar that produced costs he said were between $30 and $40/MWh, which, with the cost of storage delivered “firm” wind and solar output for less than $70/MWh, had reached a level that Snowy Hydro CEO Paul Broad has noted is cheaper than current baseload prices.

I was massively enthusiastic in 2007 for wind and solar (when Environment Minister in the Howard Government).

But even my wildly optimistic expectations have been blown away by the reduction in (wind and solar costs).”

“The technology is there to do (what’s needed),” he said, referring to the trilemma of reducing emissions, reducing costs and maintaining reliability.

He added:

You don’t have to wear a hair shirt to reduce energy emissions any more. A lot of people are living in the past, failing to understand that the cost of renewable power has come down so dramatically and has got further to go.

And, by the way, we have the opportunity to decarbonise and deliver cheaper power as well. So how good a deal is that?

But just in case anyone should conclude that Turnbull is now advocating for a more ambitious renewable energy target and emission reduction targets on the basis of this, they might be disappointed.

After his speech, in a huddle with a small number of journalists, Turnbull was asked, given the lower costs of renewables and storage, whether he would endorse a higher emissions target for the NEG, or indeed Labor’s 45% emissions reduction target.

He said there was no doubt that the NEG, under the Coalition’s current emissions target, would not have added to costs.

“Could you have a higher emissions trajectory without additional costs? The Labor Party would no doubt say you can… I would have to say I would be sceptical about that. It is a question of trajectory. It all relates to the timing of coal-fired power station retirements.”

Hang on, said RenewEconomy, didn’t you just say in your speech that renewables are cheaper now and we have the opportunity to decarbonise and deliver cheaper power as well?

“It is the timing. It is the pace of the transition,” Turnbull said.

“But if they are cheaper now…” replied RE.

“Yes, but the point is how do you bring it in,” Turnbull said, before echoing comments made by NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin about the problems of connection, which Harwin used to defend his state’s relatively small investment in renewable energy — at least compared to other states.

“Can we reach 50% renewables by 2030?” asked RE.

“I think that would be a considerable challenge,” Turnbull replied, which is a disappointing response to anyone who has absorbed the Integrated System Plan prepared by AEMO, which has been described as the most thorough and exhaustive investigation into the grid and a blueprint for the future; or even the recent Green Energy Market analysis.

“I believe it will be a cheaper, more affordable and much cleaner energy future,” Turnbull said. “The question is how do you get there in the most cost-effective way without compromising affordability and reliability.”

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy on 4 December 2018 under the title 'Turnbull: I gave it my best shot … but deniers won’t accept renewables are cheaper' and has been republished with permission. You can follow Giles Parkinson on Twitter @GilesParkinson.

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