A great year for clean energy in Australia ends, while bad news for coal continues | Simon Holmes à Court | Opinion

In 20 years we’ll look back on 2017 as a turning point for the climate challenge. It hasn’t been all good news – carbon emissions increased globally and in Australia – but the mission to avoid dangerous climate change no longer appears completely hopeless.

Until recently few in the mainstream were calling time on coal – yet numbers out of China and India showed that the coal building spree is fast winding down and the International Energy Agency, who are traditionally coal boosters, reported that coal is facing a “decade of stagnation” after global demand peaked in 2014. In May, the head of infrastructure investment at BlackRock, the world’s largest investment manager, announced that “coal is dead”.

Meanwhile renewable energy broke new records — China installed seven solar panels a second and India’s energy minister now expects to install 200GW of renewables by 2022.

While it’s undeniable that the energy transition is well under way, Australians could be forgiven for despairing when coal dominates our media cycle. Who can forget the federal treasurer, Scott Morrison, brandishing a lump of coal in the first session of parliament, goading: “This is coal — don’t be afraid, don’t be scared”?

Throughout the year the Minerals Council of Australia drove hard their campaign for new “high efficiency, low emissions’ (HELE) coal that was swallowed hook, line and sinker by many in parliament and the media. In fact, HELE power stations are not new — America’s first was built in 1949, Russia’s in 1962, and Australia has four, the first built in 2001.

On any analysis, HELE is not new, not highly efficient, not low emissions and not cheap — HELE is nothing more than a cynical rebranding exercise. When some MPs demanded that the federal government subsidise construction, the only interest, half-hearted at that, came from Clive Palmer. Enough said.

After a collective “meh” from the energy sector, the federal government threw another lifeline to coal by reintroducing carbon capture and storage (CCS) into the debate. Never mind that the only two demonstration plants globally are small, expensive and loss-making, or that the Australian National Audit Office found that the $1bn spent in Australia over a decade on CCS has yielded approximately nothing.

Next up the chief scientist, Prof Alan Finkel, delivered his Blueprint for the Future, a comprehensive plan for fixing everything wrong with the national electricity market. Despite the best efforts of the federal energy and environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, to sell the plan to the joint party room, the climate policy reactionaries repudiated the most important recommendation – a clean energy target. Frydenberg was left with no credible emissions policy for any sector of the economy and no response to the energy reliability crisis he confected.

The hastily convened Energy Security Board came to Frydenberg’s rescue with the national energy guarantee (Neg), an eight-page proposal promising to resolve the energy “trilemma”: providing reliable and affordable energy with lower emissions. In fact, if ever implemented, the NEG’s key measures are set to reduce energy market transparency and competition, pushing up prices. Its emissions bar is set so low as to effectively guarantee that Australia will renege on international carbon commitments.

Curiously, the government’s own modelling shows the Neg doesn’t provide a leg-up for coal. The only thing the Neg is set to do, it seems, is to give the government a “fig leaf”, much like Greg Hunt’s Direct Action, that will both quell raging internal divisions and stave off claims that the Coalition has no plan.

Finally, hidden alongside a cabinet reshuffle in the dead week before Christmas, Frydenberg released a shocking set of national greenhouse accounts and a climate policy review that basically recommends that we pay other countries to transform their economies instead of exploiting our own natural advantages.

But thankfully all that is just a sideshow. The real story, driven by the states and the private sector, is more interesting and much more positive.

Australia now has renewables-friendly governments in every state and territory. Victoria legislated a target of 40% by 2025 and both Queensland and the Northern Territory committed to 50% renewables by 2030. South Australia leads the world on wind and solar integration and has shed its title of the highest wholesale energy prices in the country.

More than 50 large-scale renewable energy projects are either under construction or have been completed in Australia in 2017 totalling 4,670MW, as much as was built over the first 15 years of the renewable energy target. Australian households installed more rooftop solar than any year since 2012 when subsidies were three times as generous — no other country has a higher take-up of residential solar.

Elon Musk came good on a promise to install a 100MW battery in less than 100 days from contract signing. (In typical Musk showman style, half the system was operational 100 minutes from signing.) The battery, likened to the Big Banana by Scott Morrison, has been performing exceptionally well, stepping in quickly and shoring up the network after a spate of major coal unit failures around the country in December.

US-based Solar Reserve announced the development of Aurora, a solar thermal power plant that will store energy in molten salt during the day and release it as power when most needed. Aurora beat out bids from gas in a technology-agnostic auction for dispatchable power.

Turnbull announced a feasibility study for Snowy 2.0, a project that has sat in the bottom drawer since 1980 to build a 27km underground waterway, generators and pumps to fashion a massive battery out of two existing reservoirs. With the business case withheld from public view, it is hard to say much about the project’s viability, but what we do know is that four privately-owned pumped hydro projects, with collectively 42% of the power of Snowy 2.0, are currently in development, including two that recycle disused mines.

In a less enlightened moment, Turnbull tried to bully energy giant AGL into extending the life of the Liddell coal power station past its scheduled closure in 2022. AGL returned fire with a plan that integrates renewables, gas and batteries — more flexible and significantly cheaper.

Meanwhile, bad news for coal continues – it has been more than a decade since we built a new coal power station. Adani’s proposed Carmichael coalmine proposal looks all but dead, repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to secure finance and having parted ways with mining services giant Downer. To top off the year, BHP, the largest member of the Minerals Council forced the exit of the peak body’s head and demanded that it cease advocating against renewables and climate action.

After a year of Turnbull making a goose of himself promoting “clean coal” and attempting to bash South Australia’s successes, perhaps it’s time he stood proud of what Australia is achieving in spite of the Coalition’s “ideology and idiocy” (to borrow one of his favourite energy phrases).

Australians love renewables. The latest climate polling from Ipsos shows renewable energy is by a wide margin the most popular climate action, and our desire for climate action is as strong as it was when John Howard lost an election over the issue in 2007.

A carrot and a stick for Turnbull?

Simon Holmes à Court is senior adviser to the Energy Transition Hub at Melbourne University