Why Tony Abbott refuses to support renewable energy

Robert C. Johnston.


THERE is that memorable line from The Great Gatsby which reads, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Its interpretation can differ depending on the reader. Who is in the boat? Could it be Tony Abbott? Valiantly paddling against a wind of change? Or is it the Australian people? Hoping to forge forth to a new future against a stubborn tide of old ways of doing things.

This week it emerged that Tony Abbott has directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to no longer invest in wind energy and small-scale rooftop solar.

Last month he lamented “visually awful”, noisy, and potentially unhealthy wind turbines, proudly stating that – given half a chance – his government will try to limit their expansion.* Well, it looks like he’s fulfilled at least that promise.

wind turbine

Most people have argued that Abbott is out of touch with where the world is headed regarding renewable energy. And, let’s face it, he is. But the things he says about renewable energy are not said because of a lack of intelligence. They are not said because he is blind to what the future holds. He knows all too well what renewable energy means.

The real reason Tony Abbott refuses to support renewable energy is because he believes it is an existential threat to Australia’s economic livelihood.

For decades we have been digging up our ground and selling it overseas for massive profit. Economically, it has been a wonderful situation for our country. An increase in renewable energy usage will bring down electricity prices, threatening investments in coal and therefore the status quo – so by Abbott’s calculations renewable energy must be bad.

In some ways it is hard to blame him for his stance. He is an economist, the product of his education. But, regrettably, he has made the conscious decision to ignore changing circumstances. The mining boom is on the wane. And global consciousness is shifting.

In recent times we have witnessed too many government decisions made without long term vision. One significant example is a lack of foresight in not taking advantage of the mining boom – not investing in new infrastructure; not diversifying our economy to prepare for the industries of the future.

There has been the nail in the coffin of our local automotive industry, a decision made coincidentally just before free trade agreements were signed promising us cheaper imported cars.

Those in government are so fundamentally opposed to economic protectionism and have been so hypnotised by the mining boom that they have let our other industries simply die out at the hands of foreign competitors, many of which are subsidised by their own governments.

Free markets all the way, they say.

Our manufacturing workforce is dwindling. Our prosperity is tied to iron ore and coal sales. We increasingly rely on imports. If our trade routes were ever blocked, we would be an island nation held to ransom.

These things lead us to the problem that we have all but put our eggs in one basket. And Abbott knows this.

Abbott is determined to keep pretending that renewable energy is a farce. He is so fearful of what a global transition to renewable energy means to Australia’s coal exports industry – which accounted for about 40 billion dollars in earnings last year** – that he does not want to jinx things by showing even a flicker of support for wind or solar.

Some time ago in a previous role I travelled to the Pilbara region of Western Australia where remote communities relied on diesel generators for their power. There was a significant cost involved in the purchase and transport of fuel to keep these generators running day in, day out.

In contrast, I later visited a community on an island off the coast of Arnhem Land, in the Northern Territory, which lobbied for and chipped in to build a wind turbine. It was largely funded by the Howard Government’s Renewable Remote Power Generation Program and the geography of the site was well suited to take advantage of the prevailing winds. The project was not achieved without hurdles, but the wind turbine has since become a symbol of the community’s determination.

Now imagine if that Pilbara community was able to take advantage of the ample sunshine that drapes over their beautiful red earth. Imagine if the government had the vision to give the community a leg up by investing in a solar thermal array. Imagine if the community had the opportunity to try emerging battery technologies which are helping to overcome historical limitations of solar energy storage.

Sure, it would be more of a cost outlay than a generator, but think of the advantages: money that would have been forever sunk into buying diesel fuel would instead be put towards local jobs, maintaining the community’s new renewable energy source. It sets remote communities on a path towards self-sufficiency.

Even oil producing Saudi Arabia has conceded that it will eventually have to adapt to the fast approaching renewable energy revolution, and it is planning to position itself so that it will not be left behind when that time comes. Australia must do the same.

On our massive continent we have the space to try things, we have the sun and the wind, we have the tides. We have the brains. We could become one of the world’s best innovators and exporters of renewable energy technology. And we don’t have to sacrifice the rest of the economy to do this: sure, keep selling coal. But invest in renewable energy technology at the same time.

Mr Abbott, it’s ok. We already know that renewable energy is the future – there’s no point in continuing to pretend otherwise.

It’s time to jump on the bandwagon or you will find yourself left behind on the wrong side of history.

* ABC, “Tony Abbott wants fewer ‘visually awful’ wind farms”, June 12 2015

**The Conversation, “Australia’s five pillar economy”, May 1 2015

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