Category Archives: Australia

Visions, hype and Twitter: Elon Musk and Energy Policy’s latest twist. #auspol

Who would dare make a prediction about Australian energy and climate policy these days? The truth keeps turning out not stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.

Last week Tesla’s vice president for energy products, Lyndon Rive was drumming up interest for his company’s batteries, the “PowerWall”. As opponents of renewable energy never tire of saying, as if it is a stunning insight, it’s only on tv that the sun always shines, and the answer is not blowing in the wind for the same reason of ‘intermittency‘. Renewables advocates counter this by speaking of storage (e.g pumped hydro), but everyone is holding out for a hero. (That’s enough shoe-horned song references, Ed).

Rive, pointed out that after a Californian power crisis “From start to finish, we installed an 80MWh battery pack at one of the substations in Southern California,”

California had had a methane leakage at a gas peaking plant, whereas South Australia’s September blackout – was due to high winds (despite the blame game which ensued). Knowing he had piqued his potential customers’ interest, Rive said “We can do the exact same thing in South Australia. Storage is the technology, and it can solve the problem within the next 100 days or so.”

Mike Cannon-Brookes the ‘accidental billionaire’  , the co-founder software company Atlassian was impressed, tweeting “Holy s#%t” and following it up with “how serious are you about this bet? If I can make the $ happen (& politics), can you guarantee the 100MW in 100 days?”

Rive’s cousin, one Elon Musk, tweeted back “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?”

Nick Hammsen of the ABC notes that detail is sketchy. The Californian scheme was an 400 of Tesla’s Powerpack 2 batteries, which Tesla claim is infinitely scalable. Hammsen notes that system big enough for South Australia would run into the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars and that the cost and who would foot the bill is unclear.

Since then, Musk and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherhill have spoken, with Musk tweeting

Mr Weatherill, who had floated the balloon of a states-based emissions trading scheme  said “Today I had a positive discussion with Elon Musk regarding his battery proposal,”

Greens Senator Hanson-Young is also intetested, arguing

The way the spot market works and way the electricity market is currently structured means that battery storage just can’t compete at the same level.”

Policy via Twitter (a la Trump)

This is under way because following a ‘policy bonfire‘, in 2013 and 2014, there is the mother of all policy vacuums in Canberra, with no resolution in sight. When this happened under John Howard, the states – with New South Wales under Bob Carr as leading light – started a push for an emissions trading scheme, which created impetus for a national scheme.

Entrepreneurs, be they policy or technology-based, are needed to ‘shake things up’. As an academic colleague wrote

I’m generally pro Musk, on the grounds that all visionaries are flawed, and stunts can be useful. You’ve gotta have someone willing to take the big risks, but the personality that allows that kind of behaviour is almost certainly going to also include some narcissism and megalomania. Every other entrepreneur who developed a whole new system in the past was also like this. Henry Ford, George Stephenson, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, etc”

“Socio-technical transitions” are indeed about visions  , but of course, visions are okay if you’re rich; if you’re poor and you have visions, they send you to a psychiatrist.

 Regardless of the ins and outs of visions, proposals like these take on a life of their own. If this twitter love-in goes on much longer – and if Cannon-Brookes finds the cash – Musk and Weatherill will both be in a position where they have to do something together, or look like – as they say in Newcastle (England) “All fur coat and no knickers.”

Talk, like Australia’s electricity, is no longer as cheap as it was.

South Australia has a long history as a “laboratory”

You could argue that South Australia’s foundation as the only non-convict labour colony under White Settlement (or invasion) is the first example of its role as a ‘laboratory’.

South Australia’s longest serving premier, Tom Playford (in office from 1938 to 1965) was certainly capable of thinking big, with his 1946 nationalisation of the Adelaide Electric Supply Company to create the (since privatised) Electricity Trust of South Australia (this was done with the enthusiastic support of the Federal Labor Government of Ben Chifley) and his nuclear ambitions.

Later visions of state-based responses to economic, social and environmental pressures were less successful (for example Premier Don Dunstan and Monarto, and John Bannon‘s similarly ill-fated “multi-function polis.”

As a virtual city-state, South Australia  can claim a place as an ‘urban laboratory’ and be an object of study for the question ‘Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were?’  A new experiment seems to be unfolding. Tomorrow (Tuesday 14th March), Weatherill will announce a series of State government measures to deal with energy prices, energy security and climate change. Watch this space…

Winners and Losers

If it comes off, (and the “if” and the “it” are big questions), who would be the winners and losers? It would clearly be better PR than you could ever buy for Musk – proof of concept for his technology. Weatherill and his government are up for re-election in March 2018 and needing to put meat on the bones of the ‘OpenState’ festival promises, would be a happy chappy.

Academics studying “sustainability sociotechnical transitions” and the importance of visions and hype will love it. Public policy theorists who use the ‘Multiple Streams’ approach point out that often policy entrepreneurs develop solutions and then go looking for a problem to attach them to. The Musk-Adelaide connection would become the obvious citation

Renewable proponents would see their enthusiasm and hard work vindicated, especially if customers (and voters) see a stabilisation (or decrease?) in electricity prices, and an end to insecurity of supply. Community-based schemes may of course fear being pushed aside by the big boys, as do the Zen Energy owners and managers, who reckon a local consortium could do the job Musk is promising on the same time-scale.

Conversely, it would be bad news for the South Australian opposition, which is reduced to ‘me-tooism’. Liberal Opposition leader Stephen Marshall said in response to the Musk proposal

“It’s the sort of thing we need to be looking at to secure the stability of our grid here in South Australia and also how we can lower energy prices in this state” [source]

For the Federal Coalition it is another big headache – it is hard to see how Malcolm ‘innovation/exciting time to be alive’ Turnbull can object. He and Musk talked on Sunday, with the now usual exchange of mutually-congratulatory tweets.

If it came off, it would, presumably, be disastrous for the status quo actors who own/operate the centralised fossil-fuel power stations and grid, accelerating the ‘death spiral‘ of grid defection.

They can be expected to fight back, by attacking the credibility of proponents (with Musk, that’s hard), the technology and by attempting to slow deployment. But in South Australia, they may not have enough levers to pull on, enough credible threats to make.

2017 is already living up to its billing as a perplexing roller-coaster.

If Morrison had held up a lump of silicon instead of lacquered coal…

Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison held up a lump of coal in Parliament last week, in an attempt to humiliate the Opposition.  The coal was provided by the Minerals Council of Australia, who helpfully lacquered it so it wouldn’t smudge on its handlers…

Journalists have expressed bewilderment and Clive Hamilton, recently ex-Climate Change Authority member, used the incident to think cogently about death and fear. I wrote here and here.

Then there is this brilliant letter in the Fin.  I want to track down the writer and buy him a pint.  All help in this endeavour appreciated.


(h/t to Aaron for sending me this)

So, lump of coal as a boundary object, perhaps, or a mutable mobile. Or something else from Science and Technology Studies, which, as Tom Baker said at the end of his penultimate story, (The Keeper of Traken)  is not my forte so much…


Wedges of coal – Morrison, Howard stunts and catastrophe #auspol #climate

The Treasurer Scott Morrison brandished a lump of coal in Parliament last week, against rules that are supposed to prevent props being used (Adam Bandt has since brought a solar panel. The speaker has now told everyone to knock it off).

Morrison, mocking the Labor Party members, cooed “This is coal… Don’t be afraid…  don’t be scared.” (And has since boasted about this to radio shocking jock Ray Hadley.)

As one astute  journalist wrote three years ago it’s part of

“a long campaign to redefine the stuff that comes from burning coal as a “colourless, odourless gas”, a harmless three-way cuddle between one carbon and two oxygen atoms that, happily, provides “plant food”

While a purple haze introduced  to the Bureau of Meteorology maps in 2013  causes confusion, Australia, like many other countries, faces an ‘energy trilemma’ – problems of price, security and decarbonisation.

The recent announcements (you can’t  really call them proposals) by Resources Minister Matt Canavan , Malcolm Turnbull,  and now Scott Morrison do not actually address any of these problems.

Clean coal is not going to be cheap, “clean” coal is not going to be clean enough to compete with gas or renewables, and most importantly clean coal is not going to happen – the CEFC, Bloomberg, and AEMO have all pointed out that, given the expectation of future carbon constraints, no private investor will come anywhere near new coal.  Gina Rinehart isn’t interested  and so the government (i.e. the taxpayer) would have to bankroll it, something that Barnaby Joyce is relaxed about.

Policy versus politics
What we are seeing is not actually a policy battle, but a politics battle, and one that has been going on since at least 2000. That was the year that, after the Australian Greenhouse Office had commissioned a series of reports on the emissions trading, then-Environment Minister Robert Hill, brought a proposal for an emissions trading scheme to Cabinet. It was defeated thanks to the opposition of Liberal Senator Nick Minchin.  Meanwhile, battles over whether the Kyoto Protocol should be ratified were raging, both among politicians and within industry.  Australia had received a very generous ‘reduction’ target that actually meant it could increase its emissions to 108% of its 1990 level, and this was supplemented by a clause (known as the Australia clause) which gave credit for reductions in land-clearing, but still they prevaricated.

Howard famously decided that Australia would not ratify unless the US did, so things were basically put on hold until after the 2000 US Presidential election.  Labor, seeking green votes, seemed more keen, but  under influence of the powerful CFMEU Union, re-wrote policy platform in mid-2000 to remove mention of Kyoto Ratification.  Then Shadow environment minister Nick Bolkus famously said “...I am not going to be a kamikaze pilot when it comes to taking Australian industry and Australian jobs.”   Labor confirmed support for Kyoto ratification before the 2001 Federal Election,  and Howard toured the Hunter Valley to argue ratification would cost jobs, raise power prices and hurt industry.
[McSweeny, L., Polglaze, K. and Hamilton, F. 2001. Fed – Govt warns of job losses under ALP Kyoto plan.  Australian Associated Press, 7 November.

Pulling the Greenhouse trigger
Howard’s wedging attempts continued – why change a winning game?  In late 2006, with the climate issue heating up, Labor and the Greens tried to get the ‘greenhouse trigger’ – the idea that the Federal Government should have both the power and the responsibility to give a final yay or nay on any particularly carbon intensive projects –  back on the agenda (this was another battle that Robert Hill had lost to Nick Minchin in 2000). The Environment Minister of the time, Ian Campbell, knew what to do….

According to one commentator  “Senator Campbell’s response to the criticisms was to describe the greenhouse trigger amendments as the ‘anti-coal amendment’ and seek to paint the ALP as being against the coal industry.”
(Macintosh, 2007: 54)

Labor, under Kevin Rudd,  tried to square the circle of climate concern and coal industry support with the notion of Carbon Capture and Storage, but this fell by the wayside by 2010 or so, after geological reality imposed itself and costs spiralled.   It is significant that the coal industry and government have switched to “High Efficiency Low Emissions” as their techno-fix du jour.

 Cultural battles
Meanwhile, the cultural battle – over who is ‘authentic’ and supportive of regional Australia continues unabated.  Prime Ministers Gillard and Abbott seemed glued to hard hats and fluoro jackets in their flesh-pressing tours.  In July 2014 Senator Ian MacDonald came to parliament in a fluorojacket, provided to him by the same people who gave Morrison his lump of coal.

One useful way to think of the current hi-jinks is as part of a cultural battle over the cleanliness and moral rectitude of a product or commodity.   The US firm General Electric tried to portray coal as sexy in this jaw-dropping 2005 advert

and a battle of television adverts on clean coal broke out in 2008/9 in the US.

The divestment campaign, which aims to make coal look outmoded and dangerous not only to the planet but also investors, is the key example, and it has drawn a sharp response from the coal industry and its political supporters (see especially October 2014, in the aftermath of the Australian National University’s announcement of a very partial divestment).

One relatively recent academic paper, called From Pabst to Pepsi: The Deinstitutionalization of Social Practices and the Creation of Entrepreneurial Opportunities captures the decades long struggle between the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the producers and sellers of alcohol.  The authors point out that as well as condemning alcohol, the anti-drinking movement also opened up space for entrepreneurs – motivated by morals or money or indeed both- to create an alternative product – ‘soft drinks’ as opposed to hard liquor.

That fight took decades (and ‘winning’ it lead to the disaster that was Prohibition). And the authors point out  that

“the brewery industry was composed of thousands of small, independent businesses. This fragmentation of the industry may account for its lack of success in refuting the WCTU’s attacks”

They continue

“multiple attacks by anti-smoking advocates such as the American Cancer Society on the tobacco industry—a consolidated industry with a few very large players—have had limited success in recent decades.”

The coal industry – often compared to Big Tobacco – has the same advantages, and it seems that Australia is no closer to finding a solution for the “nonn-delivery of an invisible substance to no-one.” to the dismay and outrage of many, especially the young.

2017 is already living up to its billing.

Turnbull announces radical #climate policy overhaul. #auspol

turnbullat-npcPrime Minister Malcolm Turnbull today announced a series of sweeping new measures on Australian climate policy. Speaking at the National Press Club, he advocated an “ignorant” energy policy and the creation of “security and preposterousness” for the Coalition’s grip on power.

Turnbull announced a review of the Renewable Energy Target, the first such review in almost a year, to counter growing investor confidence. He told the assembled hacks

“I will be appointing my good friend and colleague Senator Malcolm Roberts to chair the Renewable Energy Target Committee on Harmonisation (RETCH ). This will send a clear signal to investors that China is open for business. It is an exciting and innovative time to be alive.”

Questioned on this by the chair of the event, Chris ‘wind power increased the risk of a state-wide blackout‘ Uhlmann, Turnbull continued

“The RET was never intended to be perpetual. The only thing that is perpetual in all this is the Coalition’s inability to accept the need to do something substantive on climate, ‘kay?”

Turnbull also lamented the lack of progress on carbon policy capture and storage since 2009.

“In 2009 I went to see Dave ‘Vote Blue Go Green’ Cameron about conservative climate policy. I flew back, and – frankly I was still a bit jet-lagged – I went on the bloody radio and said ‘ I will not lead a party that is not as committed to effective action on climate change as I am.‘ Well, we all know how THAT ended, now don’t we? And since then I’ve been personally committed to the storage of all hopes and promises for a real climate policy. I’ve expended enormous amounts of political capital. All of it, in fact.”

Turnbull also found time to extol the virtues of super-dooper, ultra hypocritical coal power.

“For almost three decades the Australian state and the “Australian” coal industry – it is hard to tell the difference-  have worked hand in hand to slow down international action on climate change. I mean, seriously, why would we do anything else? It would be like British American Tobacco funding ‘quit smoking’ campaigns. It’s just not going to happen. We came up with endless dodgy economic models to ‘prove’ Australia was a special case and that the sky would fall if so much as one lump of coal wasn’t dug up and burnt. We got a sweet sweet deal at Kyoto and still refused to ratify. We worked with the Americans to set up spoiler operations like the AP6. We refused to send a proper delegation to conferences after the Copenhagen debacle. We blathered about ‘newgencoal.’ This is a feature, not a bug, people. This is just who we are.”

Labor’s climate change spokesman, Mark Butler, seized on the prime minister’s announcement of the RETCH, and said: “Post-2020, there is no national policy incentive to invest in new renewable generation. Solar panels and wind turbines make voters feel good, but what is actually needed is regulation and a price on carbon that sends a long, loud and legal signal to everyone. But the ALP remembers what happened to it after our last adventures in pricing carbon. We have the PTSD diagnosis to prove it too. So look, here’s a picture of a solar panel with a blonde moppet in front of it!”

Jan 24, 1989 – Greenhouse is not simply an energy issue says Resources Minister

Twenty eight years ago today, the then Australian Federal Minister for Resources, Peter Cook,  was reported in The Australian newspaper

“to have called for active co-operation among Asian countries in developing practical ways to minimize the threatening greenhouse effect. He said: “The greenhouse effect is an environmental issue of global dimensions…. It is not simply an energy issue. The challenge for energy policy makers is to assess the range of possibilities that would make an appropriate contribution to reducing the greenhouse effect.” (Henderson-Sellers and Blong, 1989:3)

Two things here – first, this is less than a year after the greenhouse chapter got removed from the ‘Energy 2000’ report (we will come back to this.

Secondly, this became a persistent theme in Australian “diplomacy” – that countries which had never had a significant carbon footprint, who had not caused the problem, should be signed up,and that Australia should not take action until these poor countries had signed up for cuts of their own.


Henderson-Sellers, A. and Blong, R. 1989. The Greenhouse Effect: Living in a Warmer Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

Also on this day-

Writing in the Canberra Times on January 24 2002 , [Ray] Evans stated: “Of all the political scams of the post-war period, the global warming scam … is the most audacious.”

Jan 5, 2006 – Labor MPs release climate refugees paper ‘Our Drowning Neighbours’

jan52006On this day in  2006, the then Federal Labor MP Bob Sercombe and current MP Anthony Albanese issued Our Drowning Neighbours, Labor’s Policy Discussion Paper on Climate Change in the Pacific, with the goal of generating a more proactive, strategic approach. [Does anyone out there have a copy. It’s strangely absent from the internet these days…]

Climate change had been recognised as an existential threat (in the literal sense.None of this Sartre nonsense) from the late 1980s.  Then Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans had talked about Australia’s responsibility.  Of course, it was just fine words, which John Howard dispensed with altogether (see the spat in CHOGM just before the 1997 COP3 meeting in Kyoto Japan).

For an overview on the issue, you could do worse than this 2009 paper from the Australia Institute. See also this coruscating piece from 2010 by Kellie Tranter. And an event report from October 2016 on Voices from the Climate Front Line.   See also 350 Pacific and SEED.

We will return (again and again) to Australia’s clear contempt for its neighbours. So it goes…

Oh, and this is probably worth a read

Charles Hawksley (2009) Australia’s aid diplomacy and the Pacific Islands: change and continuity in middle power foreign policy, Global Change, Peace & Security, 21:1,
115-130, DOI: 10.1080/14781150802659473
Great powers seek to influence world affairs; middle powers seek to influence their regions. Australia’s ‘near abroad’ includes Indonesia and the South Pacific, especially Melanesia. Elected Prime Minister in November 2007, Kevin Rudd has indicated a new direction for Australian policy in the Pacific and the previous image of a pushy or bullying Australia has to some extent been laid to rest. Yet the key differences between Rudd’s policies and those of the former government of John Howard appear to be of style rather than substance. Despite the new rhetoric of greater engagement, the emphasis on market forces creating development shows an essential continuity of Australian foreign aid policy in the South Pacific


Also on this day –

1995 The “greenhouse interdepartmental committee” met for first time to plan Environment Minister Faulkner’s next submission to Cabinet on the proposed carbon tax. The committee was led by Phillip Toyne… (see Henderson, 12 Jan 1995 [Or was it actually the 11th, as per a different source]).  On the same day, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett sent out a news release ,  “opposing carbon tax and using many of the points put forward by the Industry Greenhouse Network….” (Worden, 1998: 111)


Jan 1, 2003- NSW ‘Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme’ implemented

14 years ago, on the 1st of January 2003, the New South Wales government, under Bob Carr (who will get a few more mentions on this website), introduced its “Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme.” It had been designed by Frontier Economics and Danny Price (who will get a few more mentions on this website).  It used a baseline and credit system (rather than cap and trade) – and so may sound oddly  familiar to anyone who was paying attention to last December’s political bloodbath about the emissions intensity scheme for the electricity industry.  You know, the one that will now  NOT be part of the 2017 climate change review.

It was the world’s first mandatory emission trading scheme and “replaced a precursor scheme that required NSW electricity producers to create strategies to reduce the per-capita emissions-intensity of electricity production. The precursor scheme failed to force emissions reductions.”

Brad Jessup and David Mercer, ‘Energy policy in Australia: a comparison of environmental considerations in New South Wales and Victoria’ (2001) 32 Australian Geographer 7, 15-17

As Guglyuvatyy, (2011: 94) writes –
At a subnational level, for instance, the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme (GGAS) commenced in 1997 and became mandatory in 2003.63
Under the scheme (which is designed as baseline and credit), the per-capita GHG emissions associated with electricity consumption in NSW should be reduced from 8.65 tonnes CO2 in 2003 to 7.27 tonnes CO2 by 2007, and continue at this level until 2020. This target applied to electricity retailers, generators and some major energy users (NSW Government 2006). The participants can meet the targets either directly or by buying the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Certificates (NGACs) which represent one tonne of avoided GHG emissions that are created through activities which reduce or offset emissions.

According to the NSW State Government, the scheme has achieved around 16 million tonnes of greenhouse savings since it started in 2003 and will accrue around 120 million tonnes by 2012 (NSW Government 2006). However, it appears that at least 83 per cent (2003), 76 per cent (2004) and 52 per cent (2005) of the NGACs were created by pre-existing low emission plant that did not have to increase their operation compared to pre-GGAS levels to create certificates (Passey et al. 2007). Undoubtedly some projects that produce NGACs represent additional abatement and the Scheme is likely to drive some extra investments in generators that have low emissions. However, serious concerns remain for many of the projects that have created NGACs to date.PhD thesis – Assessing carbon tax and emissions trading as policy options for climate change mitigation in Australia

All did not run smoothly with it, as Marianne Wilkinson reported on 11th September 2007..

THE gap between doing something about climate change and talking about it was revealed yesterday. Before the ink was dry on the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum’s Sydney declaration on climate change calling for a boost in global energy efficiency, the NSW scheme designed to do just that was crashing.

As a result, hundreds of dedicated carbon cops who spend their days installing energy-saving light globes and engaging householders on climate change were being told they are likely to face the chop as green businesses hit the wall.

Wilkinson, M. 2007. Going global, crashing locally. Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September.

The scheme survived until it was replaced by the Gillard government’s ETS on 1 July 2012.

Also on this day

2011 Australian Renewables target changed “From January 1, 2011, the scheme was split in two: the small-scale renewable energy scheme (SRES) and large-scale RET (LRET). Both work on the same basic principles as the original RET: renewable energy generators are able to generate either Small-scale Technology Certificates (STCs) or Large-scale Generation Certificates (LGCs), which are sold to purchasers of wholesale electricity who must surrender a prescribed quantity of STCs and LGCs each year. The benefit of the split RET was that it was supposed to reserve 41,000 GWh of the 45,000 GWh 2020 target for large-scale generators”