Updated Jan 2020 with hindsight, although the original arguments remain the same. Basically Irvine seems determined to excuse the Coalition or sidestep around their political commitments to fossil fuels, and she ignores the ecological crisis which is both largely caused by the energy being used, and impacts on our problems with energy.
This article developed from a comment on an article by Jessica Irvine in the Sydney Morning Herald “Energy crisis: The 9 questions you were too embarrassed to ask“.
Irvine argues that “The energy crisis – with all its mind-boggling complexity, jargon and science-y stuff – is something you’ll need to understand”
Point 1: She argues that there is an energy crisis in the sense of “reaching a ‘decisive moment’ or ‘a time of danger or great difficulty’,” but there is no widespread destruction as yet.
While there may be no destructive energy crisis, there is an ecological crisis which is growing, partly because of carbon emissions from energy sources. It is vital to keep the ecological crisis in focus as many other crises flow on from that.
Point 2: She states: “without meaning to be dramatic, death and a widespread blanket of darkness descending across the lands are not entirely off the cards.” We could have blackouts.
However, a blackout is not generally a crisis. With backup and delay, it is usually just a problem or an annoying inconvenience. However, the worse the ecological crisis gets, the more problems with energy supply become significant, and the more people will suffer or die as a result. Power can breakdown in fierce bushfires; emergency procedures can be disrupted at times of mass need; mobile phones can go off communications grids, etc. The economy and food supply will be hurt as well.
Point 3: She suggests that gas is one solution to renewable blackouts, as gas can be ramped up quickly.
Gas does not help when major powerlines are down due to storm or fire events, as in the South Australian crisis. There is, also, only one line into the Bega Valley for example. This increases vulnerability. We need more redundancy, and more power lines. This will help reduce problems from all sources, but it will probably involve government action. If we can afford new stadiums, publicly funded tollways, and moving museums for no good reason, then we should be able to afford that. However, the Coalition believes in privatization of energy for whatever reason, and it now seems unlikely the power companies will do what is needed, as they have not done this, despite massive investments for tax reasons.
There is currently a problem with gas supply in Australia, but that results from: a) gas companies deciding to supply gas to overseas contracts rather than local consumers, and: b) from gas power stations failing in the heat (from the ecological crisis). If we are to use gas (and gas still produces Green House Gas emissions, through burning and leakage), we need to control the gas companies, or have a state gas company, rather than have them control us.
Point 4: A point of agreement with the author. Coal is stupid, expensive and poisonous to people and the environment.
A carbon price may be useful, but it needs to be carefully thought out, and clear, to allow planning, and to recompense ordinary consumers. The original Carbon Price passed by the Australian Parliament in 2011 (the Clean Energy Act 2011) , did this, when it started in July 2012. It was repealed by the Coalition for no good reason.
Point 5: “Policy makers became so obsessed with getting a mechanism in place to drive lower emissions (and failing to do so) that they forgot to focus enough on ensuring adequate energy supply to keep the lights on.”
This is a real sidestep of the issues. The Coalition parties (both in government and opposition) became obsessed with defending fossil fuel companies and mining companies (rather than with getting any mechanism to drive lower emissions), and have actively worked to prevent alternate energy supplies from increasing, or lowering emissions. This specific criticism simply does not apply to the Coalition, as it assumes something which was not true. Labor may not have been much better, but it was better; it had policies.
Closing power stations, has happened for capitalist economic reasons, not because of government regulation or aims at emissions reduction. They were old. Refurbishing them would be so costly that the energy they would generate would have been largely too expensive on the market to break even.
Point 6: “You can expect to pay more, both as a taxpayer and an energy user,” because of government intervention.
The Coalition government’s main intervention from 2014 onwards has been to do nothing to reduce emissions, and to repeal the carbon price, which should have made coal powered electricity cheaper. It has not.
Prices will continue to increase in the market as it exists, as companies continue to manipulate that market to increase profit. That is what companies do. That is why the prices have increased after the Carbon tax was repealed. We have a situation in which various companies are profiteering from the destruction of both our environment and Australia’s energy systems. This, is the main story, so let’s not forget it.
Point 7: South Australia is going towards renewables all alone and this disrupts a “cohesive and consistent cross-government legislative framework which provides a safe environment for private investment.”
South Australia is going it alone because the Federal government has done little but attack them (mostly using false information) in order to defend fossil fuel companies, and has provided no help, or even moral support. Likewise, there has been no effort at all, to make any Commonwealth wide legislative framework for energy provision. Indeed the Coalition has fought against such a framework.
Essentially more states will have to go it alone if we want a solution under this Federal Government.
Point 8: Can we solve the problem with batteries, and are current batteries worth the price?
For Irvine, this just remains a question. Battery storage is still in development and will get better with more research – perhaps we should fund some? Batteries are still apparently cheaper and less destructive than the alternatives.
We might also think about a contract in which batteries get replaced with newer models as time passes. But that would not be supporting fossil fuel companies, so there is little chance of that.
Point 9: “As long as government remains in the business of picking winners, seemingly out of a hat, rather than sitting back and establishing the clear price signals needed for business to invest, Australians will pay more for power”
The Coalition government is in the business of picking losers that won’t challenge fossil fuel companies. The proposed new Snowy scheme will be overpriced, depend on water and snow we may not have because of climate change, and be powered by coal if at all possible. It seems like a massive waste of money, as you might expect.