On an energy grid under threat, the rise of the Green Tea Party and why we should not apologise for mediocrity

24 October 2013 — It was the most startling omission in a conference setting in recent memory: a panel of energy experts, a room full of their peers in the audience and not a mention of the words climate change or sustainability, or the need to pull back on carbon emissions.

Instead the conversation about renewable energy was in terms of a threat, one of the elements that had put the nation’s grid and its investors and stakeholders under huge pressure and falling margins. Along with, among a few other factors, energy efficiency in buildings and appliances.

But there you have it folks: all the property industry’s diligent green knights, fighting to save money and the planet, and there is one forum in which your work is seen as a problem. Even a threat.

The event was GE’s session on “Powering Australia”, part of the atWork 2013 conference in Sydney on Tuesday at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

On the panel were

  • Frank Calabria, Origin Energy chief executive energy markets
  • Alex Wonhas, director Energy Flagship, CSIRO
  • Matt McKenzie, Regional Leader – Asia Pacific GE Energy Management, Digital Energy

Moderator was Adam Creighton from The Australian.

In response to a nervous sounding question – how much of the grid could be supplied by renewable energy? – Alex Wonhas said that if residential and commercial buildings made up 30 per cent of power consumption then theoretically it was technologically possible to supply the whole of that need.

The dramatic fall in demand had taken the entire industry by surprise. In only a few years the forecasts had gone from continued increase in demand to steep falls.

Now let’s think about this. This industry represents possibly the most important piece of national infrastructure we have. The vice chairman of GE John G Rice had only just finished elaborating in his opening address how critical was electricity in nearly every facet of life. GE is a serious global behemoth in this space and all that surround it.

And yet it too, with all its assembled nerds and clever wiz bang people had failed to foresee what everyone working in the renewables side of the fence could see plain as day. There is no going backwards on this revolution. The stone age didn’t end because they ran out of stones. Business as usual can’t continue in our children’s lifetime, nor our own for that matter. And a whole ream of assorted clichés…

None of it penetrated the electricity industry. Blithely they went ahead and invested $47 billion smackaroos into building up the poles and wires than in three years we no longer need.

Any other bunch of shareholders would have sacked the chairman, the board and rewritten all the rules. But not here.

Instead the regulator promises by law to provide a 10 per cent return to this investment. And guess who’s paying for that lot?

In the US – and here it gets hair-raising, if not outright hilarious – there’s a very interesting bunch of people have figured out that the huge corporate energy giants have been reaping the same kind of welfare. And they ain’t gonna take it no more.

This group is all for the triumph of the consumer, the little guy, and gal. And they love independence, low tax, low government. Who is it?

You guessed it! The Tea Party.

Yes, welcome to the birth of the Green Tea Party. We kid you not (and thanks to Climate Institute chief executive John Connor for pointing to them).

These wily players can see that green energy – solar on the roof – gives them exactly what they want: independence, off grid, cheap power, lower taxes.

And they are calling out the untruths and misrepresentation of their ultimate founders the Koch brothers.

According to the Huffington Post, Americans for Prosperity, founded and underwritten by the billionaire Koch brothers, mounted a scare campaign against solar power in Georgia.

It warned  the group’s 50,000 members that “the solar proposal would ‘reduce the reliability of every appliance and electronics gadget in your home’ and could increase Georgia electricity rates by up to 40 per cent.

“Despite the mass emails, handouts, and phone calls put out by AFP’s Georgia chapter, when the group held a protest during the Public Service Commission deliberations, hardly anyone showed up.”

We haven’t got to that stage yet. Or have we?

Alan Pears, acknowledged as a leading expert in this field, has been on a campaign against fossil fuel subsidies for a long time. (And it’s nice to hear that at one of the inquiries he attended it was a printout of one of Pear’s articles for The Fifth Estate article that the head of an organisation used as a reference.)

One of the guests at the event said in passing that we would soon have an energy white paper from the new federal government and it would be absolutely certain that “this bunch” would be lobbying hard for the government to attack renewables and promote the fossil fuel grid.

(It’s interesting to wonder what will happen to the federal government’s promise to provide one million low cost households with solar power though the subsidy has already been reduced from $1000 to $500 each. But then again, who cares? We’ve got solar leasing now, and that can be installed at zero capital cost.)

But its owners are extremely worried about the onslaught of the next wave in alternative energy: battery storage.

According to Pears the feeling at the recent All Energy conference in Melbourne was that these would be cheap enough to tag along with roof top solar “if not in a year’s time, then the next year or the one after”.

That’s exactly the time frame that caught out the grid owners the first time?

What will they do to protect themselves next time?

Of course the fossil fuel grid doesn’t have to be driven by coal and gas. But gee it’s hard to get beyond conventional thinking for some people. Let’s just hope the smarts kick in, otherwise the lobbying will.

Left to right: Bill Hare, Climate Analytics; John Connor, Climate Institute; Alan Dupont, UNSW

Climate Institute: Australia’s carbon commitment perplexing the world

What a contrast to the presentation at The Climate Institute on Monday by Bill Hare, a climate scientist, founder and CEO of Climate Analytics in Berlin and lead author of the recent World Bank report called Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided; and Alan Dupont, Professor of International Security at the University of New South Wales and co-author of the Lowy Institute paper Heating up the planet: climate change and security.

Hare presented some of the dire findings that can be expected on climate but also some hope that we don’t have to let the world go to four degrees warming.

His take on Australia’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions by five per cent by 2020 on 2000 levels were that these were in line with the commitment of the Ukraine and Belarus.

Australia was starting to be seen in increasingly perplexing terms, he said. Especially by the Indonesians and other parts of Asia.

Dupont said the concern was strong at the militaristic level and the Indonesians were seeking guidance on climate from their Australian counterparts.

They’re unlikely to find it.

Dupont said the Australian military was inherently conservative and there had been a backward step in acknowledging the security threats from climate, in the most recent white paper. He hoped the next, to be prepared next year for 2015, might reactivate some interest.

It’s a contrast to what Leon Gettler found in his column on the US military which sees exactly that it has to be uber sustainable to survive the threats the are on the way.

Al Gore on the smoking gun

 It was the most popular thing we’ve re-tweeted: Al Gore linking climate and fires in the same way that people tend to link smoking and lung cancer.

And linking the deniers in both these camps.

 Let’s not apologise to mediocrity

We’ve written quite a lot recently about the language factor. That it’s okay to lower carbon emissions as long as you call it energy efficiency; that it’s okay to improve your sustainability profile as long as you call it resource efficiency. Tony Arnel, for one, doesn’t buy it. Neither does he buy the current anti-climate anti-sustainability politics on the rise (for now).

As long term chair of the Green Building Council of Australia and now global head of sustainability for Norman Disney & Young, Arnel has been a green knight for a long time.

“For those of us whose been trying to prosecute the good fight for 15 years or more or longer I find it very demotivating.

“Go to a lunch time presentation and you think for 15 years we’ve been trying to push things along and where Australia can make a serious contribution to what’s emerging is that all of a sudden taken these steps backwards.”

As babyboomers, it’s “very sobering” to think what legacy is being passed on to younger people, he said.

The image Australia is now presenting to the international community he says is “embarrassing” and “bizarre”.

In the green building industry the business case is so well established.

“Not just in saving money but the value of things, and you get this push back that ‘we just can’t afford it’. I think it’s happening all around.

“And the idea that we need a change of language, I think it’s outrageous. It’s apologising to mediocrity.”

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