By Daniel Burke

I recently took some family visiting from overseas on a trip to see the south west of the state. In Albany I made certain to take them to see the local wind farm. The fantastic view over the southern ocean is, to my mind, only enhanced by the presence of the eighteen majestic turbines and the arcs swept by their 35 meter long blades. What is particularly impressive is that this one installation is capable of generating up to 80% of the energy needs of the town.

Unfortunately, today this wind farm is still one of just a handful of large scale commercial installations in Western Australia, despite our state opening the very first such operation in the country in 1986, in Esperance. We find ourselves today with only 8% of our power generated by renewable energy. A number that is particularly shocking given the massive strides made by renewables around the world in recent years. While many other developed economies are following an exponential curve with their renewable uptake, WA seems content to keep nudging things along at a single digit pace. In this regard we are not only out of step with global developments, but increasingly out of step with the rest of the country as their pragmatic investments in cheap renewable energy kick into high gear. As reported in Cleantechnica, there are currently 2250 megawatts of renewables under construction in Australia. Great news for the country. But how much of this is in WA? A mere 20 megawatts. That’s less than 1%.

Given the incredible renewable resources of the state this is a deplorable figure. But the story also goes beyond a moral failure to deal with the looming existential crisis of anthropogenic global warming. Years of energy sector policy failure on behalf of the state government is also now needlessly costing us all a great deal of money.

If you have been following the development of renewables over recent years, you will be aware that solar (and wind) are rapidly becoming the cheapest way to generate power, due to massive improvements in their cost/efficiency ratios. Consumers have cottoned on. According to prof. Philip Jennings of Curtin, as of as long as a year ago, solar power system installation had effectively led to the building of “another very large power station on the rooftops of Perth”. As of the beginning of this year, the domestic PV figures are sitting at around 218,000 households. The second-highest in the country.

What this means is that massive amounts of surplus energy are now being generated by consumers who are taking matters into their own hands, partially in response to how incredibly expensive energy is in WA. And yet, at the very same time, WA has to deal with having too much built capacity. This is the legacy of the so-called “capacity market”, which has led to a 60% oversupply in the market. Hundreds of megawatts of privately owned power plants have been built that may never be switched on. Never the less we must pay for them through government subsidies, and hence, our tax dollars. We are paying not only sky high power bills, but are losing state money that could be better spent elsewhere.

This serious contradiction at the heart of our energy policy is what underlies the state’s refusal in recent years to invest more in renewable energy development, even to the extent that it has preferred to give money to other states in order to finance renewable development elsewhere and meet its mandated renewable energy targets! The WA Government has wanted to ensure that the private dirty energy industry continues to get a slice of the pie. Renewable energy directly threatens this relationship, and the government has been happy to throw the industry (and hundreds of jobs) under the bus in order to protect it.

And so here we are, less than two weeks from a state election, with the minister for energy Mike Nahan following the federal government’s lead in cynically smearing renewable energy in the press, and pressuring Labor into abandoning renewable energy targets that are more suitable to the renewable potential of the state, and the need for investment in a jobs creating industry. Meanwhile the government seeks to move ahead with further privatization of the energy grid.

It would be interesting to see what the endgame of further privatization and renewable neglect would be for the sector. Higher energy prices would only further spur on consumers in their uptake of ever cheaper solar. The reality is that the renewable genie is out of the bottle, and the state government is powerless to put it back in again. Combined with our need to quickly reduce carbon emissions, it is quickly becoming apparent that the writing is on the wall for large polluting power plants, and the real problem is surely quickly morphing into one of how we are to minimize the financial fallout of mothballing these would-be “stranded assets”.

Going in for renewables in a big way in this state should be a no-brainer. It means lower costs, more jobs, and less pollution. And yet the government would like you to believe that proponents of renewables wish to sacrifice the first two for the sake of the third, and that the third isn’t even that big a problem. But it is not 1995. Or 2000. Or even 2010. To persistently remain ignorant of the reality on the ground in the face of the massive industry changes of recent years can only lead impartial voters to wonder about the motives of the government in wishing to protect the entrenched players. Labor, unfortunately, has also fallen short when it comes to standing up to the scare tactics on renewables, made by our supposed representatives on behalf of industry mates. At least with Labor, however, there is more reason to hope for proactive investment in reshaping the industry, spurred on by the Green vote.

When it comes to the energy industry there is a clear choice to be made in this coming state election, regardless of if you wish to see the government prioritize the environment, state finances, or jobs. Please do not reward the government for their abysmal failure in renewables.


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