Tuesday, 14 February 2017
Matters of Public Importance
I inform the Senate that at 8.30 am today Senators Gallagher, Hanson and Siewert each submitted a letter in accordance with standing order 75 proposing a matter of public importance. The question of which proposal would be submitted to the Senate was determined by lot. As a result, I inform the Senate that the following letter has been received from Senator Siewert:
Pursuant to standing order 75, I propose that the following matter of public importance be submitted to the Senate for discussion:
The Turnbull Government's failure to acknowledge that clean coal does not exist and renewable energy and storage is already the most affordable and reliable new energy generation in Australia.
Is the proposal supported?
More than the number of senators required by the standing orders having risen in their places—
I understand that informal arrangements have been made to allocate specific times in today's debate. I will ask the clerks to set the clock accordingly with the concurrence of the Senate.
Well, $14.1 million goes a long way in Australian politics. In fact, in this country it is enough to buy an entire political party, because, of course, $14.1 million is the amount that fossil fuel companies donated to the coalition between 2005 and 2016. That $14.1 million is enough for the Liberal Party to hand over billions of dollars every year in subsidies to the fossil fuel sector. In fact, big polluters in this country get $24 billion in every budget. That is a four-year period. That is $6 billion a year averaged over the out-years of a budget. That is one hell of a return on investment for these big fossil fuel donors.
Apparently, these donations are enough for the coalition to repeat the lies from the coal sector about coal being able to be made clean. Let's be very clear: clean coal is bulldust! It is a complete and utter myth. Not only are the Liberals swallowing that myth, they are trying to con the Australian people into believing their rubbish. But here is the truth: clean coal exists somewhere between the Easter bunny and Big Foot. It is like scientific whaling or healthy cigarettes. It is as real as a dragon, and this mob wants to use Australian money to chase this dragon until our climate is completely cooked. And on coal, it saddens me to say, the Labor Party is not much better.
Let's hear what some of Australia's biggest businesses say about clean energy and coal. AGL is arguably Australia's biggest polluter. Their CEO, Andy Vesey, has said this: 'You have to embrace where the future is going. If you know your customers are going that way, you have to move before rather than after because you want to continue to own that customer.' Mr Vesey said: 'I'd rather be out in front than trailing behind it.' AGL, of course, are embracing renewables and local generation technologies. Australia's second biggest polluter is EnergyAustralia. Their CEO, Catherine Tanna, said today: 'We listen to our customers, and our customers are very, very clear with us that clean energy is where the future is. We know what the future will look like. We own and operate coal power stations, but we want to be part of the plan to transition our energy system.' If the government actually listened to companies like AGL and to companies like EnergyAustralia and actually treated the electorates like these companies treat their customers, perhaps we would not be in the climate mess that this world currently finds itself in.
If the government were to do that, they would pull back from their poorly executed strategy and support the rapid rollout of truly clean renewable energy and technologically advanced storage options. We have a party with a 35 per cent approval rating attacking renewable energy, which has 80 per cent of public support. The Liberal strategists are absolute geniuses, are they not? Not even their voter base is buying it, because none of it is believable or based on facts. What makes this clean coal crusade even more absurd—more absurd than a senior cabinet minister wandering into the House of Representatives with a lump of coal in his pocket—is that clean energy is cheaper than coal, it creates more jobs than coal and it attracts more investment than coal ever will.
Right now, as we debate this, supercritical coal is double the price of wind or solar. The costs of wind, the costs of solar and the costs of advanced battery storage are plummeting every month. Make no mistake: no-one is going to invest in coal. It is spent technology, and investment into coal will create stranded assets into the future. In fact, just about the only people who support coal, apart from the Liberal Party and the Labor Party in this place, are the Minerals Council who, quite frankly, will never have to invest a cent in these absurd ideas.
Meanwhile, there are scores of exciting small Australian businesses leading the global race for storage technologies—like Redflow in Queensland, working on flow batteries, and 1414 Degrees working on silicon storage based on research developed by the CSIRO, whose funding has been slashed in particular recently by the coalition. We have First Graphite Resources trying to commercialise a graphene supercapacitor battery and companies such as Reposit Power, GreenSynch and Redback Technologies are all developing and selling software for a future grid where people will trade electricity.
If Malcolm Turnbull had never entered politics, he would probably be investing in these companies. In fact, he might even own a couple of them and run a couple of them, because they are Australian companies at the forefront of cutting-edge technology and the global energy business. They are exciting, they are helping the world's climate and they are empowering households and businesses and helping them drive down and control their energy bills.
Clean renewable energy is an unstoppable force, while the Liberal Party is looking more and more like an immovable object. There is no way the government is ever going to win this ridiculous pretend-war it has waged. Rather than manufacturing clean, exciting, cutting-edge technologies, all the Liberal Party is interested in doing is manufacturing fear in electorates.
'Clean coal' is nothing but a cruel, cruel hoax. We have seen recently that we have burned so much fossil fuel over the last decades and century that we are changing the climate. One of the changes is more hot days and hotter heatwaves across much of Australia. During these more common hot days and these hotter heatwaves, people turn on more air conditioners. This places more pressure on generation assets and transmission assets. Sometimes they wobble, such as we have seen recently in New South Wales and South Australia. The government's answer has been, 'Burn more coal.' But that is what created the problem in the first place! If it were not so bloody serious, it would be laughable.
Make no mistake: these troglodytes who support the coal industry have placed themselves on the wrong side of history. The unutterably sad thing is that it is our children and our grandchildren who will be the victims of this cruel hoax. It is them and their descendants who will suffer. It is them and their descendants who will not have access to the opportunities that we take for granted today. It is them and their descendants, along with billions of the world's most disadvantaged people, who will pay the price for the greed and short-sightedness we are exhibiting right now. Seriously, you people make me sick. You actually make me sick with the way you come in here and wave lumps of coal around and laugh and joke as if there is no climate crisis in the world when overwhelmingly climate scientists are telling us there is a climate crisis. We have to act. There is a moral imperative on us to act.
In the meantime, the economists are telling us the least-cost way to bring emissions down is to put a price on carbon. Yet in a shocking example of what Peta Credlin recently described as 'retail politics' we saw a campaign against a price on carbon waged by Tony Abbott. Shame on him. He makes me sick, too. Every single one of them make me sick. I say to future generations: I am so, so sorry for what our generation is doing to you today. I am so sorry for the fact that your lives are going to be compromised by our greed today. I am so, so sorry that, as a whole, our generation has completely stuffed up this issue. We collectively are still failing the future. I apologise humbly to our children, our grandchildren and the billions of disadvantaged people around the world who are going to be impacted by climate change.
I do not intend to be ridiculed in this place by this gentleman, Senator McKim. When the science suits him, he is all over it like a dirty shirt. But, when it does not suit him, he seeks to ridicule. When it suits him to be talking about Australia only, he has one attitude. When you take the worldwide circumstance—and, of course, the climate does affect the entire world—he refuses to accept the facts of the science. So I will put a few of them on the record for him.
I have figures from the Grantham Institute and the International Energy Agency on annual comparative emission savings in carbon dioxide equivalents. By China upgrading the standard of its power stations and moving to high-energy low-emission coal it is saving some 400 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents. All of the actions combined of the EU and their supposed emissions trading scheme have been able to achieve 25 million tonnes per annum—one-sixteenth of 400 million tonnes. Who has the greatest quantity of high-energy low-emission coal? It is Australia. If Australia did nothing else but ensure the sale of our high-energy low-emission coal to China to replace their low-energy high-emitting coal, we would be doing the world the greatest service. We only produce 1.5 per cent of the world's greenhouse gases ourselves.
Let me just contrast, for those who might be listening, the difference between those which are modern, highly efficient coal-producing power stations and those which are not. I take a new power station in Shanghai and the Yallourn power station in Victoria: the capacity of the Shanghai station is 2000 megawatts, that of Yallourn, 1450. The efficiency of production, as measured by the percentage of coal becoming electricity, in that Shanghai power station is 46.5 per cent, or just under 50; that of Yallourn, 28 or just over a quarter. The amount of carbon dioxide produced per annum by the Shanghai plant is just under 2 million tonnes; that of Yallourn 15 million tonnes. The workforce required to operate the plant in Shanghai is 265 people, as opposed to 500 at Yallourn. Face it: these are the figures. We have now in China alone 580 coal-powered stations producing electricity and their under-construction plan is for another 575.
I am a supporter of renewables: I am a supporter of wave power; I am a supporter of a re-examination of tidal power; I have always been a supporter of solar energy. I do not know the cost of storage yet, because nobody has done the figures and that is despite my pleas for our government to engage the Productivity Commission to look at this. I do not know yet about the safety of mass storage. I, for one, am very confident of the future of solar-powered energy. Everybody in this place knows what a rort industrial wind turbines are—$900,000 of taxpayer subsidy per turbine per year before it generates one unit of electricity. Don't talk to me about rorts and subsidies, Senator McKim. How long will that take? Probably 15 years of operation before an industrial wind turbine produces a positive result in terms of carbon dioxide emissions. Yes, it is a vexed question and, yes, it is the responsibility of governments to ensure reliable, affordable power. Yes, the South Australian government has failed; yes, the Victorian government will fail; yes, the Queensland government is on a trajectory to fail; and yes, Mr Shorten is on a trajectory to fail. Our responsibility is to ensure energy security.
Since Christmas the government has sought to pursue, as Senator McKim said, retail politics around energy. All it has revealed is just how terribly out of step the government is on questions of climate change and on questions of energy transformation.
The Liberal Party seems to think that this is a joke, with the Treasurer passing coal around in parliament the day before we experienced some of the most extreme weather conditions we have seen in the history of my state of New South Wales. It is more than a joke; it is in fact an insult. Their old coalition partners, the National Party, seem to think that climate change is fiction, and certainly their new coalition partners, One Nation—the new people they have got into bed with—seem to think it is fiction too. Senator Roberts takes every opportunity in this place to brandish his dossier of 'empirical evidence', which he claims, contrary to the views of scientists all around the world, proves that climate change does not exist. Just today we heard more remarks from the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, Senator Canavan, whose unqualified support for coal in any form really betrays his absolute contempt for climate change as a serious issue that we need to address.
Apart from various right-wing commentators in our newspapers, nobody else actually agrees with them. The academic, the scientific, the not-for-profit and corporate sectors all agree that we need serious action on climate change. This month the BCA and the AIG, those radical socialist organisations, indicated in a joint statement that:
Australia needs a suite of durable post 2020 climate change policies integrated with broader energy policy and capable of delivering Australia's emissions reduction targets, at lowest possible cost, while maintaining competitiveness and growing Australia's future economy.
Sadly, there is absolutely no sign that a suite of policies of this kind is on the horizon under this government. It is to Australia's great detriment that this is so. Instead of addressing climate change in a sensible and pragmatic way, the government is using it as a proxy in its culture wars. The latest victim, of course, has been sensible energy policy.
I do not particularly want to talk any further about that today; I want to spend my time talking about energy policy and setting out some of the challenges we face. It is not just the transition that we need to make to cleaner sources of energy, it is the broader systemic changes we need to make to accommodate emerging technological developments and to radically change consumer preferences. We will need a massive investment in energy infrastructure in the next couple of decades. The existing plant—the plant that was built largely by the public sector, I should add—is coming to the end of its life cycle. In fact, Senator Canavan correctly observed this a little earlier when he was talking about the smelter at Gladstone.
Within a decade about half of Australia's coal-fuelled generation fleet will be over 40 years old, with some currently operating stations approaching 60 years of age. New South Wales faced blackouts on Friday for a range of reasons, but one of them was that two out of the four generators at one of its biggest power stations, Liddell, were out of commission. That is a power station that was built in the 1950s and refurbished in the 1970s. It is an indication of the challenges that come about when you are running a very old fleet.
The lesson we ought to draw from that is that in fact we are going to need to make investments in new energy infrastructure, and it really does not matter what technology it is, because they are going to be quite expensive and they will incur costs for consumers. We need to come to grips with that and start enabling the circumstances that will allow us to make those investments in ways that are economically efficient and allow us to meet our emissions reduction objectives. In that light, there is a reason that industry is not interested in investing in clean coal: that the numbers do not add up. AIG wrote in a blog:
…new-for-old replacement of our coal fleet does not look like a good solution for price, reliability or the environment. Electricity sector investors are unlikely to finance a new coal-fired power station in Australia again.
It is a pretty unqualified position. Oliver Yates, the CEO of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation said he would not invest in ultra-supercritical coal plants because it would not be a good use of taxpayer funds.
If clean coal was truly clean or truly effective, we would back it and, indeed, in government we did. We allocated significant resources when Labor was last in government to research carbon sequestration for coal fired generation. But the problem is that right now it is not cost-effective. A new ultra-supercritical coal station comes out, it is estimated by Bloomberg, somewhere between $134 and $203 per megawatt hour. That is significantly higher than the cost of new-build wind or the cost of new-build solar by a factor of almost two.
The problem of course for supercritical coal is that it only really reduces emissions by a fraction of what our existing coal plants emit. If you really want to get coal fired generation down to being a genuine low-emission technology, you have to use carbon sequestration. And once you do that, it is certainly not the cheapest form of energy; it is one of the most expensive. One estimate from Renew Economy suggests that CCS in total comes out at about $352 per megawatt hour—that is, about three times more expensive than wind or solar. I would suggest to you that that is one of the more conservative estimates of the cost of carbon sequestration that I have seen. By contrast, renewables are expected to be cheaper than conventional coal within years, even without taking into account the cost of CCS. Over the past seven years, the cost of wind has dropped over 50 per cent and solar PV costs have dropped by over 80 per cent.
Of course we are not just talking about our generation; we also talking about our transmission infrastructure. The great myth over the last decade was that it was renewables that caused price increases in the electricity sector when in fact it was the very great investment that we needed to make in network infrastructure that caused most of the cost increases for consumers. In fact, they accounted for 43 per cent of residential electricity prices in financial year 2015. What will be needed will be a much transformed transmission system that can cope with consumer preferences and with the technological developments which will see a much more diverse generation capability in our electricity system. In particular, we need to start looking at peak demand, the thing of course that drives the big investments in transmission. Our peaks used to be in winter. We used to turn the electricity on a lot when we wanted to warm up. With the advent of affordable air conditioning—affordable for some—we now see our peaks come about in summer. Very hot days—associated of course with climate change—mean that more and more people are turning their air conditioners on to keep cool. The growth in rooftop storage has seen a further change. There is a dip in energy use in the afternoon as people generate their own power and then a surge in use in the early evening.
Storage technology—batteries at the home, on a regional scale, on an industrial scale—will drive further changes. By 2020 the cost of some battery technologies are expected to fall by another 40 to 60 per cent. So we need to start to build an energy system that can accommodate all of these technologies that can cope with the high variability that we experience in our electricity demand. This is something that is simply not happening under this government because they lack the political will to deal with it seriously. They are interested only in playing political games with this issue, throwing red meat to the base of climate deniers in the coalition party room.
What is needed of course is policy certainty. Witness after witness at the Senate Select Committee into the Resilience of Electricity Infrastructure in a Warming World hearing on Friday reinforced this perspective. The Energy Council, which represents coal and gas, wrote:
We are already experiencing the consequences of energy policy paralysis for the past decade. It’s not pretty. The 'grid' as we know it is degrading in front of our eyes.
And joint statements in recent days have been made by industry and consumer groups including the Australian Aluminium Council, the ACF, the Australian Industry Group and the cement industry calling on the government to deliver certainty. They are saying that the status quo of policy uncertainty, lack of coordination, and unreformed markets is increasing costs, undermining investment and worsening reliability risks. They went on to say we need mature, considered debate.
We on this side are ready to have that debate. This is a complex problem and we need proper policy, not three-word slogans.
The most common question that I have heard when speaking to people in recent weeks is: why? Why would the Treasurer of this country stand up in question time holding a piece of coal and laugh about it, jeering the Labor Party—the opposition—saying, 'This is coal; it cannot hurt you.' Why are we even having this debate today in this place? Why, when this country suffered record heatwaves and extreme weather events that are literally off the charts? The Antarctic ice shelf is in collapse, why? That is the question, the most important question when nearly the entire world and most of our society in Australia accept that the big challenges of our time are tackling inequality and climate change. Why is the political class in this country the only people who do not get it?
I know why you do not get it, Senator Macdonald. You are thick as two short planks and you have been here too long. That is why you do not get it. Let me tell you, you do not represent the average Australian. Why? I will tell you why. It is politics pure and simple. One of my favourite Australian authors, David Gregory Roberts, in his book Shantaram, said:
The only thing more ruthless and cynical than the business of big politics—
And we are in the business of big politics.
is the politics of big business.
And that is what this is about: the politics of big business—the donors to the Liberal Party, the coal industry.
In case you missed it, the head of Glencore Australia today piped up making comments about our energy mix. This is big coal, big dirty fossil fuel companies reaching their hands into policy. That is why the Prime Minister has gone weak at the knees. That is why he has done a complete backflip on this. That is why we are having to fight a rearguard action to protect future generations. That is why the carbon price was ruthlessly and cynically ripped up by your government, Senator Macdonald, through you, Acting Deputy President Marshall: because of politics, because of what is good for the Liberal Party. That is what this is all about. This is not about what is good for the Australian people or for future generations of Australians or the thousands of bats that died of heat stroke in the recent heatwave—those awful riveting images that we have all seen. Those animals cannot run for parliament, sign petitions or go to protests. They need us to do something about this. This is not just an anthropocentric problem; this is much bigger than that, and we should never forget that.
Senator Milne was going to leave an amazing legacy when she left this place, to be part of a leadership team that implemented the most important action against climate change of any country in the world. The day the carbon price got voted down, and there was ring-a-ring-a-roses and the Liberal Party were all giving themselves pats on the back, I saw how upset she was and followed her outside the chamber. It was a very emotional time for me, because I could see she was very upset. Her last work in parliament had just been torn up thanks to Tony Abbott's ruthless and cynical approach to getting votes. But she did say to me: 'Peter, I think we've already won. It's too late to turn back the tide of renewable energy. Too many people want it. It's too successful. I think we've already won.' What you are seeing from this weak Prime Minister and the self-interested Liberal Party is a rearguard action, but it is failing because the Australian people—in fact, the world—are turning their back on dirty energy and are trying to take action on climate change, and we have to play catch-up in this place. We have to put in place new policies that accelerate that and actually make a meaningful contribution to emissions reduction.
As someone who has just been described by the previous speaker as 'thick as two short planks' I must say I am a little intimidated to enter this debate, particularly in the face of such a speaker of high eloquence, high intellect, high sophistication—
Can I start again? As someone who has just been described by the previous speaker, Senator Whish-Wilson, as 'thick as two short planks' I must say I am a little intimidated to enter this debate after such a high-intellect presentation by the previous speaker, someone so sophisticated, so articulate as the person—
Well, as the idiot who just spoke. In case Senator Whish-Wilson was living under a lettuce leaf at the time of the 2013 election, it was not Tony Abbott who voted down the carbon tax; it was the people of Australia, who voted for us in record numbers. That is what they thought of the Greens and the Labor Party and their combined policy of a carbon tax and the impact on Australia. Whilst the Greens care nothing for rising unemployment in Queensland or for small-business mum-and-dad operations who make their living out of mining support industries, I do. I care for the unemployed, I care for small business and I care for Queenslanders who will be put out of business by the cost of power.
This is what the Australian people told us. It was not Tony Abbott; it was the people of Australia. We have had the Greens telling us the world is coming to an end if we have another coal-fired power station. Could I just tell you, as I always used to say to the Greens, whilst the Greens want to shut Australia down, around the world there are 216 coal-fired plants being built as we speak. In China there are 579 coal-fired power plants in operation and another 575 planned or under construction. In India, 49 high-efficiency low-emission coal-fired power stations are in operation and 395 are already planned or under construction. What do the Greens have to say to that? 'We want to shut down Australia's few coal-fired plants that deliver industry affordable power, that deliver power for Australians at a reasonable price, and that ensure that we do not have the blackouts such as we have had in South Australia in recent days.'
I am delighted that the Greens have again brought this debate before the chamber to highlight their absolute inability to understand what is right for Australia and what impact high-quality, accessible, affordable coal reserves have on Australia, on the Australian economy and on our ability to get cheaper power. With the latest generation or next generation of high-efficiency low-emissions technology and advanced ultra-supercritical generation, emissions from Australia can be reduced by up to 34 per cent. Isn't that a goal we should be aiming for at the same time as providing jobs for Queenslanders and cheap power for Queenslanders and Australians?
I urge Adani to continue with its coal proposition in Central Queensland. I am very much looking forward to the jobs that would create—which the Greens have no interest in. The Greens have not one bit of interest in the unemployed or in the small businesses that will benefit out of this. And I certainly look forward to it, and I encourage Adani at every stage to proceed with this wonderful project for Australia. (Time expired)
As a servant to the people of Queensland and Australia I am relishing the debate on this matter of public importance on renewable energy. We have been in the Senate for just three months and already we have changed the tone of this debate. I must acknowledge the contribution by Senator Macdonald at the end of last year, when he said that we have never had a debate on climate in this parliament and that thanks to me we have started that debate. He has shown integrity and honesty in doing so, and now we will continue the debate.
Let me break this down as scientifically and as clearly as I can. Let's have some education for these people. Carbon dioxide is a gas—a colourless, odourless, tasteless trace gas that is essential to all life on this planet. Carbon is a solid. It is a usually black solid, but it is also the solid in a diamond ring. Carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is colourless, odourless, tasteless. Yet the greens are obsessed with carbon. Hydrogen and carbon atoms make up hydrocarbons. We burn them and the hydrogen combines with the oxygen to form H20—water, which is essential, for life on this planet. The carbon in hydrocarbons combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide, essential to all life on this planet. Coal is clean, and we cannot affect the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, because that is determined by the oceans, which contain 50 to 70 times more carbon dioxide than in the entire atmosphere.
Secondly, coal has saved the whales and the forests on this planet, because, as a result of coal and oil, we have been able to industrialise and prosper, and with that comes protection of the environment. But wait: we have reversed 160 years of prosperity and industrial evolution and we are now going backwards with renewable energy and storage. We have wind farms that are bird killers, human hurters—they hurt the hearing—and energy killers. And do you know that the carbon dioxide produced in the construction of a wind farm is greater than the carbon dioxide it saves in its entire life? It is a net producer of carbon dioxide. Solar power is wonderful for powering during the day—but hang on: there is the night-time, so we need double the capacity for storage. Oh, and then there are inefficiencies, so we need triple—and that is why the cost of that is not productive.
But the Liberals and the Nationals—I had a visit to Barnaby Joyce's electorate office in St George when he was a senator, and he told me, looked me in the eye, just two meters from me—the overwhelming majority of the coalition partners are skeptics. And he was sure that all of the Nationals were skeptics—strong skeptics. But no-one says anything. The Liberal-Nationals are like sycophantic leeches who like to tuck their knees under the tables on every failed energy policy until this one, and they have at last seen the light—that renewable energy has hurt us. The energy market has been destroyed by all parties in this Senate due to subsidies, regulations, vested interests and political interference that make it unmanageable—it is completely unmanageable. And Queensland, a state with the best coal in the world, is now facing, as of yesterday, $13,000 per megawatt hour. Yet we have the cheapest, cleanest coal in the world.
Senator Hanson-Young disgraced herself last Friday in a committee by trying to pin the blame on the Australian Energy Market Operator. Senator Xenophon is guilty for destroying his own state. Senator Bernardi has helped destroy his own state by being silent. Hopefully he will start to speak up. Only Senators Leyonhjelm, Lambie and Hinch and Pauline Hanson's One Nation senators are not guilty of destroying jobs and industry, because energy is fundamental to our society and to the future of this planet.
The ultimate misrepresenter is Senator McAllister, because, without having any empirical evidence, she misrepresents the fact that I have presented the empirical evidence. But then the Prime Minister—he has had 10 years of a narrative demonising carbon dioxide, and what have we got? Ten years of policy demonising carbon dioxide and the need to cut its products, and then he switches, overnight, with no change in the narrative, to be like a shag on a rock, a cold, grey bird sitting on a cold, miserable day. Is he about to change the climate policy? That is what we are after next, and we are coming to get you. Everything green on this planet is green because of the carbon dioxide. (Time expired)
I do not know whether to laugh or cry after hearing Senator Roberts's contribution to the debate on this matter of public importance. I should laugh because I have never heard so much stupidity in my life. It sounds like it is coming from the Illuminati that seem to support you—or maybe the lizard people, those humanoid lizard creatures that you also believe in. Or should I cry because this is the level of debate that is actually now in this chamber and there are people who actually believe these sorts of things and are peddling this absolute nonsense, as if there is no evidence out there that the climate is being affected and is being changed?
Apart from yourself and everyone in Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, you have managed to attack everybody else in the chamber. Apparently the three of you have this superior knowledge that seems to come from some being somewhere, despite all the settled evidence that has been around for decades—absolute decades. We may disagree in this chamber on the way to try to remove the pollution from our society that is creating climate change, and that is a fair debate to have. But you come in here and say—Senator Macdonald has acknowledged this—until this year, there has never been a debate about climate in the parliament. Who told you that, Senator? Who whispered in your ear in the dark of night?
Thank you, and I should. I am glad Senator Roberts is going, because I might be able to move on and say something about the science in a moment. There must be some voices whispering in Senator Roberts's ears, saying, 'There hasn't been a debate in the federal parliament about climate change,' even though, for the last two decades, there has. It has probably been one of the most debated issues in this parliament over the last 20 years. But anyway, the voices, the voices, Senator Roberts, the voices—they are out there somewhere. Ignore them! Ignore them, if you can. I do not want to give Senator Bernardi a plug, but to say that he has been silenced on this issue is another quite extraordinary claim. Let us leave your contribution to one side, Senator Roberts, because, seriously, you should go back and reread it. That was appalling.
I want to go back to Senator McKim's contribution, because, quite frankly, I found that a little bit offensive too—he said that everyone else in this chamber makes him sick about where we have gone with this.
All right. I want to remind Senator McKim—I know he was not in the chamber at the time—that in 2009 the Greens stood shoulder to shoulder with the climate change sceptics over there and voted down the emissions trading scheme that we put before the Senate. Let me tell you, the voting down of that scheme at that time pushed back the momentum on the introduction of renewable energies. It pushed back the investment in renewable energies in this country, and many job opportunities at that time were lost, because you stood shoulder to shoulder with the sceptics over there and voted that scheme down.
Senator Back, who I have enormous respect for, made the point that coal is going to be part of the energy mix, not only in Australia but in the rest of the world, for a while yet. That is absolutely true; we cannot simply say we are going to close all our coal-fired power stations tomorrow. We cannot do that, because this government does not have any energy plan for what would come after that. Senator Back is also right: coal will remain in our energy mix. But it will not be forever; eventually coal will be gone from the energy mix. In the interim, on the journey to not using coal at all, if we can use more high-intensity, less-polluting coal, that would be a good thing, and we should do that. In that respect, Senator Back is absolutely right.
Let us look at where we are now. The emissions trading schemes that most countries have put in place and that we had in place in two forms for a while were letting the market determine the energy mix for us—given the goals that we had to set to reduce our emissions. In the first instance, with new technologies, if you are going to intervene in that marketplace you intervene to give someone who is at a disadvantage more of an advantage so that they can compete. Naturally, in renewable energies there were subsidies, and I think that was quite right. Those subsidies have driven changes in technology and improvements that we could not dream about only a decade ago. A decade ago, we could not dream about the advances in solar technology and battery storage power. It has been one of the most extraordinary technological advances that we have seen, and that has come as a result of worldwide targets, subsidies and investments made on the back of those subsidies to generate the development of those technologies.
Those technologies are increasing exponentially, and they are already now at the stage where investors will not invest in coal-fired power, because renewable energies are cheaper. Renewable energy power is now cheaper than coal power. Any new coal power station built now will require enormous government subsidies—we are already subsidising coal. Very soon, renewables will not need any subsidies at all. Investors are ready making these commercial decisions. If we actually had a government that had a proper energy plan, we would not be relying on other people—companies—to make decisions about when our coal-powered power stations and generators will close. We would be making those decisions ourselves. Over the next couple of decades, three-quarters of our coal-fired power stations will be reaching their use-by dates. At that time, we will be free from coal generation in this country. We will still have a mix of gas and other energy sources, but that is where we are going. So, instead of having a proper energy plan and a government courageous enough to say, 'This is where we, as a country, are going to be'—a low carbon emissions country doing our bit to reduce our global emissions—we are allowing other people to decide when our coal-powered power stations will close.
This is a terrible indictment of this government, because every time they squander the opportunity to have a plan, to have a long-term policy, they squander the opportunity for investment in this country, they squander the opportunity for R&D development of new technologies in this country and they squander opportunities for job development by these new technologies in this country. The government's failure to have a policy to enable those things to happen is a disgrace. Australia is well placed to be one of the leaders in the development of these technologies, and again, coming back to the point I made earlier, I am are so bitterly disappointed because back in 2009 we were at the leading edge with our proposed emissions trading scheme. We would have seen a lot of that investment in R&D activity go on in this country and we would have seen significant jobs growth in this country as a result of that. This was squandered in the first instance by the Greens standing shoulder to shoulder with the climate change sceptics and voting it down and then ultimately by this government voting down the second iteration of that cost-on-pollution scheme that we had in place.
This has been an enormous tragedy for this country, and another enormous tragedy is the people who say the sorts of things that come out of Senator Roberts's mouth. I hope we never have to hear it again—there is this alternative world where apparently we have not been debating climate change in this chamber until their presence this year.
I do worry about my colleague Senator Marshall's fragile ears—I hope he does not have to hear ideas that he is not comfortable with and that he does not agree with—it would be a great travesty in a democratic chamber if one had to encounter ideas one did not agree with. I find myself again thanking the Greens for bringing an important topic to the chamber, but I will not surprise them when I say I have to take some issue with the specific wording they have proposed and the angle they have taken. This morning when I saw the MPI letter come around, as it does every sitting morning, I thought it was fair enough that the Greens wanted to debate this issue—it is an issue that is passionate for them—and I expected them to be advocating for renewable energy, as they do. Even I was surprised to hear the Greens claim that renewable energy today is the most affordable and most reliable source of energy in Australia. Wow—renewable energy today is the most affordable and most reliable! I think a few South Australians would take issue with that, but I will come to that in a moment. I would have accepted the Greens saying that the cost of renewables is coming down—and it is, and that is a positive development. I would have accepted the Greens saying that renewable energy technology is improving and is becoming more reliable. That is also true. But to say that today, in Australia, it is the most reliable and most affordable source of energy is absolute fantasyland stuff—it is absolute alternative facts land.
If it were true that renewable energy was cheaper and more reliable, then why do we need any subsidies at all for renewable energy? If it is cheaper, if it is more reliable, then people would be building it—the private sector would build it without any government funding at all. The government has a renewable energy target of 23½ per cent by 2020, which I think is quite ambitious. Those opposite wanted to turbocharge it and make it 50 per cent by 2030, and I know the Greens would go further yet. If it was true that it was more affordable then those policies would be completely unnecessary—renewable energy would be rolled out on its own without any assistance from government.
Let us come to South Australia, because South Australia is a salutary lesson here. In the last four months in South Australia we have seen four blackouts. The South Australian government and those who seek to defend it, including Labor and the Greens, have had a different excuse each time one of these blackouts has happened. My absolute favourite is the most recent one—that it is the fault of the Australian Energy Market Operator. The hint as to why we should not blame the Australian Energy Market Operator for the most recent blackout in South Australia is in the name—it is the Australian energy market operator. And, lo and behold, it has not caused blackouts in any other state in Australia—it has not caused blackouts in Victoria or in New South Wales or in Queensland or anywhere else in Australia. If the fault lies with the Australian Energy Market Operator and not South Australia and their policies, why has AEMO not been blamed or found responsible for causing blackouts elsewhere?
I think the common thread between the blackouts we have been having is not AEMO, or any other government body outside of South Australia, but South Australia's policies on renewable energy. It is not a coincidence that the state in Australia which has the least affordable energy and the most serious issues with reliability also just happens to be the state that is most reliant on renewable energy. AEMO said in its report in December, after the spectacular state-wide blackout, that, yes, absolutely it was triggered by and the cause was the weather events that knocked out poles and wires across the state but the South Australian electricity grid is 'less resilient'—that is a direct quote—than other energy grids around the country because of its unusually high reliance on renewable energy. That is not a difficult thing to understand when you look at the proportion of energy in South Australia provided by wind. On a really good today wind can provide 80 per cent of South Australia's electricity needs. That is a great thing. But, unfortunately, not all days are good days from a wind point of view, and on some days it produces much less energy than that. In fact, on average it produces about 40 per cent and last week when they had a blackout it was producing 2½ per cent. The unfortunate thing is that, unlike thermal generation of power in which we control how much is produced, we do not control the wind and nor do we control the sun. Therefore South Australia is vulnerable, as a state that is so reliable on renewables, to radical fluctuations in supply.
If you want to have an electricity grid which is predominantly supplied by renewable energy, you need two things—two things are absolutely essential. You need storage of electricity and you need backup. Storage of electricity at this stage, with where we are in the technological cycle, is not viable for supplying a whole state. I hope that one day that will change and I hope technological evolution will allow that to happen. But we are not there today. We do, of course, have the capacity to back up our electricity networks with traditional thermal power stations, using coal or gas, that can come on and back up supply—but that will occur only if there is an incentive and only if they have not been pushed aside like they have been in South Australia by the renewable energy industry.
So unless we are able to overcome those two problems, renewable energy will be intermittent and unreliable, and that will have a very real cost for families and households. Even if we are able to overcome those problems, we will have a very serious issue of affordability, because renewable energy itself, as we know, since we need a RET to make it viable, is expensive, and the backups required to make it reliable are also expensive. So at the end of the day, if you want a state which is predominantly providing its electricity needs through renewable energy, you have to accept that it is going to be much more expensive electricity than it otherwise could be.
I think that, in this day and age, that is a very, very unwise thing to do. Australia could be the energy supercapital of the world. We could be more efficient and more competitive than any other nation in the world because we have some of the most abundant natural resources in the world in terms of coal and gas—in terms of uranium, even. We could be leading the world. But we do not lead the world, because of some of the policies that have been put into place, and the South Australian government is a leading example of this.
We know that because they used to boast about how they were a leading example of this. Jay Weatherill, the Premier of South Australia, once proudly boasted that they were conducting a big international experiment in South Australia. Well, the results are in: the experiment has failed, and people are paying the price. Families are paying the price because their children are not able to have air conditioning on on a hot day. Businesses are paying the price because they have to shut down and send their workers home when the lights go out when they are forced to load shed. They are the consequences of the policies pursued by the South Australian government. They are the consequences of the obsession with renewable energy.
By contrast, our government is very prudently considering the benefits of new coal-fired technology. If you really care about the planet and what you really seek to do is lower emissions you would be happy to seek lower emissions by any means. If you replace some of Australia's existing, admittedly old and not all that efficient coal-fired power stations with a brand new coal-fired power station using high-efficiency, low-emissions technology, using supercritical technology, then you can and will lower emissions in Australia. There is an estimate that if we replaced all of our traditional generation of coal with advanced ultrasupercritical generation, emissions in Australia could be reduced by 34 per cent. I think that is a good thing. I think that would be a welcome thing. Our emissions would be lower and we would also have an electricity grid which is much more stable and reliable. We would not have to worry about blackouts or load shedding. We will be able to provide affordable, reliable electricity to Australian families and businesses.
Of course we would not be the only ones doing this. Countries around the world, particularly in Asia, are leading the way. Japan and China are constructing many of these sorts of coal-fired power stations. China is even developing systems to retrofit their existing coal-fired power stations to make them more energy efficient. As the world's largest exporter of coal, it is in our interests to prove that this technology can work and can lower emissions at a reasonable cost. We hear a lot about the renewable energy policies favoured in the European Union, but in fact there are already 52 high-efficiency, low-emissions coal-fired power stations in the European Union.
I want to conclude with some unfortunate facts—not alternative facts like we have heard from the Greens earlier today. It is from the National Electricity Market Watch, happily provided to me by the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia's office. It is about the electricity that is being generated today at midday. Black coal—50 per cent. Brown coal—18 per cent. Gas—15 per cent. Hydro—five per cent. Wind—0.8 per cent. Today is a day like many days in South Australia and around the country: if the wind is not blowing the power is not being generated, and there needs to be a reliable back-up supply. High-efficiency, low-emissions coal can be the answer.
I would like to put on record that last night at the whips meeting it was decided that an MPI would not happen today and that the time would be devoted to our Indigenous Australians to talk about closing the gap. We in my party all thought that was a great idea. We did not submit an MPI this morning. I do not blame the Greens; they won the raffle. But I think the opposition was wrong in going for an MPI today when closing the gap was far more important. We have discussed energy many, many other times in the Senate.