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When will Australians finally stop wasting our energy?

From flicking on a light to travelling around town, our lives are utterly dependent on energy. That’s why it’s so surprising that Australia has been so bad at thinking about our country’s future energy…

Brisbane’s annual City of Lights show, which is sponsored by an oil and gas company. Flickr/Wei Lun Koh (some rights reserved)

From flicking on a light to travelling around town, our lives are utterly dependent on energy.

That’s why it’s so surprising that Australia has been so bad at thinking about our country’s future energy needs. Even after years of sharply rising electricity prices, as a nation we still take it for granted that we’ll have affordable power and fuel for as long as we want them.

With a new federal government in power, what - if anything - has changed?

A week before Christmas last year, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane released a new issues paper as the first step towards releasing a draft policy (officially known as a Green Paper) in May this year, to be followed by a final policy (or White Paper) in September.

Industry and community submissions on that issues paper are due by February 7, so if you’re interested in Australia’s energy future, read on.

Out with the old, in with the new

The previous Labor government published an Energy White Paper in 2012, which painted a fantasy picture of ongoing energy growth and only minor changes in electricity and transport.

The paper and submissions are no longer available on the Department of Industry website. But they have been archived by the National Library of Australia. And there is plenty of critical analysis still available about its conclusions.

The Abbott government’s issues paper is light on facts and statements on government positions, so it’s difficult to evaluate. At 46 pages (35, if you ignore the blank pages), it doesn’t take long to read.

The Abbott government’s energy issues paper. http://ewp.industry.gov.au/

On a positive note, the paper does acknowledge that we face major challenges in electricity and gas supply. It also seeks to explore potential for “energy productivity improvement” – the popular term among policy makers for energy efficiency.

It also admits that Australia is in breach of the strategic oil storage levels agreed with other International Energy Agency member nations, which is supposed to ensure secure oil supplies in an energy crisis. It then asks if increasing our strategic storage is worthwhile. (I would have thought we should be discussing this issue with the IEA and being guided by their globally-framed views.)

However, overall it focuses on quite narrow, specific and short-to-medium term energy issues, which largely reflect the perspectives of the dominant players in the energy sector. For example, “the appropriate role for government in the energy sector” is linked to “scope for privatisation”.

Other issues raised for consideration - many of which are highly contentious - include:

  • different ways of pricing energy;
  • options for increasing gas supply;
  • looking for ways to reduce regulation and speeding up approvals “while maintaining proper environmental and social safeguards”;
  • and removal of unnecessary barriers to foreign investment in Australian energy.

As stressed in the minister’s media release, the paper is heavily focused on “reducing cost pressures on households and businesses”.

But the seemingly obvious aim of keeping energy prices as low as possible is misplaced. Instead, we know from countless reports over many decades that Australian homes and businesses could use energy far more efficiently - and in doing so, save significant money on energy bills, even when the price of electricity or gas (which is largely out of the government’s control) goes up.

Climate risk

The phrases “climate” or “climate change” do not appear at all in the paper, even though - as the graph below shows - energy contributes more to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than anything else.

Energy production and use - including electricity, stationary energy, transport and fugitive emissions - generate the vast majority of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. Department of the Environment

There is brief acknowledgement (on pages ii and 28) that the energy sector must play its part in achieving the Australia’s current target to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions 5% below 2000 levels by 2020.

But there is no reference to the possibility of needing to aim for deeper cuts, or of the risks to Australia’s energy sector if our major fossil fuel customers (particularly in Asia) pursue tougher climate response strategies. For example, the Chinese government is under growing pressure from its own people to clean up the country’s deadly air pollution.

The global energy picture is changing rapidly. Late last year, the International Energy Agency’s 2013 World Energy Outlook estimated that China’s net coal imports will peak by 2020. Under its climate action scenario, global coal consumption declines by a third by 2035.

Energy is responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency points out that we simply cannot burn more than a small fraction of fossil fuel resources without exceeding a global “carbon budget”. Climate response must be core business for Australia’s energy sector.

The bigger picture

The International Energy Agency recommends countries adopt energy efficiency, limit construction and use of coal-fired power stations, minimise methane emissions from oil and gas production, and accelerate phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies.

The World Bank recommends introducing a robust carbon price, removing fossil fuel subsidies, and encouraging adoption of clean energy. There is a clear message here for Australia.

Yet, judging from this issues paper, Australian energy policy looks likely to limit growth of renewable energy and support increased fossil fuel production, while allocating miserly resources to energy efficiency. This focus is based on a narrow understanding of the role of energy in our economy.

It’s pleasing that the government is opening these issues up to discussion. But, given past experience with the energy sector, I lack confidence that views of the community and proponents of more sustainable energy options will be able to compete with the powerful lobbying of the major energy companies, as well as deeply embedded assumptions that the way we use and produce energy will largely continue unchanged.

Let’s hope that vested interests don’t dominate this process, as the “Greenhouse Mafia” did in the last Coalition Energy White Paper in 2004.

Despite my lack of optimism, I’ll be firing up the laptop to prepare a submission before the February 7 deadline. I hope many others will too.

Join the conversation

39 Comments sorted by

  1. John Crest

    logged in via email @live.com.au

    You mean THEIR energy?

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  2. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great Article, could the author also take note that renters have very little control over the energy effeciency of their dwellings.

    Without insulation, without double glazed windows, without sun shades, with cracks in walls, between window frames, etc - what can we do about energy effeciency besides the obvious turn off lights and appliances not in use

    my main energy use is heating and cooling not leaving already energy effecient lights on

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    1. Greg Edeson

      PhD candidate at School of Geography and Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania

      In reply to Michael Shand

      HI Michael
      There's plenty renters can do, once you overcome the psychological barrier of impermanence in residence.
      There's double glazing window wrap, which you lay over your window like cling film and heat shrink it. Is cheap and, from what I hear, effective.
      Block out curtains aren't as good as external sun blinds, but they are fairly cheap (especially compared to electric heating or cooling) and make a huge difference.
      Trees/plants in pots also cool the outside of the building and you can…

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Greg Edeson

      If you have a tin roof with absolutely no insulation then it doesn't matter how thick your walls are or how glazed your windows are.

      there are some things renters can do but it is very limited, for instance I pay 1,515 a month for a one bedroom in mount waverley and it has huge cracks that I can stick a finger through between the window frames.

      I had to go get consumer affairs involved for them to fix it and they are still yet to do it....because they don't care, it's not their problem, doesn't affect them.

      So yes, whilst there are a few things renters can do - I would suggest that there are few things renters can do

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Greg Edeson

      By the way, the issue comes when it is 30 degrees at midnight - I can get to sleep under these conditions, I also can't afford to miss work so what do I do? I end up running aircon on a timer intermittently throughout the night which means huge amounts of energy, which means big power bills and lots of CO2 pollution

      when it is windy and the curtains inside are flapping even with all the windows closed, even with lint from the drier stuffed in as many cracks as I can find, even with towls under doors, etc

      Something needs to be done to ensure energy effecieny standards for renters - no if buts or maybe's, something needs to be done

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    4. Troy Howard

      Mechanic at -

      In reply to Michael Shand

      As someone who is renting you always find that anything you wish to do to the property requires Landlord approval if they say no that's it, yes even screws in the walls to hang drapes, yes even if you tell them you will leave them behind.

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  3. George Michaelson

    Person

    moving petrol by driving it on roads is not a good way to ensure energy efficiency or security. the very small price support of cents on the gallon which kept oil moving via rail was a good thing. the reaction to return to road haulage when it went is insane economic reductionism. If need be, the petrol distribution should be required to be rail.

    the great thing about holding strategic reserves is you can use them for price control. Thats what the americans do (oh, the ironies, the people who…

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  4. Neville Mattick
    Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

    An interesting read thank you and for the reminder to make a submission; or accept the outcome!

    "On a positive note, the paper does acknowledge that we face major challenges in electricity and gas supply."

    Well; the challenge won't be met by Renewables if the Abbott Government's statements are face value, especially Large Scale Wind Energy, which is firmly in their sights for closure with another farcical "lets find what makes people sick around Wind Farms (if we can)" type enquiry.

    The main thing which makes people 'sick' around Wind Farms is the envy of those that are hosts (whom suffer no ill effects // http://bit.ly/1f2uStz ) of the Turbines themselves. Odd thing is though that most of the hosts probably vote LNP yet the Renewable sector is a child of the ALP, bread buttered - where?

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    1. Will Hunt

      Farmer

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Perhaps they should introduce some of the not-so-highly-strung blood from around Millicent in the South East of SA where the sheep spend all day sleeping along side the turbines

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    2. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Neville Mattick

      Dear Neville, I was born in Scotland and I assure you that in my case the reason that I consider a wind farm a sickening sight is that it is ugly and as utterly undependable as the wind for Ancient Mariner's ship.
      One of Europe's most avid promoters of wind power is the German "green" party. The statistics for their actual energy production published on 6 January 2008 by E.ON, show that the average production of their 12m000 MW wind farm capacity from the 29th of the previous month, to the 4th…

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    3. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Albert Rogers

      You may do (consider it an unappealing site), compare same to a Coal mine and the so called rehabilitated lands after the damage is done - attractive? Not in the least.

      Productive for Sheep and Cattle? Not in the least.

      For the Australian model have a look at:

      http://windfarmperformance.info/

      For Europe, the recent storm series put the price of power Negative - great for consumers, bad for suppliers' and generators' alike.

      http://bit.ly/1fPQYvQ

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  5. Alice Kelly
    Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

    sole parent

    The first paragraph of the Energy White Paper...Executive Summary... "Australia's plentiful energy resources, well developed transmission and distribution infrastructure, open energy markets and improving energy productivity provide a solid basis for continued high living standards and a growing economy. Ongoing reforms are needed to address cost-of-living pressures and improve small, medium and large business competitiveness, ensure growth in energy exports and encourage investment."
    1950's lala…

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  6. Eric Vanderduys

    Ecological Researcher

    Thanks for the article Alan. Specifically, thanks for the brief coverage of some of the issues covered in the White Paper, to save me reading those 46 (sorry, 35 ... "this page intentionally left blank") pages. I like that you're going to prepare a submission before the deadline. I would also like to. I'm no energy expert, but to me a lot of what BZE says seems to make sense. The laws of physics seem to be taken into consideration in BZE's work. However, I have seen some criticisms of their stuff, which I don't have sufficient understanding of to evaluate, and I'd be interested in your perspective on their energy plans. Thoughts or comments from other readers as well?

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  7. Christopher Seymour

    Business owner at Location

    The picture shows a light show watched and enjoyed by tens of thousands of people. But the real waste of lighting energy is on lights used by no one. Our local station is lit up all night long, even when the trains have stopped running. The light outside our house shines all night long. Its time all lights in public places, including streets, were equipped with motion detectors and only activated when someone is around.

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  8. John P Morgan

    Physics teacher (ret).

    References to climate change don't appear in the Green Paper because the Liberal Party has a policy of 'not acknowledging global warming'. When was the last time you heard a Lib expressing an opinion about the matter?
    Alan is right to draw attention to the fact that Australians don't act to conserve energy or to reduce their energy costs, apart from complaining.
    The 'average' OZ house has very little capacity to be comfortable in hot or cold seasons and so enormous amounts of energy are poured in to the place to provide comfort.
    All a considerable waste.
    A house that is thermally efficient doesn't need heating or cooling and so with a low energy demand, the homeowners can in effect meet all their energy needs form a rooftop solar installation of suitable size.
    Modest installation cost and negligible running costs from then on.

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    1. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John P Morgan

      We should start by mandating that all new government housing have solar and meet certain effecieny standards, then maybe we can roll that mandate out to cover investment property owners - if you are going to rent out a house, it must meet certain standards.

      owner occupiers have full control over their situation and don't need regulation to meet these effeciency standards - those renting or in government housing have no control and do require regulation to force the owners to meet these standards

      else the poor will be left behind and further disadvantaged

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    2. John P Morgan

      Physics teacher (ret).

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Michael, you are quite right that owner occupiers don't NEED regulation to meet efficiency standards. But maybe they do. Despite the fact that the basics of energy efficient building design have been around for at least 40 years, we are still building houses that are thermally unsound.
      It seems that architectural factors are seen to be important and thermal efficiency is not really relevant. If you are uncomfortable, then, switch on some appliance and all's well.
      This would not matter if the energy…

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to John P Morgan

      Thanks for the response and sharing your perspective

      "I give myself "an electricity bill" from time to time" - lol, sounds like a smart approach

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    4. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to John P Morgan

      "All their energy needs" -- I take it they don;t have a motorcar.
      I have estimated the eannual energy consumption of a modest vehicle, 30 mpg, 15,000 miles per annum, at 1.5 to 12.0 kW. That is higher than my average direct electrical power consumption, although in the USA I have a heat pump and refrigerators, and have not the initiative to used the old traditional wind and solar option of a clothes line to dry my washing.

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    5. John P Morgan

      Physics teacher (ret).

      In reply to Albert Rogers

      I specifically omitted the automotive component of the energy structure because we as individuals have no real scope to use low energy cars. The big auto makers and the big fuel producers and big government are entirely happy with the current infrastructure. They all make a killing from it.
      I further suggest that there is no interest in developing an electric car market because the cost of PV modules now is so low that electric car owners could charge their own batteries and bypass the big corporations…

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  9. Les Johnston

    logged in via Twitter

    Great article which highlights the credibility void of the COALition in terms of effective action to address climate change. With all the squealing about electricity price increases made by the COALition, you might have thought that someone would have decided to turn lights and the a/c off. This does drop energy costs.
    Has anyone in the COALition though about what will happen to all that coal mining and exporting infrastructure which will have to be written off? Who pays for that?

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  10. Doug Hutcheson

    Poet

    ' looking for ways to reduce regulation and speeding up approvals "while maintaining proper environmental and social safeguards” ' is only reasonable if a reasonable definition of 'proper environmental and social safeguards' is agreed upon. With the current profit-before-policy government, 'proper environmental and social safeguards' are those that don't get in the way of Big Business. Great Barrier Reef? Whazzat? Global Warming? Lefty pinko greeno (I wish they'd get a better colour scheme sorted out) lies and propaganda. Ocean Acidification? Don't pull our collective leg, Adrian Blot says the ocean is not turning to acid and he is paid to know stuff about stuff. I blame the asylum seekers arriving in boats, bringing their commo politics with them.

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  11. john tons

    retired redundant

    Great article - but before we lambast the Abbott Government we need to remind ourselves that successive governments from both sides of the fence have their heads well and truly stuck in the sand. There is no acknowledgement by any of the political parties that peak fossil energy is a reality and that we need to shift away from using finite sources to generate energy to developing renewable alternatives. To make that transition we will need fossil fuels but if we dally too long we will not have the fossil fuels available to develop cost effective renewable alternatives.

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  12. k d

    logged in via Twitter

    Energy efficiency is not difficult or costly. My household has routinely come at around half average usage for our size for electricity and water for *years* with minimal effort made on our part to achieve that. Now that we're in a modern, properly designed house I'd expect that to half again.

    One of the problems is of course that many australians have no idea exactly how good they've got it in this country. Absolutely not a clue.

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  13. Geoffrey Sherrington

    Surveyor

    Is there no longer a group of concepts like 'relaxation', 'enjoyment', 'fun' and the like, as applied to ordinary day life?
    Is there ever relief from the thought police, who, armed with a holier-than-thou, clear-eyed mission to save the world from itself, busy themselves by telling others what the can and cannot do?
    What ever happened to the famous Australian attribute of "she'll be all right, mate"?
    Come on, articles like this a deadly boring, overhyped and so bloody sanctimonious.
    Give it a break for the sake of your well-being.

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    1. k d

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Geoffrey Sherrington

      Eh? You can do all that without wasting monumental amounts of energy, having as much or more enjoyment or whatever than the energy guzzling equivalent. Lighten up dude ;)

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    2. k d

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to John Phillip

      The anti-greenie paranoia never ceases to amaze me. I guess it's fear based on ignorance.

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  14. Stefan Hasenohr

    Postgraduate Student

    Hi Alan,

    It's great to see some discussion on Australia's energy future.

    I agree that improvements in energy efficiency, both for households and business, are worthwhile and should be actively pursued. However, enhanced energy efficiency will only get us so far.

    If it's true that the majority of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and gas) that are still in the ground must remain within the ground if we are to avoid greater than 1 degree C warming of the atmosphere, what are we going to replace them…

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    1. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Stefan Hasenohr

      Stefan, "Just as long as it meets the criteria above", but those criteria are based on us not changing our consumption habits. If electricity was totally from PV arrays and only available during the day, we would adapt our lifestyles to suit. I'm not saying it is the answer, but we sometimes need to think a bit laterally about our possible futures.

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  15. Albert Rogers

    logged in via Facebook

    It is slightly incorrect to say that human industrial and domestic energy consumption and production are responsible for what should really be called, not climate change, but climate degradation. The quantity of energy is minuscule compared with what Earth receives from the Sun.
    But the catch is, that if the planet fails to re-radiate that same enormous quantity ofenergy back into space, it gets hotter. The biggest storage place for the additional energy is the oceans. Water that's a few degrees…

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    1. Albert Rogers

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Albert Rogers

      Oops, I neglected to mention that of course it's not the heat of human energy production that's the problem, it;s the CO2 from burning, mand methane from "natural" gas fracking, the byproducts of the energy production.
      Getting the energy from fissile heavy isotopes is entirely without this disadvantage. The actual quantity of fuel and of waste products are especially trifling in a breeder reactor, and there exist already two proven designs, the LFTR and the IFR.

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  16. Albert Rogers

    logged in via Facebook

    Living in the USA, and retired, I still retain my impression that the absolute worst wastes of energy and generator of pollution is tha motor car. For 14 years I risked life, limb, and epidermis by bicycling to my place of work 7 miles away. That was after my car pool disintegrated by retirements. I abandoned that for the Metro (trains) when my front wheel was hit by a motorist running a red light.
    But in those 14 years, I was astounded by the number of people who were travelling the same route at the same hours every day, and had not the initiative to find folk with like schedules to travel together. I am still unimpressed by seemingly virtuous exhortations for energy efficiency that fail to mention carpooling, public transit, or the possibility of vehicle-free, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, cities.

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  17. Liam J

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Mr Pears does well staying so polite when we're confronted with so much callous indifference from Macfarlane. 100s of 1000s of low income & energy-illiterate households are being impoverished by unprecedented electricity bills and all we get from the LNP is the usual pro-corporate cliches.

    How many aged pensioners in substandard housing will die early thanks to unaffordable airconditioning during our multiple heat waves? The LNP & News Corp cheerleaders for deregulation & insulation scaremongers are effectively mass murderers.

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  18. john tons

    retired redundant

    I suspect the answer is never. Tony Abbott response to a question about peak oil is revealing; it would seem that he (and in all probablity all of our political masters: Labor, Green and anyone else who has been elected) live in a magic pudding world where the only limitation on consumption is price. Consider this you tube clip http://youtu.be/tCiHFyLIfu8 What does Tony Abbott know about peak oil?

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