Nats pledge to keep home fires burning

01:28, Dec 15 2009

National has released its energy policy - the second chunky policy announcement this week, following on from the welfare announcement on Monday.

I don't know whether the party takes any notice of blogs or media commentary, but they have certainly concurred with advice dished out by many of us in the commentariat: forget about the secret tapes, roll out the policy, and release background papers - not just a one-page summary.

Both the welfare and energy policies provoked the usual howls of outrage from Labour. On Monday, Social Development Minister Ruth Dyson called National's policy "back to the 90s'' although in fact it was no such thing. National's policy on welfare ten years ago was reactionary compared to the Don-Lite policy released this week.

Likewise, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen yesterday accused John Key of "gambling your children's future'' on gas and coal in spite of an abundance of renewable energy and said National stood for "no action on climate change, no hope and no vision".

Strong stuff. But does the rhetoric match the reality? You'd think from this level of hyperbole that the Nats had announced plans to build a large nuclear power plant on the North Shore (not a bad idea, some might say) or that Gerry "sexy coal'' Brownlee had vowed to overturn the ban on coal fires in Christchurch homes. 

National has released its energy policy - the second chunky policy announcement this week, following on from the welfare announcement on Monday.

I don't know whether the party takes any notice of blogs or media commentary, but they have certainly concurred with advice dished out by many of us in the commentariat: forget about the secret tapes, roll out the policy, and release background papers - not just a one-page summary.

Both the welfare and energy policies provoked the usual howls of outrage from Labour. On Monday, Social Development Minister Ruth Dyson called National's policy "back to the 90s'' although in fact it was no such thing. National's policy on welfare ten years ago was reactionary compared to the Don-Lite policy released this week.

Likewise, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen yesterday accused John Key of "gambling your children's future'' on gas and coal in spite of an abundance of renewable energy and said National stood for "no action on climate change, no hope and no vision".

Strong stuff. But does the rhetoric match the reality? You'd think from this level of hyperbole that the Nats had announced plans to build a large nuclear power plant on the North Shore (not a bad idea, some might say) or that Gerry "sexy coal'' Brownlee had vowed to overturn the ban on coal fires in Christchurch homes. 

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It's true National has pledged to overturn the ten-year ban on the building of new thermal power stations and promised to take a more "realistic'' approach to calculating the future growth in the nation's energy requirements.

It's difficult to see how this equates to embracing a lump of coal or a petajoule of gas, however, particularly since Labour's so-called moratorium was rapidly developing a distinctly "Clayton's'' feel to it. The ban, in practice, was always more hot air than reality, since the Government slipped so many caveats into it (only applies to baseload, above a certain megawattage, can be overruled in the interests of the nation's energy security or in a crisis) that it was largely meaningless.

Key called it "damaging political symbolism'' yesterday - I'd call it ineffectual political grandstanding. Industry sources have been saying Labour would have been forced to abandon the ban if it won the election anyway, given the current pressure on the national grid.

Labour is also finding it difficult to get its teeth into National's policy because it is also embracing Labour's target to generate 90% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2025. The only difference is that National says it won't die in a ditch if it's not achieved.

Granted this is not terribly ambitious or committed, but at least National gets marks for being honest. The bottom line in National's energy policy is that it will be clean and green where it can be - but not at the expense of sacrificing the nation's economic performance or energy security. 

Greenpeace won't like it, but I think National has got the mix about right. As we continue to shiver through the nastiest winter in many a year, I reckon the vast majority of people would far rather the lights stayed on and heaters warm than risk the country blowing a fuse because renewable energy sources let us down.

Labour's climate change aspirations have also been severely dented by a mixture of bad lack, poor planning, the shocking winter, and the grudging acceptance that if it hadn't been for those dirty diesel backup power plants and Huntly burning coal full-tilt we'd have been in the dark by June.

It's all very well talking the talk, as Key said yesterday - it's another thing walking it. And while Labour's fine ambitions are all well and good, the reality is that nothing the Government has yet done has made a blind bit of difference to our emissions levels or is likely to in the near future. In fact the only thing that has reduced our emissions profile recently has been the soaring price of petrol and diesel.

There is an irony in Labour attacking National for being pro-thermal, too, because the Nats are also promising to streamline the consents process under the RMA to get more renewable projects such as wind and hydro through the planning stages more quickly.

The Government seems to be hinging its energy strategy on minister David Parker's "a windmill in every back yard''  dream. The problem with this, politically, at least, is that most Kiwis don't want a windmill in their back yard, and don't want one in their neighbour's yard either.

I'm not trying to sound anti-green technology here. I'd like a clean, green environment as much as the next person. But I do believe the Government is on the wrong side of public opinion with its stance on energy and climate change. I think the public care about security of supply far more than they do about pollution. The simple fact is the cold, damp homes are going to kill people than climate change for many years to come.

Having said that, National's energy policy is conservative and lacking in new ideas. There's nothing about energy efficiency, for example, or suggestions about how we are going to meet the estimated 2% a year increase in demand for electricity. What it has delivered is a short-term, pragmatic policy lacking in vision. But unlike Labour, it is probably a policy in step with current public opinion.