US tech billionaire Elon Musk fuels coal wars in energy-strapped Australia
US tech billionaire Elon Musk's intervention in Australia's energy crisis is widening a divide over the future of coal.
The Tesla founder, who's promised to help solve an Australian state's clean energy obstacles, sees no place for coal.
That conflicts with the national government's push for it remaining a mainstay source of electricity generation, as well as the "clean, beautiful coal" technologies that US President Donald Trump sees helping to save American mining jobs.
"Coal doesn't have a long-term future," Musk said in Adelaide last week during a short trip to Australia. "The writing's on the wall."
His declaration in energy-strapped South Australia, where the 46-year-old entrepreneur announced plans to build the world's biggest battery to support the state's blackout-plagued power grid, has rankled lawmakers.
Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg accused the state of tapping a celebrity to paper over its patchy clean energy record.
Tesla's battery plan "is a lot of sizzle for very little sausage". Frydenberg, a member of the conservative Liberal-led federal government, said on Monday (Tuesday NZ time).
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said Musk's plan "doesn't make a hell of a lot of difference" to the nation's struggles over energy security.
Most of Australia's states and territories - free to determine their own energy and climate policies independent of the national government - beg to differ. Just hours after Musk's announcement, the neighbouring state of Victoria closed the door on new coal-fired power stations, saying energy companies would rather invest in renewables.
The northern state of Queensland, where India's Adani Group is planning to develop the US$16.5 billion (NZ$22.5b) Carmichael coal mine, expects a move to clean energy will completely wipe out its carbon emissions by 2050.
Energy policy is a fraught subject in Australia, where a push by the majority of Australians for more renewable power sources is clashing with the government's political imperative to keep a lid on soaring power prices.
Currently, some 76 per cent of Australia's electricity is drawn from coal-fired power stations which, while a cheap supply source, are at odds with a commitment to lower climate emissions.
A series of power outages in South Australia over the past year spurred fears of more widespread blackouts across the nation's electricity market and raised questions as to why one of the world's largest producers of coal and gas is struggling to keep the lights on in a mainland state.
The nation's largest and also dirtiest power generator, AGL Energy, says its investment appetite for coal has reversed in the space of just a few years. The economics of building new coal plants don't stack up and increasingly renewables will dominate base-load power, AGL chairman Jeremy Maycock said last week.
Australians overwhelmingly want the government to focus on clean energy, according to a June poll by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute.
"It's highly improbable that AGL will be constructing new coal-fired power stations because we don't think the economics are likely to favour that," Maycock said. "As the largest generator, we want to play our fair share in the country's emissions reduction targets."
For Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, banging the drum on coal is proving a treacherous task.
Turnbull lost his job as Liberal Party leader to Tony Abbott in 2009 due to his support for an emissions trading programme that was installed by the opposition Labor government in 2012.
After defeating Labor in 2013, Abbott's Liberal-National coalition dismantled the levy on carbon emissions, claiming it was responsible for higher electricity costs, and cut targets for how much energy Australia aims to draw from wind and solar generation by 2020.
While in power, Abbott claimed coal was "good for humanity" and his government attacked wind farms for being "ugly".
Since seizing the leadership from his unpopular predecessor almost two years ago, Turnbull has toned down the government's attack on renewables.
Turnbull announced in March a plan to boost capacity at Australia's largest hydro-electric power project by 50 per cent in a bid to tackle surging electricity prices and supply constraints.
POLITICAL HOT POTATO
Yet the climate issue continues to create rancour within Turnbull's party.
When Australia's Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, proposed last month that the nation gradually increase its renewable target to 42 per cent by 2030, at least 22 members of his ruling coalition spoke out about it.
Renewable energy generation provided 17.3 per cent of Australia's annual electricity generation in 2016, according to an annual report from the industry-led Clean Energy Council.
Abbott, who remains a lawmaker on the government backbench, is now calling for the government to subsidise the building of new coal-fired power plants even as investors shy away from it.
Turnbull has refused to rule it out, while his deputy has talked up the potential for the government taking an equity stake in any new plant. For now, the official political line is all energy sources need to be in the mix. Just don't rule out coal.
"When it comes to energy sources, ours is a technology-neutral and all-of-the-above approach," Frydenberg said last week. "With a significant amount of base-load generation being phased out over the next 15 years, we need to ensure we are prepared and have enough power to meet future needs."
Deputy PM Joyce, whose New England electorate in rural New South Wales is home to a number of coal mines, is typically more blunt. Not having any coal-fired power generation in Australia is "an absurdity", he told Sky on Sunday.
Australia exported more coal than any other country in 2015, and has the fourth-largest share of the planet's coal resources, the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science said in December. Still, the existing and perceived political and environmental costs attached to coal are deterring lenders.
"The high risk and cost associated with new coal plants make investors and financiers run a million miles from it in Australia," said Ali Asghar, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Sydney. "The only way new coal could get built is if the government funds it and indemnifies any private entity against all future carbon risks."
And doing so makes little sense, given that the cost of building cleaner, so-called high-efficiency, low-emission coal plants in Australia exceeds that of new projects relying on solar, wind, or gas, Asghar said.
"As solar and wind become cheaper and continue to undermine the economics of operating coal, investment in new coal plants become an even riskier proposition."