Showing posts with label gas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gas. Show all posts

Monday, August 23, 2021

How Morrison can get going towards net zero - if he wants to

Scott Morrison seems keen to keep his job as Prime Minister, but not so keen to do the job PMs are paid to do: make tough decisions in the nation’s interests. So it’s up to the rest of us to step into the breach. And when it comes to the decision Morrison fears most – getting to net zero emissions by 2050 – no one’s keener to help out than Tony Wood and his team at the Grattan Institute.

Wood begins where everyone with any sense begins: by noting that the best way to reduce emissions at minimum cost to the economy - and all the people in it - would be to introduce a single, economy-wide price on carbon emissions.

But the temptation to win elections with populist bulldust about “a big new tax on everything” proved too great and so, with that off the table, we must find other, more interventionist, sector-by-sector ways to skin the cat (many of them requiring additional government spending, which will have to be paid for somehow).

The basic strategy for reducing our emissions is clear: move from fossil fuels to renewable ways of producing electricity (plus the use of batteries to store it), then meet all other energy needs with electricity. In practice, it’s more complicated, of course.

Official projections foresee emissions from electricity falling substantially over his decade, while the next four largest sources of emissions either grow or, at best, plateau. Grattan is producing a series of five reports proposing relatively easy and obvious ways of achieving early reductions in emissions in each sector.

Its thinking is to get early progress because, even if we were to reach net zero emissions just before 2050, that wouldn’t be sufficient to stop the increase in the global average temperature being a lot greater than 1.5 degrees – which is about as much as we can take without major social and economic disruption, not to mention personal discomfort.

If we take as many easy shots as we can now, that buys more time for technological advances to help us with the harder stuff. Getting some momentum going should help build public acceptance of the need for more, as well as giving business a clearer picture of where we’re heading and the risks it runs if it ploughs on regardless.

In any case, the latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change isn’t likely to be the last telling us temperatures are rising faster than earlier thought. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the 2050 deadline brought forward.

Wood’s first report in Grattan’s five-part series covered the transport sector. It proposed measures to achieve an early move to electric cars, while we wait for hydrogen technology to help with heavier transport.

Wood’s second report, on the industrial sector, was released on Sunday. This covers emissions arising from the production of coal, oil and gas – as opposed to their customers’ use of their products – emissions from the mining and processing of other minerals and metals, and emissions from processing in manufacturing.

As well as burning fossil fuels to help extract fossil fuels, coal, oil and gas production involves “fugitive” emissions of greenhouse gases during the extraction process.

The sector’s emissions have increased significantly since our base year, 2005, mainly because of our foolish decision to permit three different companies to build huge liquefaction plants on an island off the coast of Queensland and turn us into one of the world’s largest exporters of liquid natural gas. Liquefaction, it turns out, involves massive emissions.

The entire industrial sector accounts for almost a third of our total emissions, which are projected to be little changed over the decade. The good news is that 80 per cent of its emissions come from just 187 large facilities. Most of these are subject to the federal government’s existing “safeguards mechanism”, which sets a baseline – or maximum - for each facility’s emissions.

So Wood’s chief proposal is for this mechanism to be modified and extended. Existing facilities should be required to use technologies now available to gradually reduce their emissions. New facilities should be required to meet benchmarks substantially lower than existing ones.

“From now on,” Wood says, “every decision to renew, refurbish or rebuild an industrial asset potentially locks in emissions for the coming decades. Getting these decisions right will be critical for reaching net zero.”

Of course, when it comes to the many facilities producing fossil fuels for export, their future prospects will be affected more by other countries’ climate-change policies than by ours. Good luck finding customers for fossil fuels as the reality of global warming catches up with them as well as us.

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Friday, August 13, 2021

How Morrison can claim emissions are falling when they aren’t really

Other world leaders have treated this week’s report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as a “wake-up call,” whereas our leader, Scott Morrison, has mumbled something about how we’re on track to “meet and beat” our emissions reduction target, and gone back to sleep.

The report finds that whereas the world’s increase in average temperatures since the start of the industrial era is 1.1 degrees, our average land temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees over the past century – which does much to confirm the impression most of us have that droughts, floods, bushfires, heatwaves and cyclones are now bigger and more frequent than they used to be.

Climate change isn’t coming, it’s arrived.

At the UN climate change meeting in Paris in 2015, countries agreed to each reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases sufficiently to limit the rise in average temperatures to 2 degrees, and preferably no more than 1.5.

The report’s wake-up call was its revised prediction that warming of 1.5 degrees could be reached by the early 2030s, much sooner than formerly expected. So we’ve got even less time than we thought.

At the Paris meeting, each country announced its “nationally determined contribution” to the reduction in global emissions. It was agreed that each country would review and increase its contribution every five years.

The first round of increases will be announced at the next “conference of the parties” in Glasgow in November. In preparation for the conference, almost all of the world’s 20 biggest emitters – including the G7 countries, China and us – have committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

But 2050 is a long way off – perhaps too far off. What matters more is the increases countries make in their contribution targets in Glasgow. At their summit meeting in Cornwall in June, the G7 members agreed to increase their reduction targets to between 40 and 63 per cent over the same period.

It’s possible Morrison will decide to accept the net zero emissions target by 2050, and possible he’ll go to Glasgow promising an improvement on our original Paris contribution of a 26 to 28 per cent reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2030.

This week, however, he was promising nothing. Why not? Because we’re already set to “meet and beat” our original target. Indeed, the most recent figures show our emissions are already down 20 per cent on 2005, he said.

And, as he’s told us many times, we’re world-beaters when it comes to moving to renewable, wind and solar energy.

Now, you’ve probably heard there’s something sus about these wonderful don’t-you-worry-about-that figures Morrison and his ministers keep tossing around. The people who know and care about climate change say our emissions are getting worse, not better.

The doubters are right. But we’re indebted to the Australia Institute think tank for producing a careful report spelling out how the government’s figures are able to be so misleading. The Australian National University’s noted emissions analyst, Hugh Saddler, tests Morrison’s claims that, when it comes to reducing fossil fuels use and transitioning to renewable energy sources, we’re at the front of the pack.

Saddler compares our performance with 22 other decent-sized members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, plus Russia, on a number of key indicators of energy transition.

Examining our performance relative to the others between 2005 and 2019, Saddler found that we started at the back of the pack in 2005, and either maintained that position or had slipped even further by 2019 on all the indicators.

Australia remains among the highest emitters on a per-person basis, and on the basis of emissions per dollar of gross domestic product. On those indicators where our performance has improved over the period, the others have improved just as much as we have, if not more.

The “emissions intensity” of our energy system – that is, emissions per unit of energy consumed – is the highest, except for Poland. Why? Because both countries were, and still are, heavily reliant on coal for generating electricity.

Despite all Morrison’s boasting about how much we’re spending on wind and solar power, the others are also spending more. Our share of electricity generated from renewables has slipped back relative to the others.

But here’s the killer punch: we were one of only three countries out of the 24 whose emissions from energy use actually increased between 2005 and 2019. By 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent a year, according to Saddler.

How can this possibly be reconciled with Morrison’s claim that our emissions have fallen by 20 per cent? It’s simple when you know. Saddler is talking about emissions from energy use, whereas Morrison is also including emissions from what the UN calls LULUCF – land use, land use change and forestry. In short, land clearing and logging.

This source of emissions has been included in the official calculations since Australia insisted on it at the Kyoto conference in 1997. And be clear on this: so it should be. I have no patience with greenies who think taking account of what’s happening to “carbon sinks” is somehow immoral. Tell that to the people who worry about the deforestation of the Amazon.

No, the point is not that land clearing should be ignored, but that we wanted it counted solely because we knew it would make our figures look a lot better than they really were. Why in 2015 did we want to set 2005 as the starting point for our promised cut in emissions? Because we already knew the cessation of land clearing in Queensland would make our performance look good even if we didn’t do anything much to reduce our use of coal and gas.

Trouble is, this long-passed, once-only improvement in land use does nothing to transform our energy use away from fossil fuels and towards total reliance on renewables. It thus does nothing to get us to net zero emissions.

Read more >>

Monday, May 11, 2020

How Morrison can give us a bright economic future

A big part of getting economic life back to normal involves restoring people’s faith that the future will be full of opportunity for progress. But that ain’t easy because the gloom of recession kills our belief that things could ever get better. And the longer we think like that, the truer it becomes.

So Scott Morrison needs to accept the paradox that returning the economy to normal demands that we don’t return to squabbling politics as usual, nor to governing primarily in the interests of the Liberal Party base and its corporate donors.

Why not? Because it wasn’t working well even before the virus arrived. The economy’s growth was weak and, that being so, business was reluctant to invest. Morrison is right to say we must grow our way out of debt and deficit, and that – ultimately, at least – we need a private sector-led recovery.

But with the recession leaving business with even more idle production capacity than it had last December, it’s delusional to expect that some tax incentive could prompt a surge in business investment.

So what can the government do that would get business investing? It can fix the dysfunctional attitudes to energy policy that are blocking much-needed investment in next-generation electricity production.

And the plain truth is that no government refusing to face the reality of climate change stands any hope of convincing us that our economic future is bright. What’s so stupid is that if the government weren’t so committed to helping losers fend off inevitable change in the economy’s structure, it would see more clearly the huge potential for Australia to be a big winner in the post-carbon world.

Only drawback: exploiting that potential would require huge private sector investment. Oh, that’s right, it’s the present lack of need for more investment that will slow any recovery.

Climate change has already started to bring much damage to our personal health, agriculture and tourism, but our hesitation to get on with helping to combat it is partly explained by our long-standing and lucrative comparative advantage as a major exporter of fossil fuels.

But a report by Tony Wood and colleagues at the Grattan Institute, to be published today, confirms Professor Ross Garnaut’s assessment that our abundant resources of wind and sun give us a potential comparative advantage in renewable energy – particularly if we get in early.

Wood also confirms Garnaut’s view that our money-making potential lies not so much in exporting renewable energy directly but indirectly, by using wind and solar to make energy-intensive "green" commodities for export.

Get it? If we play our cards right – if Morrison displays his newfound ability to provide the nation with genuine leadership – we could begin a whole new era of manufacturing industry in Australia, only this time one built on comparative advantage rather than protection.

Wood says the list of potential energy-intensive manufactures includes aluminium, aviation fuel, ammonia and steel. Tens of thousands of jobs could be created, comparable to the existing 55,000 geographically-concentrated carbon-intensive jobs.

How does a revived green manufacturing industry sound as a plan that could convince climate-change worriers (that is, everyone with a brain), business people and workers that there is a future for our economy?

And here’s the best bit: Wood says the economics favour establishing the new green manufacturing industries where a large industrial workforce is already established - such as those in central Queensland and the Hunter Valley.

"It is cheaper to make green steel in those places, where labour is available and affordable, than in the Pilbara – despite the cost of shipping iron ore to the east coast," he finds.

Notice the political attraction of this idea? You don’t leave the workers in these regions to their fate as the world’s inevitable move away from fossil fuels turns their mines into stranded assets, you set them up to work in a new carbon-free industry.

Wood’s investigations see most potential in moving to "green steel". At present, most steel is made by using coking coal and a blast furnace to reduce iron ore to iron metal. Trouble is, burning the coal produces much carbon dioxide. Green steel, by contrast, involves using renewables electricity to produce hydrogen for “direct reduction”, turning the ore to metal, with water as the byproduct.

Ultimately, the massive investment needed for new green industries would have to come from the private sector. But the government would need to get the ball rolling by helping to fund a steel flagship project – maybe one that starts by using natural gas, before progressing to hydrogen.

The happy notion that governments can sit back while the private sector pioneers new, radically different industries works well in textbooks, but not the real world.
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Monday, August 26, 2019

Why government-controlled prices are soaring

As if Scott Morrison didn’t have enough problems on his plate, we learnt last week that government-administered prices are rising much faster than prices charged by the private sector.

Last week my colleague Shane Wright dug out figures from the bowels of the consumer price index showing that, over the almost six years since the election of the Abbott government in September 2013, the prices of all the goods and services in the CPI basket have risen by just 10.4 per cent, whereas the government-administered prices in the basket rose by 26 per cent.

Some of those "administered" prices actually fell and others rose by less than prices overall. But let’s do what everyone does and focus on the really big increases.

Behavioural economics tell us that people’s perceptions of the cost of living are exaggerated by a ubiquitous mental shortcut psychologists call "salience". We tend to remember the things that leapt out at us at the time and forget all the things that didn’t.

So, for instance, we vividly remember the shock we got when we opened our electricity bill and saw how huge it was and how much it had increased.

In round figures, the cost of secondary education rose by 30 per cent over the period, childcare by 27 per cent, postal costs by 27 per cent, hospital and medical services by 36 per cent, council rates by 21 per cent, cigarettes by 109 per cent, gas prices by 16 per cent and electricity by 12 per cent (most of the bigger increase came during the term of the previous Labor government).

Not hard to see that the government has a huge salience problem. Plenty of scope there for the punters to convince themselves the cost of living is soaring.

But what should Morrison do? At a glance, the problem's obvious: government prices rising much faster than market prices say governments are hopelessly wasteful and inefficient. So expose the government to competition and the waste will be competed away, to the benefit of all.

Sorry, the true story’s much more complicated. Indeed, part of the problem is the backfiring of governments’ earlier attempts to make the provision of government services "contestable".

Let’s look deeper. For a start, some of the increase in administered "prices" is actually increases in taxation. The doubling in cigarette prices is the result of the phased massive increase in tobacco excise begun by Malcolm Turnbull.

Local council rates work by applying a certain rate of tax to the unimproved land value of properties. State governments usually cap the extent to which the tax rate can be increased, but the base to which it’s applied soars every time there’s a housing boom.

Postal costs rise because we want to continue being able to post letters to anywhere in Australia at a uniform price, even though we're actually doing it less and less, thus sending economies of scale into reverse. Australia Post would have been privatised long ago if any business thought it could make a profit from the business without scrapping the letter service.

The doubling in the retail prices of the now largely privatised (but still heavily regulated) electricity industry over the past decade is the classic demonstration that attempts to introduce competition to monopoly industries are no simple matter and can easily backfire.

The cost of childcare has been rising over the years because governments have been raising quality standards – staff-child ratios, better educated and paid workers. Is that bad? This formerly community-owned sector has long been open to competition from for-profit providers without this showing any sign of helping to limit price increases.

Even so, childcare is heavily subsidised by the federal government. This government’s more generous subsidy scheme caused the net out-of-pocket cost to parents (which is what the CPI measures) to fall a little last financial year.

The modest suggested fees in government schools wouldn't have risen much over the past six years. If private school fees have risen strongly despite the heavy taxpayer subsidies going to Catholic and independent schools, it’s because the number of parents willing to pay them shows little sign of diminishing. Hardly the government’s problem.

Detailed figures show that the out-of-pocket costs for pharmaceuticals rose by less than 6 per cent (thanks to reforms in the pharmaceutical benefits scheme) and for therapeutic goods fell a few per cent, while for dental services they kept pace with the overall CPI, leaving the out-of-pocket costs of hospital and medical services up by a cool 36 per cent.

That tells you private health insurance is falling apart. Add the continuing problems with needs-based funding of schools, and electricity and gas prices, and the scope for further efficiency improvements in healthcare, and you see the Morrison government has plenty to be going on with.
Read more >>

Monday, June 3, 2019

How to dud manufacturing: be the world’s biggest gas exporter

Did you know Australia has now overtaken Qatar to be the largest exporter of natural gas in the world? But, thanks to private profiteering and government bungling, this seeming triumph comes at the risk of further diminishing manufacturing industry in NSW and Victoria.

It’s yet another example of naive economic reformers stuffing things up because real-world markets don’t work the way they do in textbooks.

Last week Dow Chemical announced it would close its Melbourne manufacturing plant due, in part, to high gas prices. This came after RemaPak, a Sydney-based producer of polystyrene coffee cups, and Claypave, a Queensland-based brick and paving manufacturer, went belly-up citing rising gas prices as an important contributing factor.

“Many other manufacturers are close to making critical decisions on their future operations,” according to Australian Competition and Consumer Commission boss Rod Sims. “If wholesale gas prices do not [come down], it is just a matter of time before they follow Dow, RemaPak and Claypave.”

When expected world liquefied natural gas prices rose last year, Australian gas suppliers were quick to raise their prices to local manufacturers, which use much gas in their production processes.

But expected world prices have fallen significantly over the past six months. Have the three suppliers dominating our east coast market cut their prices with the same alacrity? No. Most commercial and industrial users will pay more than $9 a gigajoule for gas this year, with some paying more than $11.

Why haven’t suppliers cut their prices? Because their pricing power means they don’t have to if they don’t want to. Why would they want to? Only because the government threatens them with something worse if they rip too much off their customers.

This was the big stick the softly spoken Sims was carrying last week as he urged them to do the right thing.

Is this the best way to regulate a market? No, but once you’ve stuffed it up you have little choice. The stuff-up evolved over some years, under federal governments of both colours and, predictably, with a lack of federal-state co-ordination.

It began in the resources boom, when Labor’s Martin Ferguson approved the construction of no less than three gas liquefaction plants near Gladstone in Queensland. That was one plant too many.

The companies secured the cost of building their plants by writing future contracts to export LNG to foreign customers. The first two companies secured the supply of sufficient gas from local sources, but the third had to scramble for what it needed to meet its sales contracts.

They expected far more gas to be available than transpired because they failed to anticipate the NSW and Victorian governments’ moratoriums on fracking for unconventional gas from coal seams.

Until the construction of the liquefaction plants – which enabled gas to be shipped overseas – the east coast gas market was cut off from the world market. This meant its prices were much lower than world prices.

The federal government knew that allowing the plants to be built meant opening the east coast market to the (much bigger) world market, forcing local prices up to the “export-parity price” or LNG “netback” price.

But, as Sims noted in a speech last week, the east coast was "just about the only region in the world that allowed unrestricted exports”. By contrast, when our west coast gas market was opened up, the West Australian government insisted on reserving sufficient gas to meet the needs of local users at local prices.

So, the east coast market opening was textbook pure (and much to the liking of the gas companies). Trouble was, the market worked nothing like the textbook promised. Lack of competition meant prices shot up to way above the export price.

The gas producers were able to overcharge the big industrial users, the three big gas retailers – AGL, EnergyAustralia and Origin – charged the smaller industrial users even more, and the pipeline owners whacked up their prices, too. Retailers’ prices peaked at $22 a gigajoule.

The threat to manufacturing was so great that Malcolm Turnbull eventually stepped in. Arming himself with the “Australian gas domestic security mechanism” (permitting him to set up a domestic reservation scheme), he forced the LNG producers to agree to offer domestic users sufficient gas on reasonable terms.

Now, however, prices have drifted back above export-parity. And the Australian Energy Market Operator is warning that gas shortages in NSW and Victoria could arise as soon as 2024 in the absence of major pipeline upgrades to allow more gas to flow from Queensland, or new sources of supply emerging.

This uncertainty adds to the risk of manufacturers giving up the struggle. The easiest and best solution would be for the Victorian government to lift its restrictions on development of – would you believe – conventional gas deposits.
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Monday, September 25, 2017

Everyone has a different excuse for the electricity stuff-up

The electricity market is such a mare's nest of stuff-ups and problems it's impossible to see the deeply divided Turnbull government making much progress in fixing it.

The goals of halting runaway power prices and reducing the risk of summer blackouts wouldn't be quite so daunting, for instance, were it not for the third goal of "sustainability" – the euphemism you use when you can't say "climate change".

It's tempting to focus on the first two and forget the third, but even that wouldn't work because the inescapable reality of climate change means that, until the Turnbull government ends the "policy uncertainty" about its treatment of fossil fuels relative to renewables, it's unlikely to get sufficient investment in new production capacity to keep prices controlled.

Even if Turnbull were to patch together some weakened version of an (already toned down) clean energy target, that wouldn't do the trick if it failed to win the endorsement of the alternative government.

Even so, the industry's line that ending the policy uncertainty is pretty much all you need to fix the problem is self-serving bulldust.

Ditto the Coalition's line that government subsidies (via the renewable energy target) to renewable energy, with its fatal flaw of "intermittency", are the heart of the problem.

The environmental damage done by burning fossil fuels is a significant "social cost" to the community. If you're not prepared to use some form of carbon pricing to internalise this "externality" then subsidising the cost of emissions-free energy is the next-best policy.

The good news is that the cost of renewable energy and storage is falling so fast it won't be long before it can compete against socially unpriced fossil fuels without explicit subsidy.

Economic rationalists are always preaching that governments shouldn't attempt to "pick winners" by subsidising the establishment of new industries.

The reality, however, is that they've wasted far more taxpayers' money over the years by "backing losers" – propping up declining industries in defiance of technology-driven economic change.

The Coalition's attempt to prop up steaming coal – a sunset industry if ever there was – and demonise renewables may be the worst example of loser-backing since Barnaby Joyce's ancestors' fight to save the horse and buggy from the depredations of those dangerous and smelly horseless carriages.

And this from the prime minister who used to sermonise on the need for much greater innovation and agility. Which, of course, should be "technology neutral".

Yet another strand in the spaghetti diagram links the malfunctioning of the electricity market with the way we've stuffed up the eastern seaboard gas market.

Did you know that domestic gas users – particularly manufacturers, but also the gas-fired power stations we were relying on to tide us over the intermittency problem – are now paying far more for gas than are foreigners buying our exported LNG?

Beat that for a stuff-up. But, says the gas industry's own self-serving bulldust, the problem is easily solved by letting it frack all over NSW and Victoria.

Apparently, no responsibility should attach to the three big companies that built no less than six liquefaction "trains" near Gladstone to cash in on the supposed humungous gas bonanza.

How could they be expected to know that the citizens of NSW and Victoria would object to being fracked over, or even that the price of oil wouldn't stay at $100 a barrel?

Far from these firms accepting the consequences of their high-return/high-risk investment decisions, we're told that for the Turnbull government to protect manufacturers and households from the consequences of this public/private balls-up is a heinous example of "sovereign risk".

Yet another dimension of the problem is the abject failure of the whole micro-reform project of establishing a national electricity market.

We've gone from four separate state-owned power monopolies to a national market dominated by just three vertically integrated oligopolists, and all we've got to show for it is a massive real increase in prices.

This stuff-up is partly explained by the federal government's belated recognition that it must accept ultimate responsibility for any national market.

But explained much more by the state governments' preference for putting the health of their budgets ahead of the need for genuinely competitive markets, through their practice of maximising the sale price of their privatisations by including pricing power in the package.

It's not good enough, however, for economists to tell themselves their reforms would have worked fine were it not for those appalling politicians.

The reformers' mistakes were imagining they'd get vigorous competition between many firms instead of the usual non-price competition between two or three oligopolists, and imagining the regulators of a government-created market wouldn't be "captured" by the oligopolists.
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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Why electricity prices are high and going higher

It's never my policy to feel sorry for any politician, so let's just say I wouldn't like to be in Malcolm Turnbull's shoes when he meets the electricity retailers he's summoned to Canberra on Wednesday.

His hope is to persuade them to do more to help their customers find the best prices on offer, so that any savings customers make reduce, to some extent, the further big price rises that are on the way.

Trouble is, it's long been the practice of many big businesses – telcos, internet service providers, electricity retailers – to make it as hard as possible for their household customers to find the "plan" that meets their needs most economically, and also to take advantage of any trusting customer on a more expensive plan than they need.

So, whatever noises they make after their meeting with the Prime Minister, I can't see the likes of Energy Australia, Origin Energy and AGL – which between them have about 70 per cent of the retail market – volunteering to help their customers pay less.

Turnbull seemed to begin the year hoping to shift the blame for high electricity prices to Labor – which, federal and state, certainly has contributed to the problem – but it finally seems to have dawned on him that, if further big price rises are coming through right now, voters are likely to lay most of the blame on whoever happens to be prime minister at the time.

And, after all, it was Tony Abbott who sought election in 2013 on the claim that the big rise in power prices was caused almost solely by Ju-liar Gillard's price on carbon, and that abolishing the tax would fix things.

In truth, the story of why retail electricity prices have risen so far – doubling over the past decade, even after allowing for inflation – is long. But let me summarise.


About the first 30 per cent of the retail price is accounted for by the wholesale price – the cost of generating the power.

This component didn't contribute greatly to the price doubling of the past decade, but is now the chief source of the recent price rises of 15 to 20 per cent in some states, with more to come.

About the next 40 per cent of the retail price comes from network distribution costs – the cost of taking electricity from the power stations and transmitting it, first, through the high-voltage power lines and then through the poles and wires that distribute it to our homes.

It's this component that explains the great bulk of the doubling in the real retail price.

Because the distribution network is a natural monopoly, the prices the privatised or still government-owned distribution companies are allowed to charge are controlled by the Australian Energy Regulator, using a cost-plus formula.

Trouble is, with connivance by the NSW and Queensland governments, which retained government-owned distributors, the companies soon found ways to game the formula.

They claimed they needed to spend big on strengthening their networks to ensure that the spike in demand for power on just a few hot afternoons each year could be met without blackouts.

There were much cheaper ways to reduce the risk of blackouts – such as by rewarding some users for cutting back on those few days of peak demand – but these wouldn't have been as lucrative for the companies.

After years of big price rises to pay for this "gold-plating" of the network, the regulator finally woke up and tried to wind back some of the increase.

The NSW Coalition government, anxious to maximise the sale price of the poles-and-wires companies it was about to partially sell off, took the regulator to court and got the price roll back stopped in its state.

This brings us to the final 30 per cent or so of the retail price accounted for by the electricity retailers' margin.

Price control over these margins was lifted some years ago in the belief that competition between retailers would keep their margins in check, but it hasn't really worked.

This is partly because the companies try to avoid competing on price, and partly because not enough people use the government website, energymadeeasy.gov.auhttps://www.energymadeeasy.gov.au, to check every few years that their existing supplier isn't taking advantage of them.

But now the formerly stable wholesale generation part of the market has begun producing big price increases, with more to come.

This is partly because very old power stations are being closed and not sufficiently replaced by new generators, thanks to uncertainty about how the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is to be managed.

Having abolished Labor's carbon tax, the Coalition has so far failed to replace it with any other mechanism because of opposition from its climate-change deniers.

But also partly because miscalculations by one of the three gas companies permitted by the previous Labor government to build big gas export facilities in Queensland has pushed gas prices way above even the higher export-parity price.

Apart from crippling some industries, this has greatly reduced the ability to use gas-fired power stations to cover the "intermittency" of wind and solar power, pending the arrival of adequate storage technology.

Turnbull has threatened to use the feds' export powers to reserve sufficient gas for domestic use, but we're yet to see this have its effect. Much potential price pain lies ahead.
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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cost-of-living talk provokes bulldust

I read that the Turnbull government has decided to make the cost of living its focus for the year. Oh dear. In that case, brace yourself for a year of con jobs and flying bulldust.

There's a long history of politicians professing to be terribly concerned about "the cost of living" and nothing good ever comes of it. It's always about saying things to keep or win your vote and rarely about doing anything real – let alone sensible – about prices.

Politicians start "focusing" on the cost of living when the spin doctors running their party's focus groups report that the cost of living keeps coming up in the things the punters are saying.

But this is a strange time for the cost of living to be high on people's list of complaints. The rate of inflation has been below the 2 per cent bottom of the Reserve Bank's target range for two years.

My theory is that the cost of living is what you complain about when you've got no bigger worries. Say, that unemployment is shooting up and you're worried about losing your job.

Politicians' professed concern about the cost of living invariably leads to bulldusting because, where prices are set by private businesses operating in the market, pollies have neither the ability nor the desire to do anything about them.

Any price you have to pay is a price some business receives. And it'd be very lacking in generosity should any government want to lower that price.

That's why so often pollies limit themselves merely to continually repeating "I feel your pain".

It seems, however, that Malcolm Turnbull's spinners are using "the cost of living" as a catch-all for "focusing" on three prices in particular: for energy, childcare and housing.

Particularly in the case of childcare, these are prices heavily influenced by government policy. The government has never wanted to talk about housing affordability, so the focus groups must be telling it to do something.

As for childcare and energy, my guess is the government has thought of these itself, believing them to offer it an edge against Labor in the eternal blame game.

If the government's latest omnibus bill passes through the Senate, it will be able to trumpet the late arrival of the big cuts in the cost of childcare first promised in the budget of May 2015.

If the omnibus doesn't make it through, the government will be loud in blaming the high cost of childcare on Labor.

There's no industry more heavily government regulated than energy. Indeed, the "national energy market" was artificially created by federal and state governments in the late 1990s. It's governed by a rule book of more than 1000 pages.

The government has three goals in energy, with plenty of room for conflict between them: to keep energy flowing without blackouts, meet our Paris commitment to reduce carbon emissions, and keep price rises to a minimum.

The industry is going through huge disruption as renewables replace fossil fuels, and the government hasn't yet come up with a policy to achieve its conflicting goals, but that's not the point.

It believes it has more credibility with voters on energy prices than Labor has, so it will have little trouble shifting the blame for price rises and blackouts to Labor. That's especially so since responsibility for energy is shared with the states, and most of the premiers are Labor.

Focusing on energy prices will also divert attention from a topic where the Coalition's credibility with voters is much less than Labor's: climate change.

Do you buy "energy"? People I know buy electricity and maybe gas as well. The pollies have switched to talking about "energy" because they don't want to mention that three-letter word "gas".

That's because the big price hikes in recent times have been for gas. It's gone from being a third of the price of gas in America 10 years ago, to three times the American price today.

When the boss of BlueScope Steel warns of a looming "energy catastrophe", that's what he's referring to. Our manufacturers now face hugely higher prices for the gas they use.

Politicians on neither side want to talk about gas prices. Why? Because federal governments of both colours were responsible for letting it happen. They allowed the development of a liquefied natural gas export industry in Queensland.

Now, all the gas produced in eastern Australia can be exported to Japan or China for much higher prices. If we want some, we have to pay the "export parity" price.

This has given a huge windfall gain to our gas producers. But it's also disrupted the electricity market by making our gas-fired power stations uneconomic.

But please don't think about that. The real problem, we're told, is too much renewable energy which, though it's been encouraged by the renewable energy target begun by John Howard and continued by Tony Abbott, is all Labor's fault.

It appals me the way first, climate change, and now energy policy have been turned into partisan, salute-the-flag issues. If you vote Liberal you're expected to be dubious about climate change and have a grudge against renewable energy, particularly wind turbines; if you vote Labor it's compulsory to love both.

There'll be a lot of game playing on energy this year, but much less effort put into fixing the problems while minimising price increases.
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Saturday, February 18, 2017

Our new comparative advantage: renewables

The old joke says the questions in economics exams don't change from year to year, but the answers do. Welcome to the economics of energy and climate change, which has changed a lot without many people noticing - including Malcolm Turnbull and his climate-change denying mates.

They've missed that the economics has shifted decisively in favour of renewable energy, as Professor Ross Garnaut​, of the University of Melbourne, pointed out at an energy summit in Adelaide last October.

Garnaut is chairman of Zen Energy, a supplier of solar and battery storage systems. But there aren't many economists who know more about the energy industry and climate change than Garnaut, who's conducted two federal inquiries into the subject.

He says that, since his second review in 2011, there have been four big changes in the cost of renewable energy relative to the cost of energy from coal or gas.

First, the cost of renewable energy generation and energy storage equipment has fallen "massively".

The modelling conducted for his inquiry assumed the cost of photovoltaic solar generation would fall by a few per cent a year. In practice, costs have fallen by about five-sixths since that assumption was made.

"Similarly large reductions have occurred in the cost of lithium ion batteries and related systems for storing energy," he says.

There have been less dramatic but substantial reductions in costs of equipment for electricity from wind and other renewables.

The cost reductions come from economies of scale in the hugely increased production by China and others, plus savings through "learning by doing". Advances in technology will keep prices falling after scale economies have been exhausted.

Second, there have been "transformational improvements" in battery storage technology, used at the level of the electricity grid, to ensure balance between supply and demand despite renewables generators' "intermittency​" (inability to operate when the sun's not shining or the wind's not blowing).

Third, there's been a dramatic reduction in the cost of borrowing the money needed to cover the capital cost of generation equipment.

Real interest rates on 10-year bonds are below or near zero in all developed countries, including Australia.

"These exceptionally low costs of capital are driven by fundamental changes in underlying economic conditions and are with us for a long time," Garnaut says.

Low interest rates reduce the cost of producing, storing and transporting renewable energy more than they reduce the cost of fossil-fuel energy because renewable costs are overwhelmingly capital (sun and wind cost nothing), whereas fossil fuel costs are mainly recurrent (digging more coal out of the ground).

Fourth, there's been a dramatic increase in the cost of gas - and thus gas-fired electricity.

Ten years ago Australia had the developed world's cheapest natural gas - about a third of prices in the US. Today, our prices are about three times higher than in the US.

Why? Because the development of a liquid natural gas export industry in Queensland has raised the gas prices paid in eastern Australia to "export parity" level - the much higher price producers could get by selling their gas to Japan or China (less the cost of liquefaction and freight).

It's worse than that. Because foreign investors were allowed to install far too much capacity for LNG exports - meaning none of them is likely to recover their cost of capital - they've been so desperate for throughput they've sometimes bid gas prices well above export parity.

Apart from making gas-fired power more expensive relative to renewables, this has implications for how we handle the transition from "base-load" coal-fired power (once you turn a generator on, it runs continuously) to intermittent solar and wind production.

It had been assumed that gas-fired power would bridge the gap because it was cheap, far less emissions-intensive than coal, and able to be turned on and off quickly and easily to counter the intermittency of renewables.

Now, however, without successive federal governments quite realising what they'd done, gas has been largely priced out of the electricity market, with various not-very-old gas-fired power stations close to being stranded assets.

What now? We thank our lucky stars the cost of energy storage is coming down and we get serious about storage - both local and at grid level - using batteries and such things as "pumped hydro storage" (when electricity production exceeds immediate needs, you use it to pump water up to a dam then, when production is inadequate, you let the water flow down through a hydro turbine to a lower dam).

In other words, the solution is to get innovative and agile. Who was it who said that?

Turnbull's party seem to be pro coal and anti renewables partly because they know we have a comparative advantage in coal.

We can produce it cheaply and we've still got loads in the ground. The rest of the world is turning away from coal and the environmental damage it does, but let's keep opening big new mines and pumping it out, even though this pushes the prices our existing producers get even lower.

If the banks are reluctant to finance new coal mines at this late stage, prop them up with government subsidies. Join the international moratorium on new mines? That would be unAustralian.

But get this: Garnaut says we also have a comparative advantage in the new world of renewables.

"Nowhere in the developed world are solar and wind resources together so abundant as in the west-facing coasts and peninsulas of southern Australia. South Australian resources are particularly rich...

"Play our cards right, and Australia's exceptionally rich endowment per person in renewable energy resources makes us a low-cost location for energy supply in a low-carbon world economy.

"That would make us the economically rational location within the developed world of a high proportion of energy-intensive processing and manufacturing activity.

"Play our cards right, and Australia is a superpower of the low-carbon world economy."
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