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

Friday, November 11, 2022

Treasury thinks the unthinkable: yes, intervene in the gas market

If you think economists say crazy things, you’re not alone. Speaking about our soaring cost of living this week, Treasury Secretary Dr Steven Kennedy told a Senate committee that “the solution to high prices is high prices”. But then he said this didn’t apply to the prices of coal and gas.

How could anyone smart enough to get a PhD say such nonsense? He even said – in a speech actually read out by one of his deputies – that this piece of crazy-speak was something economists were “fond of saying”.

It’s true, they are. If they were children, we’d call it attention-seeking behaviour. But when you unpick their little riddle, you learn a lot about why economists are in love with markets and “market forces”, why they’re always banging on about supply and demand, and why (as I’ve said once or twice before) if economists wore T-shirts, what they’d say is “Prices make the world go round”.

At the heart of conventional economics – aka the “neo-classical model” – lies the “price mechanism”. Understand this, and you understand why the thinking of early economists such as Adam Smith and Alfred Marshall is still influential a century or two after their death, and why, of all the people seeking the ears of our politicians, economists get more notice taken of their advice than other professions do.

The secret sauce economists sell is their understanding of how a lot of seemingly big problems go away if you just give the price mechanism time to solve them.

A market is a place or a shop or cyberspace where people come to sell things to other people. The sellers are supplying the item; the buyers are demanding it. The seller sets the price; the buyer accepts it – or sometimes they haggle or hold an auction.

If the price of some item rises, this draws a response from the price mechanism, which is driven by market forces – the interaction of supply on one side and demand on the other.

The price rise sends a signal to buyers and a signal to sellers. The message buyers get is: this stuff’s more expensive, so make sure you’re not wasting any of it.

And see if you can find a substitute for it that’s almost as good but doesn’t cost as much. If you’ve been buying the deluxe, big-brand version, try the house brand.

On the other side, the message to sellers is: since people are paying more for this stuff, produce more of it. “I’m not in this business, but maybe now the price is higher, I should be.” If the price has risen because the firm’s costs have risen, maybe we could find a way to cut those costs, not put our price up and so pinch customers from our competitors.

See where this is going? If customers react to the higher price by buying less, while sellers react by producing more, what’s likely to happen to the price?

If demand for the item falls, and the supply of the item increases, the higher price should come back down.

Saying the solution to high prices is high prices is a tricky way of saying market forces will react to the price rise in a way that, after a while, brings it back down again.

When demand and supply get out of balance, market forces adjust the price up or down until demand and supply are back in balance. The price mechanism has fixed the problem, returning the market to “equilibrium”.

This is the origin of the old economists’ motto: laissez-faire. Leave things alone. Don’t interfere. Interfering with the mechanism will stop it working properly and probably make things worse rather than better.

There’s a huge degree of truth to this simple analysis. At this moment there are thousands of firms and millions of consumers reacting to price changes in the way I’ve just described.

Kennedy admits that “there are many conditions that underpin” this do-nothing policy, but “in most circumstances Treasury would support such an approach”.

There certainly are many simplifying assumptions behind that oversimplified theory. It assumes all buyers and sellers are so small they have no power by themselves to influence the price.

It assumes all buyers and all sellers know all they need to know about the characteristics of the product and the prices at which it’s available. It assumes competition in the market is fierce. And that’s just for openers.

However, Kennedy said, the circumstances of the price shocks caused by the Ukraine war are “different and outside the frame” of Treasury’s usual approach. Such shocks bring government intervention in the coal and gas markets “into scope”. That is, just do it.

“The current gas and thermal coal price increases are leading to unusually high prices and profits for some companies,” he said. “Prices and profits well beyond the usual bounds of investment and profit cycles.

“The same price increases are leading to a reduction in the real incomes of many people, with the most severely affected being lower-income working households.

“The energy price increases are also significantly reducing the profits of many [energy-using] businesses and raising questions about their viability.”

In summary, Kennedy said, the effects of the Ukraine war are leading to a redistribution of income and wealth, and disrupting markets. “The national-interest case for this redistribution is weak, and it is not likely to lead to a more efficient allocation of resources in the longer term,” he said.

(The efficient allocation of resources – land, labour and capital – is the main reason economists usually oppose government intervention in the price mechanism. Markets usually allocate resources most efficiently.)

The government’s policy response to the problem could take many forms, Kennedy said, but with inflation already so high, policymakers “need to be mindful of not contributing further to inflation”.

This suggests that intervening to directly reduce coal and gas prices is more likely to be the best way to go, he concluded.

Read more >>

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

The climate-change changes the politicians don't want to talk about

It’s strange to think that both sides of politics are leading us to a policy-free federal election campaign at a time when we have so many problems we should be debating. Not that the parties won’t have policies written on a bit of paper somewhere, but that they don’t want to talk about them.

Why not? Because any policy you propose can be used by your opponent to spread scare stories about your intentions. Last time, for instance, Scott Morrison used Labor’s support for electric vehicles to claim it was out to destroy the weekend.

This time, one issue neither side wants to dwell on is climate change. We have – at long last – reached bipartisan agreement on getting carbon emissions down to net zero by 2050. And on the question of how far we should have got by 2030 (yes got, not gotten; you may have reverted to English as it was spoken when the Pilgrim Fathers left England in 1620, but I haven’t), the parties are offering a genuine choice between ambitious and unambitious.

But neither side wants to talk about how we’ll get to net zero. Which leaves us in debt to a top energy expert, Tony Wood, of the independent think tank the Grattan Institute, who does want to talk about it.

Wood and his team flesh out something we know: that the main strategy is to get as much as possible of the energy we need from electricity.

“Households and business will rely on low- or zero-emissions electricity more than ever as it replaces their current use of petrol and diesel for transport and gas for cooking and heating,” he says.

Thanks to the move to renewables, emissions from the electricity sector have fallen consistently over the past five years and are expected to fall much further over this decade. But, on present policies, emissions from all other sectors – including transport, industry and agriculture – are expected to stay much the same.

To achieve net zero by 2050, demand for electricity is likely to double, at least. That means installing a lot more wind and solar (including rooftop) to meet this increased demand and to replace existing coal and gas-fired power stations as they’re retired.

As the anti-renewables crowd continually reminds us, this requires much ingenuity, effort and expense to ensure a reliable supply of power across the national electricity grid, despite the ups and downs of demand and the vagaries of wind and sun.

But it also involves a lot of investment in changing the transmission grid from one that largely moved high-voltage electricity from a handful of big power stations in the country to the big cities, to one that joins up a multitude of small commercial and household sources of solar and wind power. An increasing proportion of homes will be putting power into the grid sometimes and taking it out other times.

The Morrison government is insisting on a large and continuing role for natural gas in the electricity system. Wood is far from convinced. “The large-scale use of gas as a ‘transition fuel’ – supplying ‘base-load power’ with lower emissions than coal – does not stack up economically or environmentally,” he says.

Nearly 80 per cent of Australia’s hugely increased gas production is exported as liquefied natural gas. It’s sold at the world price, meaning “the good old days of low-priced east-coast gas are gone, making gas an increasingly expensive energy source”.

At present, gas provides about a quarter of Australia’s local energy consumption and contributes close to 20 per cent of our emissions. And whereas electricity prices have been falling, gas prices have been rising.

Gas has been declining as a share of Australia’s power supply since 2014, and this is likely to continue. “Gas will play an important backstop role in power generation when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing – but this role will not require large volumes of gas.”

In the home, people value being able to choose between gas and electricity for cooking and heating, but this can’t continue. They’ll save money and reduce emissions when all new houses are all-electric.

“The uncomfortable truth is that natural gas is most likely in decline in Australia, and achieving the net-zero target requires that to happen … Attempts to hold back the tide through direct market interventions, such as contemplated in [Morrison’s] National Gas Infrastructure Plan, will probably require ongoing subsidies at great expense to taxpayers.”

As for cars and other light vehicles, achieving net zero by 2050 requires all new cars to be electric or hydrogen-powered by 2035. That’s because, on average, our cars stay on the road for more than 15 years. The alternative is “costly and inefficient measures to scrap large numbers of cars in the 2030s and ’40s.”

To achieve the 2035 target, we need to do what almost every other rich country does. We need to do what the car manufacturers have asked for: set mandatory emissions standards. But neither major party is willing.

Read more >>

Friday, November 5, 2021

Masterpiece: the spin is Morrison's plan to reach net zero is dizzying

The more our politicians are full of bulldust – known euphemistically as “spin” – the more they rely on our short attention span. They make a grand announcement that doesn’t bear close scrutiny, but the media caravan moves on before it’s had time for a closer look. Well, not this time.

I’ve been looking more closely at the Plan to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2050 that Scott Morrison unveiled last week, shortly before jetting off to Glasgow.

It’s full of . . . hyperbole. A masterpiece of the spin doctor’s art. A document carefully crafted to mislead.

For someone claiming to have a Plan to achieve a difficult objective over the next 29 years, it was surprising to see Morrison claiming the Plan contained no new policy measures. By implication, no additional cost to taxpayers.

That’s true – and untrue. We know, for instance, that Morrison had to promise to spend a lot of money just to get the National Party’s permission to commit to achieving net zero by 2050.

So, what policy promises did Morrison make, and how much will they cost? We weren’t told. They weren’t mentioned in the 130-page plan. We’re told we’ll be told sometime before the election.

The Plan says Morrison’s “technology investment roadmap” will “guide” more than $20 billion of government investment in low emissions technology to 2030. So, further spending of $20 billion?

If that’s what you thought, the spin merchants would be pleased. They love giving the impression we can have our cake and eat it. But no, this is not new policy. All the $20 billion has already been announced.

And much of it has already been spent. Much of it by the previous Labor government. A bit over half of it is spending by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

These were set up by the evil Julia Gillard in 2011, in association with her job-destroying and cost-of-living killing carbon tax. Tony Abbott tried to abolish them along with the tax, but failed.

Now they’re produced as evidence of how much the Morrison government’s doing to promote new emissions-reducing technology.

The Plan claims the government’s $20 billion will “leverage” more than $80 billion from government and the private sector by 2030. (What it doesn’t mention is that Australia’s total spending on research and development has plummeted since the Coalition returned to power in 2013.)

As to whether the Plan commits the government to spending a lot more, note that the modelling showing we can get to net zero by 2050 rests on various assumptions about the success of future new technology in producing clean products at specified low costs.

For instance, clean hydrogen will be produced for under $2 a kilogram. Carbon emissions from fossil fuels will be captured and stored at a cost of less than $20 a tonne.

But these happy assumptions come with an asterisk. The asterisk leads to very fine print saying “subject to offtake agreements”.

Oh yes, what are they? The Plan doesn’t say. But they’re the government agreeing to buy loads of the clean product at a price that allows the real customers to pay a very low price. That is, it’s a massive subsidy.

How much will the government buy? At what price? Morrison couldn’t tell us if he wanted to because these deals are way off in the future – if they ever happen. They’re not a new policy to spend taxpayers’ money, they’re just an assumption the modellers needed to make - that the necessary money would be spent - to achieve their prediction that we’d get to net zero by 2050.

You’ve noticed that the Coalition which, ever since Abbott rolled Malcolm Turnbull as Liberal opposition leader in 2009, has been vigorously opposed to doing anything much to reduce emissions, has now embraced the net zero target.

But have you noticed that now he’s big on reducing emissions, Morrison is quietly rewriting history to remove any trace of that former opposition? Worse, have you noticed Morrison is now taking credit for any progress we’ve made to date?

Any progress made by the policies of his evil Labor opponents and – as with the pandemic – any progress owed to the policies of those appalling premiers?

This is why politicians have spin doctors. “Our Plan will continue the policies and initiatives that we have already put in place and that have proven to be successful, reducing emissions and energy costs,” some spinner wrote.

Next, Morrison’s claim that Australia’s on track to reduce emissions by “up to” 35 per cent by 2030, well above the government’s target of 26 to 28 per cent. Independent analysis commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation confirms this is quite believable.

But, apparently, it’s all the Morrison government’s doing. He speaks of “our record of reducing emissions and achieving our targets” and “our strong track record, with emissions already more than 20 per cent lower”. “We have already achieved 20 per cent,” his energy minister says.

But Bill Hare, of Climate Analytics, says the feds are doing little, but claiming credit from the hard work of the states and territories.

It was the NSW and Queensland governments that saved most of the 20 per cent by restricting land clearing. It’s the states that encouraged the record rollout of rooftop solar and large-scale renewables.

NSW, Victoria, the ACT and South Australia have strong electric vehicle policies. Meanwhile, Morrison & Co have been encouraging gas production with new subsidies – which, of course, won’t be paid for by increasing your taxes.

Spin is claiming credit for any good thing, but blaming others for anything bad. You’ve heard that the Plan “will not cost jobs, not in farming, mining or gas”.

But the actual promise says that “not one job will be lost as a result of the government’s actions or policies under the Plan”.

Get it? Jobs will be lost, but we’ve set it up so no one will be able to blame us.

Read more >>

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Net zero can't be reached by magic, but we can ease the pain

Scott Morrison’s long-term plan for net zero emissions by 2050 won’t impress anyone who’s been following Australia’s long and tortuous battle over climate change. But then, it’s not intended to.

His “learning” after miraculously wining the unwinnable election in 2019 is that whatever half-truths he tells voters will be believed by enough of them. Particularly since God is on his side, not the side of those other, untruthful and ungodly people.

No, his Plan – which is not a plan to achieve net zero, just an optimistic forecast that it will be achieved – is largely a political document, intended to be sufficient to convince those voters who aren’t paying attention that he’s “doing more” to cope with climate change.

His goal is not so much to fix the climate as to neutralise it as an issue at next year’s election. Climate change is an issue that naturally favours Labor. He wants all the focus to be on two issues that naturally favour the Coalition: the economy and national security.

He was walking a tightrope last week. He had to discourage voters in Liberal heartland seats who were worried about global warming from trying to send their party a message by voting for liberal independents – as they’ve done in Tony Abbott’s former seat and, briefly, Malcolm Turnbull’s – by convincing them he was serious about reducing emissions.

At the same time, however, he needed to reassure voters in the National Party’s various Queensland coal-mining seats that he wasn’t serious.

His solution was to produce a document that says: the boffins I hired assure me we’re on track to eliminate net emissions by 2050 but, don’t worry, this will be achieved by the miracle of new technology, without anyone feeling a thing.

There’ll be no new taxes, no new regulations forcing people to do things and no new costs on households, businesses or regions. We won’t shut down coal and gas production, and no jobs will be lost.

Does it sound a bit too good to be true? Voters in the Liberal heartland tend to be well educated and well informed. I doubt it will do the trick.

As we’ve seen with the pandemic, when our federal leaders fail to lead, others feel a need to fill the vacuum. The premiers, of course, but also many people from business and the community.

The latest report from Tony Wood and colleagues at the Grattan Institute, Towards net zero: a practical plan, offers a more realistic assessment of the challenge we face, says why we must get more achieved by 2030 and proposes ways this can be done without too much pain.

Perhaps because he’s not standing for office, Wood is frank about the difficulty in getting to net zero. The scale and pace of change involved in a net-zero target are “daunting, but they are outweighed by the consequences of the alternative.

“Factors outside Australia’s control will shape the flow of capital and the demand for our exports, while climate change itself will increasingly threaten Australians’ lives and livelihoods.”

Just so. Only a fool would believe we can avoid pain by doing nothing. We can seek to delay the pain, but that would relinquish our ability to influence our future, as well as making the pain greater.

The longer we leave it to make big progress towards net zero, the more pain we ultimately suffer. But also, our failure to throw our support behind the global push for earlier progress – which is what we’re failing to do in Glasgow this week – increases the risk that the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees will be exceeded by the end of this decade, making it less likely we ever get back below it.

But while it’s foolish to think we can avoid pain, we shouldn’t imagine the pain will be intolerable. And here’s the trick: provided it’s done sensibly, paying a bit more tax and putting up with a bit more regulation is actually intended to reduce the amount of pain, and share it more fairly.

Wood accepts Morrison’s figuring showing that we’re likely to exceed the 26 to 28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 we promised to make in 2015. But we’ll still fall short of the 45 to 50 per cent reduction we’re being asked to make and other rich countries are agreeing to.

Wood’s plan for getting up to the higher target is neither heroic nor frightening. While we wait for the technological breakthroughs Morrison’s modelling assumes will come, we should get on with applying the technology we already have.

Generate electricity almost completely from renewables, and step up the move to electric cars and vans by tightening emission standards for petrol-driven cars, giving EVs tax breaks and supporting the spread of charging stations.

This is the first step towards the new green manufacturing industries that will provide the regional jobs for miners and gas workers to move to as other countries stop buying our coal and gas.

It won’t be easy or painless, but it’s not beyond the wit of decent governments.

Read more >>

Friday, October 29, 2021

Praying for costless climate change: Lord, send down a miracle

Picture Scott Morrison kneeling by his bed, hands together, eyes closed, asking God to send him another miracle. Or maybe just giving Santa a list of all the things he’d like for Christmas.

Five things, actually. First, technology not taxes. That is, a sudden, unforced flowering of new technology that allows us to go on selling our fossil fuel to the world while – at negligible cost – the technology eliminates all our net emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Second, we reach net zero emissions by 2050 with “expanded choices, not mandates”. That is, no one should be forced to do anything. They’ll just choose to implement the new technology because it’s so wonderful.

Third, somebody somehow will “drive down the cost of a range of new energy technologies”. That is, reduce the cost of doing things without emissions so that it’s lower than the cost of doing things by, say, burning coking coal or burping methane. This, however, won’t destroy any jobs.

Fourth, we keep energy prices down with affordable and reliable power. That is, the solar and wind energy that we disparaged for many years is now cheaper than the coal-and-gas-fired power that we’re still trying to prop up, so you can thank us when electricity prices fall.

Fifth, we are accountable for progress. That is, just because we won’t show you our modelling, or tell you how much the deal with the Nationals will cost or what it’s going on, doesn’t mean we won’t tell you after the media’s lost interest.

We’re assured that Australia’s Long-term Emissions Reduction Plan will “achieve net zero emissions by 2050 in a practical, responsible way that will take advantage of new economic opportunities while continuing to serve our traditional export markets.

“This plan does not rely on taxes and it will not put industries, regions or jobs at risk. No Australian jobs will be lost as a result of the Commonwealth Government’s actions or policies under the Plan.”

As Energy Minister Angus Taylor summarised it, the plan “won’t impose new costs on households, businesses or regions.” Morrison says it will not “shut down coal and gas production”.

Other countries are pondering long and hard about how on earth they’re going to get to net zero. Until this week we had no idea either. Now, however, we have a plan that tells us how it can and will be done – at no perceptible cost to anyone or anything.

And if that isn’t hard enough to swallow, try this: the plan doesn’t involve announcing any new policy. So what’s changed since Monday? What’s different? What’s new is that Morrison now has modelling that says we’ll get to net zero with a bit to spare – without the need for any more changes.

The boffins added up the numbers and – surprise, surprise – we’re already on track to net zero. Is ScoMo lucky or what? The Americans, the Europeans, the Chinese, they’re all still struggling with it, but we’ve got it figured.

Funny thing is, it has the feel of Amateur Hour. Who wrote the report? The experts in the Energy Department? No, it was written by management consultants – McKinsey, and has all the colourful diagrams and big type and blank pages you expect from management consultants.

I hadn’t heard that McKinsey was expert on energy or climate science or technological innovation, but maybe I’m wrong.

So who did the modelling? Well, not Treasury – what would they know about modelling? We’ve been given the impression the modelling was done by McKinsey, but my guess is they contracted it out to some outfit that actually knows about modelling.

But management consultants and modellers do share a common temptation: to find out what bottom line the client’s after, and work back from that – a thought that came to me when I saw all the nice round figures in McKinsey’s lovely chart showing how net emissions in 2005 will be reduced to zero by 2050.

Reductions to date – 20 per cent (mainly from once-off land clearing restrictions in Queensland and NSW, which occurred before the 2005 starting point and the 2030 target were chosen). Next, reductions projected to arise from the government’s technology investment road map - say, 40 per cent.

Then reductions from “global technology trends” - say, 15 per cent. Reductions from “international and domestic offsets” – 10 to 20 per cent, but make it 10 per cent. Next, reductions from “further technology breakthroughs” - say, another 15 per cent.

Okay, you can stop there. We’ve made it to a neat 100 per cent. (I think I’m starting to see why Morrison isn’t keen to let the experts see the modelling.)

In a new paper from the Australia Institute, Bending the Curve, Dr Richard Denniss and colleagues assess the plausibility of the Morrison government’s belief that the course of our economy can be significantly altered without changes in policy, without the introduction of taxes and without new regulation or even legislated targets.

The authors say the plan “is based on the assumption that it is not just possible to forecast which technologies will be developed in the decades ahead, and the cost of deploying those technologies, but that such development is inevitable.

“In reality, as those who have pursued ‘carbon capture and storage’ in Australia for the last 30 years have clearly shown, it is not just possible that new technologies might be more expensive than expected, it is possible that they will fail completely to eventuate.”

The plan is just the latest iteration of “techno optimism,” albeit at the more optimistic end of the spectrum, they say.

“White it is inevitable that the cost of some existing technologies will fall rapidly, and that some new technologies will be developed, there is nothing inevitable about the timing of such improvements,” they conclude.

Morrison says his plan involves delivering net zero “the Australian way”. That bit I believe. This is the “no worries – she’ll be right, mate” way of doing it.

Read more >>

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.

Read more >>

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.

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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.
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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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