April 13, 2024


A missing element from much of the debate about whether Australia should embrace nuclear power is that – unless the Labor rank-and-file have an extraordinary change of heart – the issue is already dead on arrival.

John Howard and Scott Morrison knew the score on this. Unless there is bipartisan support, a nuclear industry has virtually no chance of being developed. And as things stand there is no chance of the ALP changing its position.

Why would it? There is no significant view within Labor that the ban on nuclear power should be lifted but, even if there were, the internal fight over it would be savage and likely to lead to revolt.

Politically, it would be a suicide mission that would accelerate the shift from the major parties to the Greens and independents. The scare campaign that Labor and others are preparing to launch against the Coalition’s nuclear push would be turned on both major parties.

The only circumstances in which Labor might grapple with these questions if there was evidence that nuclear power was needed to get Australia to near zero emissions energy. That isn’t the case. The advice from government agencies and nearly all energy experts is that renewable energy will be able to provide more than 90% of Australia’s electricity needs at much cheaper cost long before a nuclear industry could be built from scratch.

Given the delays and cost blowouts that have beset nuclear projects in other western democracies, any claim to the contrary is supremely optimistic. It is an argument to keep the country’s high-polluting coal fleet open beyond its expected life while the Coalition campaigns against the rollout of large-scale renewable energy and waits for an alternative that appears unlikely to arrive.

A climate-damaging delaying tactic, in other words.

What if instead of dedicating so much oxygen to a theoretical exercise we focused on an area of climate policy where there is a genuine case for cross-parliamentary support?

It’s no secret that the Coalition is increasingly entrenched in its opposition to solar and windfarms. Despite clear evidence from the Australian Energy Market Operator to the contrary, Peter Dutton last week called Labor’s plan for the country to get 82% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2030 “an engineering feat of pure fantasy”.

But the Coalition may have a different story to tell on household solar and batteries. Speaking to the Australian Financial Review, the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, indicated he could back a substantial government support program to accelerate the rollout of small-scale renewable energy systems, and had spoken with advocates Saul Griffith and Bruce Mountain. The same newspaper said Dutton had hinted that he may also support this.

The opposition leader has not yet made this publicly clear, and it’s reasonable to be sceptical that he would support any climate policy that could deliver rapid change, given the evidence to date. But it would not be particularly surprising if he did. Politicians generally back rooftop solar for a simple reason: their constituents love it.

Roughly one in three Australian households – more than 3.7m homes – now generate their own electricity. In South Australia, the most advanced state, the proportion is nearly 50%.

After policy chopping and changing in the early years, Australia has landed on a successful solar rebate scheme that has had bipartisan support even as the climate wars have been fought. Rooftops provided more than 11% of the electricity in the national grid over the past year.

What is missing is a policy to make solar power more accessible to those who can’t access this rebate, either because they rent, or live in an apartment, or can’t afford the upfront cost. To be truly successful, that would need to include support for the uptake of household batteries to give consumers the power to run their entire home on clean electricity around the clock.

What might this look like? There are a couple of proposals worth considering.

The first is being put forward by Saul Griffith, a former US government energy adviser and vocal advocate for household electrification, through the organisation he founded, Rewiring Australia. He has argued for a Hecs-style loan scheme to better tap Australia’s world-leading solar capacity and help address the cost-of-living crisis.

Loans would be available to all and could be used for solar panels, batteries, efficient electric appliances and, potentially, electric vehicles. They would be indexed to inflation and repaid to the government when homes were sold. Rewiring Australia estimates it could save a household up to $5,000 a year on energy and petrol bills, create jobs and alleviate some of the need to rapidly build so much large-scale renewable energy.

According to Rewiring Australia’s budget submission, establishing the program would cost $2.8bn over three years, $10m of which would be spent rewriting the rules governing the national electricity market to allow electric households to compete against fossil fuel generators and retailers.

A separate but related proposal has been launched by the independent MP Allegra Spender, backed by fellow crossbenchers Zali Steggall, Helen Haines and David Pocock and advocates for renters, people on low incomes and clean energy businesses. Described as a “people power plan”, it calls on the government to help those locked out of solar power to get it.

Those behind it say there are a number of ways the policy could be designed, but it should aim to help at least half a million homes shift to clean energy over the next three years, with a focus on renters, apartment dwellers, people on lower incomes and households in regional and rural areas concerned about the rollout of large-scale clean energy infrastructure.

Spender says this would have multiple benefits – cutting bills, reducing emissions and, crucially, empowering people in regional communities who will be affected by the energy transition but feel they have no say in it.

These ideas have been pitched to the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, in the lead-up to May’s federal budget, which Anthony Albanese has flagged is likely to include “think big” support for new green energy industries. If adopted, it would need to complement support for large solar and windfarms, not replace them. This alone may mean the Coalition would oppose it, given it wouldn’t fit with its political tactics.

But would any party really stand in the way if the government introduced a policy to cut bills, give consumers greater control over their household energy and address the climate crisis?

Even in Australia’s broken climate policy landscape, it’s hard to imagine. Perhaps it’s time to find out.



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