The record-breaking “Frankenstorm” Hurricane Sandy, which wrecked a trail of destruction from Cuba and Haiti to New York, has shown again that climate change is a reality. Disasters and wild weather are becoming more common as the planet heats up. At the same time in Australia, almost unreported, there has been a small decrease in carbon emissions, by 6.3 per cent, over the last few months.

Some coal power stations have been closed. Reporting on this in the Sydney Morning Herald, Lenore Taylor argued that we have the carbon tax to thank—but the tax has nothing to do with it. The emissions dent has been achieved by regulation forcing the energy companies to increase their use of renewable energy, through solar panel schemes and the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET).

Closures

All up coal power stations producing nearly 3000MW of power have closed or been mothballed in recent months. This is almost double the equivalent of Victoria’s notorious Hazelwood coal power station. It is also greater than the 2000MW the federal government was proposing to “buy out” and close using proceeds from the carbon tax, a plan they have now abandoned.

Plants closing, reducing or suspending operations include Victoria’s Yallourn power station, Munmorah in NSW, Energy Brix in Victoria, Playford and Northern in South and Queensland’s Tarong plant. The main reason is reduced demand for electricity. Official data released in June shows that energy demand was 5.7 per cent lower than forecast for 2011-12.

After the wreckage of Hurricane Sandy, we need investment in renewables

Why are we using less power? The growth in rooftop solar panels—one in ten homes now have them installed—accounts for the equivalent of two-thirds of the capacity of the coal power stations recently shut down.

On top of this, the MRET is also encouraging some small development of wind power. The MRET forces power companies to meet a target of 41,000GW of power from renewable sources by 2020. Wind power generation capacity the equivalent of eight Hazelwood power stations is in the planning stage. Twenty six per cent of South Australia’s total energy supply was generated from wind power in the year to June, the highest in the country.

South Australia’s wind power also showing that renewable energy can lower power bills. Power bills in South Australia are predicted to decrease by $160 a year next year, bucking the trend of outrageous electricity price rises by electricity companies post-carbon tax.

This is the because, as Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions has explained, “Wind turbines have no fuel costs once built. In the electricity market, they out-compete fossil fuel generators and cause a lowering of prices. This is known as the ‘merit order effect’.”

Renewable future?

These small emissions reductions are nothing on the scale we need to stop catastrophic climate change. The scientific consensus is that this requires getting to zero emissions as soon as possible.

Neither are the schemes involved a model for doing that. While MRET has meant government regulation of a renewable energy target, it is still a market scheme, based on the complicated trading of electricity certificates on the market.

The MRET is not likely to lead to any of the large scale solar thermal power stations that are necessary to get the cut in emissions we need. It also includes some non-renewable energies, such as waste coal mine gas, in the 20 per cent target. The solar schemes are based on feed-in-tariffs.

What the small achievements of these schemes, do show, however, is that renewable energy can be built now—and could be rapidly expanded across the country by direct state intervention if the government was willing to act.

But making that happen is going to take a fight. While companies continue to push for a lower renewable energy target, Liberal state governments in Victoria and NSW are trying to stop new wind power turbines.

New planning laws in Victoria have stopped applications to build them completely in the last year. And the federal Labor government approach seems to be to pretend all is done and dusted on climate change now the carbon tax is in place. Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon has even suggested a renewable energy target is not necessary.

Sadly, The Greens and much of the climate movement’s embrace of the carbon tax has severely weakened the campaign and made it harder to campaign for the growth of renewable energy. However, a community campaign, Repower Port Augusta, has committed South Australia’s parliament to investigate the possibility of a large scale solar thermal plant.

As the spectre of worsening climate disasters looms, turning the possibility of a renewable future into a reality becomes all the more urgent.

James Supple

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