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Monday, 13 September 2010

Appointed on Saturday to the climate change portfolio which he assisted with during the government's previous incarnation, Member for Charlton Greg Combet has already begun the precarious process of backing the multiply-articulated political truck into the policy slot being built to accommodate a piece of carbon-price legislation that will please everybody, from the government's Green partners to the vociferous and aggressive coal industry. In a piece published on The Australian's website today, you can distinctly hear, above the formal drone of Combet's broad Oz palaver, the shrill beeps of the rig's reverse-gear warning signal. Because there are so many elements in the train, be prepared to hear that sound for a while and, underneath it all, the angry growl of the policy engine as it strains against the resistance inherent in the debate's glaring contradictions.

"The coal industry is a very vibrant industry with a strong future," he says, and quickly resorts to that tired defense, carbon capture and storage (CCS), to redeem his credibility and signal to the coal industry that he's "serious" about wanting to protect it from the incipient ravages threatened by the Green element of government, which will include (from 1 July) the balance of power in the senate. "You don't take the back of the axe to the fundamentals of the Australian economy." Remember their reaction to the mining "super-profilts" tax?

Environmental campaigner Guy Pearse told me it will cost "around 300 billion" dollars to replace all of Australia's coal-fired capacity (around 100 gigawatts or energy annually) with renewable alternatives (wind, solar, tidal), when I spoke with him for a story I wrote recently. Pearse, who has expressed interest in running for parliament on the Green ticket, is highly critical of the Rudd-Gillard government's commitment to renewables.
If you actually look at the amounts of money involved you’re talking about a tiny increase in capacity that is so far out of whack with what’s required that it’s very hard to get excited about it. 
How much money has the government earmarked for renewables? An example of how it works is the Silex Systems 100MW solar plant slated for construction in Mildura. Federal and state promises of $125 million in assistance have come to little, with around $2,620,000 dispensed so far from state coffers and the rest of both tranches of money dependent on the company reaching agreed milestones. What those milestones are is unknown, as they are protected by 'commercial-in-confidence' provisions in the relevant contracts.

Down in Victoria's La Trobe Valley, where some of the country's worst-polluting power plants operate, a group of enterprising blue-collar workers is taking measures to insulate themselves from unemployment stemming from power-industry layoffs expected to result from plant closures.

The union has established a social enterprise which is about to begin manufacturing solar hot-water systems and installing them among neighbouring residents as well as union-affiliated consumers throughout the state. They have secured a state government grant to tool up a factory and have technical support from two commercial solar hot-water suppliers in Melbourne. It is a very interesting business model that is fashioned along cooperative lines: a social enterprise where profits are rolled back into the business rather than siphoned off by shareholders. The union-based founders are savvy about the likelihood of a carbon tax reducing the workforce in their local area. They’re also ambitious, with tentative plans to manufacture utility-scale power generation plants in Victoria.

Not everyone in the coal sector is backpedalling with the same ferocious concentration as the lobby groups and the major corporations they represent that have so much at stake.

Pic credit: The Sydney Morning Herald

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