Brumby climate promises only look good next to federal government failure

Victorian Premier John Brumby’s recently announced climate policies have seen him hailed as the first Australian politician to get serious about climate change. But his promises on climate have fallen though in the past, and so far the details of how large-scale solar power would be boosted under his new plan are not available. His announcements contain no new funding for large-scale renewable energy.The two key promises in his climate white paper released this week are to shut down one quarter of Hazelwood power station by 2014 and have 5 per cent of Victoria’s energy provided by solar power by 2020.

Hazelwood is a symbol of Australia’s dirty coal dependent power supply, as Australia’s dirtiest power station. It is also one of the oldest and, according to unionists in the Latrobe valley, one of the two generating units Brumby proposes to close needs replacing anyway.

The partial closure relies on giving hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to Hazelwood’s owners, and is dependent on federal funding. By appealing for federal funding Brumby has left the door open to pass the buck when that funding does not eventuate.

Brumby pointedly talks of replacing Hazelwood with “cleaner technologies”—not renewable energy. By this he means new “dried coal” technology or gas. “Dried coal” is the technology HRL plans to use for its new coal power plant in the Latrobe Valley. It would allow Victoria’s plentiful but highly polluting brown coal to produce “only” the emissions of a black coal-fired power plant.

Gas should not be seen as an alternative to coal either. New gas plants produce at least half the emissions of coal and once built will be in place for several decades. The technology exists to replace any phased out coal power plants with 100 per cent renewable energy—and investing in this is the only way to cut our emissions on the scale needed.

Brumby’s announcement his government will be, “Regulating to ensure no new brown coal power based on conventional technologies” is of a piece with Julia Gillard’s deceptive promise she will “never again have a dirty power station built”. All Gillard will do is force new coal power stations to use the best available technology, and be ready to use ‘carbon capture and storage’— which is not likely to ever eventuate. Similarly Brumby’s announcement will not stop the new HRL coal-fired power station in the Latrobe Valley.

Brumby has no serious plan for providing jobs in renewable energy in the Latrobe Valley to ensure local coal power station workers are looked after. Just $25 million has been promised for the Latrobe Valley Advantage fund, but this a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of millions in compensation for Hazelwood’s owners.

Hazelwood was privatised by Jeff Kennett in 1996. Its owner International Power has spent the last decade and a half knowingly profiting from the destruction of our planet, and the downsizing of its work force. Where is the compensation for those who work in the power stations?

As union leader Luke van der Meulen told ABC Gippsland’s Mornings program, “there’s no real confidence in governments that they can adequately look after a community in a circumstance like this.

“This goes back to what happened to us in the restructuring and privatisation of the industry. The community and the workforce were then completely left out of it and that’s exactly the same feeling we’re getting now.”

More Solar power?
The announcement of a target of 5 per cent of Victoria’s energy to come from solar power by 2020 will be a small start if it sees large solar power stations built. But the Victorian government has so far failed to tackle the really difficult question—how will this be paid for? It has announced a plan for a feed-in tariff but no details have been released. Presumably the public will pay through higher power prices—but Brumby is yet to say how much higher.

The interim target is 500 MW of solar energy by 2014. That may be something, but much more is needed. As Matt Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions points out: “This is the equivalent of two Spanish Baseload Solar Thermal plants (300GW each) by 2015. Spain is building 60 plants out to 2015.”

Broken Promises
Brumby’s announcement is designed to boost his green credentials in the lead up to November’s Victorian state election—no doubt with an eye to stopping gains for The Greens. No one should want to see the arrogant born to rule climate deniers in the Liberal party take power at either state or federal level. But if Brumby is re-elected, we will need a stronger climate movement to force him to deliver. His track record of delivering on his promises so far is abysmal.

Brumby’s government promised to have the state 10 per cent powered by renewable energy by 2016 in 2002, but has so far failed to increase the proportion of renewable energy used at all. His new promise is 20 per cent emissions cuts by 2020, though nowhere near enough, it would be a start if it was legislated. However more than just targets we need action, and Brumby is yet to outine exactly where the emissions cuts will come from. In 2006 Brumby government first promised a solar power plant in Mildura. Under his new plan the Mildura plant wont come until 2016.

The Climate Movement
These announcements do show that politicians are being forced to respond to the climate movement. But the fine print of Brumby’s announcements and his failure in the past shows the need for the climate movement to be clear about its demands. Some environment groups, like Environment Victoria, have backed the proposal for coal power plants like Hazelwood to be replaced by gas. The movement should demand that all new power stations are renewable.

Brumby’s feed-in tariff is also the wrong approach. It relies on private investors stumping up the money to fund solar power—an approach which failed the company Solar Systems and saw it collapse. Only government funding for renewable energy can guarantee a rapid transition to 100% renewable energy. A feed-in tariff is also highly likely to be funded by higher power prices. This will alienate ordinary people already struggling with the cost of living, and drain support for the climate movements demands for action.

Adam Bandt, the Greens candidate for Melbourne, supports the goal of 100 per cent renewable energy in a decade. He recently put out election material calling for a clean energy revolution, and for lower electricity prices. This is a breath of fresh air. He will be speaking at the Rally for Renewable Energy, 11am, Sat Aug 7, Parliament House City.

If Brumby’s partial shut down of the Hazelwood power plant delivers job losses in the Latrobe Valley, future demands to replace coal power stations will be unlikely to win wide public support. Phil Bramstedt, who works as a belt technician at the Yallourn mine, spoke to Reportage/Enviro about  the call for Hazelwood to close.

“Environmentalists have to make a large decision on how they’re going on about it. It’s not just the power stations they’re going to shut down, it’s three major towns within the region and all the people that support the power stations as in workshops and industries that rely on it,”

“Basically, Latrobe Valley has been built over the 70 years as a coal industry,”

The movement needs to get serious about protecting workers’ jobs. The approach of unions like the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union show what is needed. It recently called for “the federal government to focus its climate policies on creating real jobs in the renewable industry sector, and also ensure it has a plan for jobs in existing carbon intensive industries.”

Climate campaigners need to be part of the fight to make sure those jobs become reality.



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