I studied Biotechnology, believing Australia was a forward-looking country, keen to find new solutions to old problems and eager to embrace new technologies. How wrong I was! To make the point, I contrast how Queensland and South Australia are each shaping its energy future: one is pursuing the past, the other the future.
In 2019, I’m in a country where innovation is a dirty word, where exporting wool, wheat, coal and iron ore like we did 100 years ago is a source of great pride, where prime ministers sneer at climate change, ridicule renewable energy and champion knighthoods. It’s been an embarrassing decade.
Yet, one light shone brightly on a distant hill: South Australia, the big country’s smallest state. Its premier Jay Weatherill gave credit to his predecessor for the state’s bold vision. He said, ‘The decision to transition our state to renewable energy and address the issue of climate change was made by my predecessor, Mike Rann. What I’ll take credit for is not running away when the going got tough.’
The going got more than tough. The conservative forces driving the government since Tony Abbott became prime minister in 2013 attacked South Australia for its audacity. When the state experienced a blackout due to catastrophic storms in 2016, the federal government blamed the state’s transition to renewable power.
It was a lie, but that didn’t stop the vicious attacks on Jay Weatherill. The wave of ridicule continued and grew in volume when the premier made a deal with Tesla’s founder Elon Musk to install a $100 million dollar battery. Jay Weatherill was derided as a modern day Don Quixote charging at windmills, by a government that had no energy policy at all, even after Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister on the promise of innovation.
At the 2017 state Liberal Party’s Annual General Meeting in Adelaide, Turnbull described South Australia’s renewable energy policy as ‘ideology and idiocy in equal measure’
In a Guardian article, Greg Jericho summed up the parlous state[TJ1] : ‘So utterly bereft of reason on the issue and so completely consumed by climate change denial, the government is now at the point where even the pretence of doing something to reduce emissions is viewed with distrust.’ More in the video ‘Australia’s climate wars: a decade of dithering.’
In 2018, Jay Weatherill paid the full price for his courage and tenacity: he lost the election. Malcolm Turnbull used the chance to put the boot again, claiming that the result vindicated the coalition’s energy reforms. What energy reforms, you ask? Good question.
Just a few months later, we learnt that Tesla’s giant battery had reduced the cost of the grid service by 90%; a few months after that news, South Australia became a net electricity exporter for first time. The Australia Institute announced that ‘… the state is now taking advantage of its abundant resources of wind and solar radiation, and the new technologies which have made them the lowest cost sources of new generation, to supply much of its electricity requirements.’
The Sunshine State
The story of Queensland is so different you’d think it played out in another country, at another time. Here, we had a prime minister and a premier falling over each other to schmooze an Indian billionaire with a questionable reputation, because he promised to create 10,000 jobs around his planned Carmichael mine in the middle of the Great Artesian Basin.
Neither the prime minister nor the premier could see that a government-supported renewable energy industry would easily generate 3 times as many jobs in the sunshine state, and they would grow in number over time while mining jobs would fall victim to robotic automation.
Even without government leadership, the number of jobs in renewable energy in the Queensland almost doubled from 2016 to 2018 to reach more than 5,000, according to The Guardian. Most of this increase was due to large-scale solar projects, and the Clean Energy Regulator is predicting further vigorous growth.
Adani originally claimed its Carmichael mine would produce 60 million tons of coal per annum, and create 10,000 jobs. In 2015 a spokesman conceded that the mine would create just 1,464 new jobs (direct and indirect) for the mine and the railway, as the projected output from the mine was reduced to 10 million tons a year.
Adani also told investors that the project would be automated from mine to port. Mining is one of the most highly automated industries, as Rio Tinto has shown with its AutoHaul fleet of autonomous trains transporting iron ore from mines to ports in the Pilbara. There are 240 four-hundred ton autonomous trucks operating in Western Australian mines and the number is rising.
Rio Tinto’s fleets of trains and trucks is operated from a control centre in Perth, which has become the hub for most mining services in Western Australia, according to ABC News. Yet even without automation cutting job numbers, mining is not a major source of jobs in Queensland.
This Guardian article covers the most recent job figures being quoted by Adani and government ministers and they vary from 800 to 1500 at the low end, to 6750 including indirect jobs. The real number is anyone’s guess.
Huge Opportunity Missed
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk decided early on to take the easy way out, supporting Adani and promising 10,000 jobs for North Queensland. Then Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten, decided to sit on the fence, indicating tacit support for Adani’s mine as long as it met the conditions set by Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science.
Why couldn’t Shorten come up with a ‘nation-building’ plan to transition the sunshine state into a renewable energy state? An initiative that would ultimately generate tens of thousands of jobs, without endangering the Great Artesian Basin or the Great Barrier Reef? Bill Shorten paid the price for hedging his bets; sadly it is Queensland and Australia who will be stuck with the bill.
Science Thrown in the Bin
Formal approval for Adani’s mine was granted on June 13 2019. ABC News reports that numerous contentious issues remain to be resolved. According to the Brisbane Times, ‘the proposed coal mine is the first of six awaiting approval to begin mining in Queensland’s Galilee Basin, described as Queensland’s last significant coal resource.’
The Queensland Resources Council was over the moon: ‘The Adani Carmichael mine is one of six in the Galilee Basin that could create tens of thousands of jobs in construction and operation and deliver billions of dollars in royalties over their working life span.’
‘Science has been thrown in the bin for political expediency,’ said Tom Crothers, a former general manager for water allocation and planning in the Queensland government.
Mackay Conservation Group community organizer, Emma Barrett, told the media: ‘Leading water scientists tell us that Adani’s modelling is flawed, not fit for purpose and risks drying up the ecologically important Doongmabulla Springs.’
Once again, we see great opportunities for innovation swept aside by the imperative of winning the next election with quick-fix promises. Once called the lucky country, Australia has become little more than a country for old men.