The Federal government's Energy White Paper released by Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane, is a massive missed opportunity that will lock Australia into old, polluting technology at the very time we need to be incentivising renewables, writes Tristan Knowles

Until the Abbott government gets serious about addressing climate change, any plan for Australia’s energy future is incomplete and missing in action.

In essence, the white paper offers plenty of commentary but very little actual policy that will lead Australia toward a sustainable energy future.

Since coming into office, this government has delayed agreement around the renewable energy target (RET) for well over a year, bringing the renewable energy industry to its knees. The Prime Minister’s comments this week about Labor’s compromise offer give the impression that he is ideologically determined to limit the effectiveness of the RET rather than improve its chances of success in lowering emissions.

By his own words, Tony Abbott doesn’t want the RET to succeed – he doesn’t want it to threaten the profitability of the old polluting energy sources. Indeed, the energy white paper does nothing to prepare Australia for a more sustainable future, but instead advocates cuts to the RET, as well as reiterating commitments to abolish the Clean Energy Council (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

While the government maintains that it is committed to protecting jobs and keeping power prices down, its actions demonstrate the opposite.

Encouraging renewables will promote billions of investment and create thousands of jobs while keeping prices to consumers largely unaffected. The government’s own modelling showed that under most scenarios the RET would result in lower electricity prices for consumers.

While the government is adamantly sticking by fossil fuels, even the industry is aware of the need to exit the most polluting power stations. At present Australia has 7.6 GW of surplus capacity within the National Electricity Market – and it makes environmental and economic sense to address this by retiring coal-fired power stations and expanding renewables.

The tragedy out of all this is that a cleaner renewable future is well within Australia’s reach. We already know that wind and solar energy projects identified around Australia could supply between 22 to 30 percent of Australia’s east coast energy needs within a decade. This is just the tip of the iceberg, renewables could go well beyond supplying a quarter of our electricity – but ongoing policy uncertainty is holding back many renewable energy projects that are already on the table.

Australia’s small-scale solar industry is going from strength to strength, even in the midst of policy uncertainty. In December last year, Australia’s small-scale PV installations broke the 4000 MV mark. That means there are now around 1.4 million solar PV systems installed around the country – and around 15 per cent of Australian households have solar PV installed. The cost of solar PV is now comparable with electricity purchased from a retailer in most major cities in Australia.

Renewable energy makes sense to Australians and many are simply voting with their feet – installing solar panels and even switching retailers, in an effort to do the right thing for the economy and the climate. Consumer, the industry and non-government organisations all want more.

The only thing now lacking is any leadership from the Federal government.

Within a decade, around half of Australia’s coal-fired power stations will be over 40 years old. Australia’s coal fleet is aging, inefficient and highly polluting. When most Australians want more clean energy, it makes no sense to keep Australia reliant on the polluting energy sources of the 20th Century.

It’s hard to believe a government of an advanced developed nation in the second decade of the 21st Century can release a vision for an energy future that pays so little attention to climate change. The energy white paper could have provided a roadmap for a sustainable energy future, but instead it was merely a rubber stamp on Australia’s old dinosaur industries and further proof that the current government has its head in the sand on energy policy.

Tristan Knowles

former energy analyst for the Australian Conservation Foundation