Given the cost of hiring an electrician, a bill of $78 billion to rewire the nation always sounded cheap. The then opposition leader reassured us in December 2021 that the figure was backed by “the most comprehensive modelling ever done for any policy by any opposition in Australia’s history since Federation”.
The same unimpeachable modelling told us that the average household electricity bill would fall by $275 under a Labor government. Asked how confident he felt, Anthony Albanese replied: “Well, I don’t think, I know. I know because we have done the modelling.”
But not for the first time, the real world refused to conform to the lines on the spreadsheet. The most comprehensive modelling ever done for any policy by any opposition in Australia’s history failed to predict that the wholesale price of electricity would more than double to between $121 MWh in Victoria and $162 in Queensland – somewhat higher than the $50 we had been told to expect.
Last week we received a revised estimate of the capital costs of decarbonising the grid in a report by Net Zero Australia. Chris Bowen’s estimate was out by a factor of 20. The capital cost of the paraphernalia required to transform the grid by 2030 would not be $78bn, but $1.5 trillion. That’s a mere down payment on the final bill of $7 trillion to $9 trillion by 2060.
Net Zero’s report includes other important details Labor chose not to share before it took its plan to the election. We learn the turbines, solar panels, transmission lines and assorted paraphernalia will cover 20,179 sqkm, or about half the size of Victoria.
Net Zero concedes that clean energy projects “have significant environmental impacts including land damage, habitat loss, wildlife destruction and displacement, and other pollutants”. Wind turbines threaten up to 4530 sqkm of biodiversity-rich land, an area four times the size of the Daintree.
But the most unsettling thing about the Net Zero report is its title: “How to make Net Zero happen.” We somehow hoped we might have known the answer to that question before locking our climate targets into law.
As it turns out, they don’t have a clue, despite the bluster and tub-thumping from Albanese and Bowen. The policy has been shaped by the prevailing vision rather than the available evidence.
Net Zero’s report constructs a teetering tower of assumptions to conclude that the government can meet its goals. It assumes $1.5 trillion will blow our way in the next seven years in a highly competitive global capital market. It assumes community agreement, environmental assessments and permission from Indigenous owners can be secured in record time, ignoring the history of delays to every significant infrastructure project since the early 1970s. It assumes labour and skills shortages will disappear as if by magic and supply chains will be unbroken.
Each part of this complex plan must perfectly sync with every other. Transmission lines must be installed in time to stop variable renewable energy sources from being stranded. Hitherto unimagined quantities of batteries must be installed, and the tunnel-boring machines beneath the Snowy Mountains must learn to behave.
In the face of these and many other uncertainties, few outside the cloistered world occupied by academics, bureaucrats and the commentariat would persist with this theoretically possible but utterly implausible proposal. Yet the prevailing vision – the things taken for granted by so-called “thinking people” – is resistant to empirical evidence inconsistent with their conclusions. If the external world is at odds with their theory, then it must be redesigned.
The common refrain on matters relating to combating climate change is that the answers are already known. Those who call for fresh evidence are accused of stalling.
When teal independent Monique Ryan, for instance, urges the Albanese government “to move further, quickly, in order to prevent further global warming”, she feels no obligation to say what that further, faster action would be. She assumes the only obstacles are flagging political will and black-hearted deniers.
The Green movement, and by extension the teals, see no need for the painful trade-offs highlighted in the Net Zero report. They do not consider the opportunity cost of directing so much capital into one sector or the other worthy ventures that will be curtailed. Nor do they consider the huge environmental cost of reshaping landscapes to accommodate wind, solar, pumped hydro and batteries.
It is easy to disregard the physical damage to the natural landscape and loss of biodiversity if you live in the seat of Kooyong, but not from, say, the Atherton Tablelands, where the vandalism stares you in the face. It seems odd that Net Zero rejects nuclear out of hand. Three-quarters of the world’s clean energy comes from hydro-electricity and nuclear. It solves the challenge of intermittency and synchronising the grid. Small modular reactors sit on tiny bits of land. The need for new transmission lines is avoided.
Yet Net Zero rules out nuclear because it is against the law, which seems a prissy excuse when it happily backs a plan that defies the laws of physics, economics and politics. It says the modelling shows that factoring nuclear into our future energy mix would be “a costly error”. It would “create a material risk of not achieving net zero, or doing so at an excessive cost”.
Perhaps the authors should have read the disclaimer in eight-point font attached to its own modelling. It reads: “The inherent and significant uncertainty in key modelling inputs means there is also significant uncertainty in the associated assumptions, modelling and results.” Perhaps they might have considered how costly the assumed error of adopting nuclear might be when the price of the alternative runs to trillions.
Sadly, our climate and energy policy remains in the grip of an intelligentsia that lacks the wisdom to recognise the boundaries of its own ignorance.
In economist Thomas Sowell’s analysis, the vision of the anointed is partly a vision of themselves as the righteous ones convinced that they alone have the moral fortitude to avert future calamity. Should the catastrophe occur, it will almost certainly be of their own making.
Nick Cater is senior fellow at the Menzies Research Centre.
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