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Last year, the Energy Minister asked the Energy Infrastructure Commissioner to investigate regional pockets of stubborn resistance and recommend ways of getting the doubters onside.
Andrew Dyer’s Community Engagement Review Report makes the bold assumption that Chris Bowen’s renewable energy plan can be put back on track, that his target of installing a 7MW wind turbine every 18 hours and 22,000 solar panels a day until 2030 is not as fanciful as it sounds. Opposition in the regions can be overcome by “ongoing excellence in community engagement and, more broadly, excellence in the execution of the energy transition”.
Engagement is a weasel word much loved by technocrats. It implies a two-way conversation, an exercise in exchanging information on the assumption that those in charge don’t possess the perfect knowledge needed to make perfect decisions.
In the minds of those who write these kinds of reports, however, engagement means no such thing. Engagement is the dissemination of a top-down plan, designed by people in the know.
Dyer says the government should develop a narrative “articulating why there is an urgent need for new renewable energy and transmission infrastructure”. He says opposition is often driven by “misinformation” and recommends the government establish one-stop information shops to help opponents get their facts straight.
He cites previous campaigns for efficient water use, cancer awareness and drink-driving as models of what could be achieved by appointing “an eminent, respected and independent spokesperson to engage the nation and be the ongoing champion of the energy transition”. Wisely, he steers clear of putting names to his proposal. The authority of most of those once considered national living treasures has been eroded by their endorsement of the voice referendum.
Dyer reflects on the role played by Sir John Monash in championing Victoria’s energy transition in the 1920s. This begs the question: Would Monash, the engineer who developed Victoria’s brown coal as a source of cheap and abundant energy, be prepared to champion wind and solar power today? Will wind and solar be powering the nation in a century’s time, the lifespan Monash anticipated for lignite?
The transition to renewable energy will reverse the progress made by Australia between the wars. Cheap energy attracted productive capital from Britain and the US. The increase in domestic manufacturing was driven by the perceived need for power and industrial self-sufficiency after the experience of WWI. Expensive and unreliable energy is driving companies offshore. It is barely 10 months since the Albanese government announced a $15bn scheme to attract manufacturing jobs and avoid a repeat of the shortages of essential goods experienced during the Covid-19 panic. The fund has yet to accept a single application, and Australia has fallen to 93rd in the Harvard Growth Lab’s rankings for economic complexity, sandwiched between Uganda and Pakistan.
Nowhere is the cost of the renewable energy transition more keenly felt than in the regions. They know first-hand the pressures on small and medium businesses from rising energy prices. They have discovered the dirty secrets the inner city prefers to ignore. They have experienced the rapacious demand for land required to generate a moderately respectable amount of power from wind and solar. They have seen and heard the scale of the civil engineering works required to build endless access roads and level platforms for turbines and cranes, often in remote and rugged terrain. They have been disturbed by the aviation warning lights on top of the turbines that compete with the natural beauty of a night sky away from the city lights.
Their roads have been churned by hundreds of truck movements transporting blades, steel and concrete. They know what it is like to be patronised by know-nothing community relations agents with newly minted degrees in strategic communication from UTS.
A community survey conducted for the commissioner’s review shows the extent of their unease. Nine out of 10 (92 per cent) were dissatisfied with the standard of community engagement by developers. Explanations in response to questions were considered unsatisfactory by 85 per cent. Only 11 per cent considered explanations relevant to their questions, and 85 per cent thought their explanations were not addressed promptly.
The conclusion the commissioner painfully avoids presenting to the Energy Minister is that any chance of gaining the social licence he desires has long since been lost. The haughtiness, equivocation and condescension of some developers have trashed the industry’s reputation. Governments that are supposed to control the excesses of the free market have instead acted as their facilitators. MPs, supposed to stand up for their constituents, have been nervous about taking up their concerns, fearing being labelled as climate deniers.
The idea an official information campaign will put these people straight is fanciful. The arrival of broadband means rural Australians have abundant information about the limits of renewable energy. They can follow the news from the US and Europe, where appetite and investment for wind and solar are diminishing and governments are reaching for other ways to reduce emissions, such as nuclear.
The internet has brought together communities blighted by renewable development from Tasmania to the edge of Cape York. In the past year, individuals overwhelmed by fighting their own lonely battle against cashed-up corporations have coalesced into a fledging national movement, Reckless Renewables; remarkably, without professional support or funding.
On Tuesday, the protest goes to Canberra with a rally at Parliament House. The renewable energy lobby has already fired warning shots. GetUp, which received $80,000 in donations last year from Mike Cannon-Brookes, is promising to pepper Canberra with posters. Renew Economy, the renewable sector’s version of Pravda, has tried to belittle the participants, mocking the support they have received from MPs Barnaby Joyce and Pauline Hanson.
Bowen is unlikely to break his habit of entering parliament through the basement ministerial carpark and instead turn up at the front door. Put that down as a lost opportunity. His reception would have told him more about the country’s mood than any number of engagement reviews.
Nick Cater is senior fellow at Menzies Research Centre.
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