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A Clean Energy Future Is On The Horizon

It's unlikely we’ll ever see another coal-fired plant built in the country, so let's stop debating it.

13/02/2017 12:33 PM AEDT | Updated 13/02/2017 12:58 PM AEDT

Every South Australian has a right to be angry at the energy challenges the state has faced over the past few months. The disruption has been genuine, and prices are rising. Households and businesses already have enough on their plates, and shouldn't be worrying whether or not they'll be able to keep the air conditioner on this summer.

But while South Australians should be frustrated by the energy debacles of late, they should also be outraged at the type of debate surrounding the issue. Instead of seeing recent outages as something to fix, political opportunists have seen them as the catalyst for their own advancement.

The reality is South Australia generates no coal-fired power, and it's a distraction to argue that it should in the future.

It's the sort of approach to an issue that makes voters fed up. What South Australians want is pretty simple: affordable and secure energy. And they want their parliamentarians -- at both a state and federal level -- to just get on with delivering it.

But instead of engaging South Australia as a partner, Canberra is treating it like a piñata. The Federal Government is going hell for leather in its attacks on SA in order to extract as much political capital from the energy debate it can, reveling in the disruption as it helps their political fortunes.

The only time Malcolm Turnbull calls in to SA talkback radio is after a power outage -- you can almost hear the glee in his voice as he opportunistically spruiks his pro-coal agenda. And when the PM attacks, the media listens.

This takes oxygen away from a debate around real ideas to combat rising power prices and increase supply in SA, such as incentivising more market competition, or constructing additional interconnectors linking SA's network to the East Coast grid.

The federal government's dismissal of the most logical industry wide policy -- an emissions intensity scheme -- should also outrage SA voters, because an EIS is not a tax. It's an energy investment strategy that aims to ultimately lower prices and increase supply by liberating new energy investors of some of the burdens of market entry.

All these ideas would be good for jobs in SA, good for supply, and help lower prices.

And they're options Steven Marshall should be backing. But instead, he's outsourced his opposition leadership to Malcolm Turnbull. When the PM's not assailing Bill Shorten in question time, he is attacking the South Australian government, not collaborating with it, or dispatching his energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, to absurdly argue that SA should declare a state of emergency over the issue.

The calibre of debate has now reached rock bottom. Just last week in Canberra, a lump of coal was brought into question time, and passed between Coalition members, as if they were at a primary school show-and-tell, to demonstrate that it is nothing that Labor should fear.

But Labor aren't scared of coal -- their voters know it better than anyone. Remember, at a national level it is in Labor heartland -- places such as the Illawarra, Newcastle, and the Hunter and LaTrobe valleys -- where the transition away from an industry in its twilight is felt most.

Instead of assailing Labor for acknowledging the difficult reality that is a declining coal industry, the Coalition should work in a bipartisan fashion to come up with tangible solutions to South Australia and the nation's long-term energy challenges.

So let's stop playing games. We need to get the facts straight about how our national energy market actually works, and look for solutions we can all get behind.

The reality is South Australia generates no coal-fired power, and it's a distraction to argue that it should in the future. Coal is uneconomical in SA, which is why the private owners of the coal-fired Northern Power Station shut it down.

The way that the energy sector is moving means it's unlikely we'll ever see another coal-fired plant built in the country.

Of course, coal still plays a major role in the production of energy nationally, but the way that the energy sector is moving means it's unlikely we'll ever see another coal-fired plant built in the country.

Simply, no one is willing to put up the hundreds of millions of dollars for a new coal-fired power plant. Remember, it takes years to bring such a plant online. For investors, the sums just don't add up -- especially when considering the extra costs associated with complying with the oxymoron de jour: "clean coal".

For these reasons, companies are investing in newer technologies such as wind, solar, storage of renewables, pumped hydro and gas -- all of which have a more viable future than coal. Encouraging this investment in SA is a quicker, cleaner, and more certain way of enhancing local supply and boosting local employment.

But still, Canberra marches evangelically onwards with its pro-coal agenda, despite its irrelevance to South Australia's energy future. This is a crude strategy that might alleviate some of the pressure on the Federal Government, but does nothing to improve energy security for South Australians.

Energy challenges are real. But both Canberra and South Australia need to work to take the charge out of this shallow energy debate, and instead take charge of the state's energy future.

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