Australian government attacks renewables | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 05.08.2015
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Australian government attacks renewables

Despite a recent coal development denial, Australia has been cutting funding for clean energy and been pushing ahead with new coal mines. This is setting back renewables and will likely make the country's emissions rise.

Harry Osborne has 3,000 sheep, some cattle, and grain crops on the edge of Lake George just outside Australia's capital Canberra.

It's a windy spot - which is challenging, as the wind dries out crops and can cause debilitating dust storms. But Osborne decided to harness the gusty weather, and now has 10 wind turbines on his property.

"The wind is annoying when you have too much of it - so that was attractive to me," Osborne told DW. "Before it was environmental thing, it was the possibility of making some money out of what we considered to be a nuisance."

The turbines make up part of the Capital Hill and Woodlawn wind farm, and can power 60,000 homes.

From the main highway from Sydney to Canberra, Osborne's turbines are clearly visible, towering above the farmland.

Australia's federal treasurer Joe Hockey, who does the drive regularly, has said he finds the sight "highly offensive."

It is a view shared by Australia's Prime Minister, Tony Abbott who said that wind farms are "visually awful and make a lot of noise."

Osborne disagrees. He says the turbines "look majestic" and is bemused by the politicians' aesthetic perspective. But he is worried that such comments might damage the industry and Australia's reputation.

The Woodlawn and Capital Hill wind farm, near Canberra, Australia (Photo: Infigen Energy)

Australia's federal treasurer Joe Hockey has described the Woodlawn and Capital Hill wind as "highly offensive"

Waging war on wind

Since Abbott's conservative coalition came into power in 2013, it has been accused of launching an unprecedented attack on the renewable energy industry.

One of its first acts in government was to remove the price on carbon - becoming the first country in the world to repeal a market mechanism aimed at tackling climate change.

It has since reduced the renewable energy target, sacked the independent advisory body on climate change and appointed a "wind commissioner" to investigate complaints about turbines.

Most recently, the government directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation - Australia's "green bank" - to stop investing in wind, as well as in small-scale solar power.

The renewable energy industry says the moves have frightened off potential investors, resulting in a freeze on new projects over the past 18 months.

Infingen Energy, which owns and operators of the Capital Hill Windfarm, has plans to expand and to build more turbines across Australia.

But Ketan Joshi, a research and communications officer at Infingen Energy said the pattern of negative comments is destabilizing.

Farmer Tim Duddy, Liverpool Plains, Australia (Photo: Dean Sewell)

Tim Duddy fears a new coal mine could sound a death knell for the fertile region's agriculture

"We really don't like that, it makes it hard to build things like wind farms and solar panels."

Public support for clean energy

Some in the renewable sector fear the government's measures could kill off the industry in Australia altogether.

John Grimes, CEO of the Australian Solar Council, said the solar industry has been hit hard - and that 5,000 jobs have been lost.

"The uncertainty that this government has caused by the relentless attack on renewables means that people have become hesitant to buy and install solar. And that's heartbreaking," he told DW.

Yet renewables remain popular among the public.

More than one million households in Australia now have rooftop solar panels that feed directly into the electricity grid.

A recent opinion poll found that 60 percent of Australians believe coal has received enough support, and more than 50 percent want renewables prioritized.

But Grimes believes the government is siding with coal over renewables.

"This is driven by ideology. We all know, and we've all seen into the prime minister's heart, and we can see clearly it's covered in coal dust," he said.

New coal mine on prime farming land

In the same week that the government cut funding for wind and solar, it approved a $1.2-billion (1.1-billion-euro) open-pit coal mine on the Liverpool Plains.

Farmland, Liverpool Plains, Australia (Photo: Dean Sewell)

The Liverpool Plains' underground water system helps make it the country's most fertile region

The region is 360 kilometers northwest of Sydney. It's known for having the most fertile farming land in Australia, and a massive underground water system.

Tim Duddy's family has farmed in the region for more than 170 years.

Despite assurances from the government that the coal mine will only be developed under the strictest conditions, Duddy said it would spell the end of farming in the region.

"I think it's unbelievably short sighted," he told DW. "I think it's one of the greatest atrocities that a government can do to its nation - to destroy the finest agricultural land that we have."

Given the choice, Duddy says he would be happy to see a wind farm built here tomorrow.

There are several other new coal mines and expansions still on the table - despite warnings from scientists that 90 percent of Australia's coal reserves must stay in the ground to help the world avoid dangerous climate change.

An Australian court in the first week of August put on hold a massive coal mine planned for north Queensland - the Adani Carmichael development - due to concerns over endangered species.

Carmichael would have been the largest open-cut and underground coal mine in Australia. If burned, the coal from this site would have equaled Germany's total annual emissions.

But the federal court has overturned the government's approval of the mine, saying the environment minister ignored his own department's advice about the impact of the mine on threatened species.

In a big win for environmentalists, the decision also throws into doubt a new coal port development that many say threatens the Great Barrier Reef.

Emissions on the rise

And others argue that the economics behind expanded coal extraction don't make sense either. They believe Australia's mining boom is over.

The Hazelwood power Station, La Trobe Valley, Victoria, Australia (Photo: Kate Ausburn)

Experts say government support for the coal indsutry has seen emissions rise

Energy analyst Giles Parkinson, editor of RenewEconomy, said predictions about Australia's income from coal exports are inflated.

"China has cut its coal imports by half and may stop it altogether according to some forecasts," he said. "So Australia has to think a bit more cleverly about future technologies."

Parkinson says that the domestic share of electricity generated by coal-fired power plants had been declining - but that recent policies have given coal a new boost.

"Because of the actions of the Abbott government, the share of coal generation which fell below 70 percent is back up to 75 percent, and on its way to 80 percent," he said.

That means - worryingly - that Australia's emissions are also on the rise.

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