Image copyright Minerals Council of Australia Image caption Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting controls 40% of the Australian Royalties for Regions fund
An increasingly heated power struggle over Australia’s rosy view of solar and wind power has attracted the attention of the head of the International Energy Agency.
The IEA, a UN agency based in Paris, was criticised by a senior coal industry official for giving a “classic example of populism” as it singled out renewable power as the future.
Renewable energy is seen as Australia’s long-term economic future, but the country’s Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is on the back foot.
When he came to power in late 2015, he vowed to lead a “coal renaissance”.
However, his commitments have been rebuffed, with growing numbers of his own colleagues playing down the extent of the promise.
There are a number of reasons behind the different views, including the extremely low cost of mining, plentiful supplies of easily accessible natural gas and the waning demand for Australia’s own coal as rising Chinese prices and also energy efficiency help to delay the industry’s projected long-term decline.
Malcolm Turnbull’s National Party rival for the leadership of his party, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, said the proposed expansion of clean energy will create “an energy crisis” for his regional “heartland”.
Image copyright AFP Image caption Snowy Hydro’s Woomera Dam dominates South Australia’s far west
When the Australian government pledged money to invest in renewable energy projects, it criticised the opposition Labor Party for “utility politics” to satisfy the swing to renewables.
The contradiction over the government’s public support for renewable energy has generated controversy among left-leaning commentators, saying it does little to strengthen the party’s credentials with voters.
Australia’s Minerals Council of Australia is bitterly opposed to the federal government’s proposed “Clean Energy Finance Corporation”, which has attracted strong support from Greens MP Adam Bandt.
The Minerals Council is a key player in business lobbying in Australia.
It is controlled by billionaire Gina Rinehart, the country’s richest woman. A National Party backbencher, Fiona Nash, was forced to resign last year after it was revealed she was lobbying on behalf of mining interests while in parliament.
Image copyright REUTERS Image caption The Australian government’s proposed Clean Energy Finance Corporation is facing strong opposition from critics
A new group with that name also called for changes to the scheme, meaning the government, which favours the scheme because it will ease the regulatory burden for new wind and solar farms, was forced to support the bigger Coalition Party on two contentious votes.
That angered many within the Liberal Party, particularly in conservative rural communities who are affected by the proposed tariffs.
Now, a grassroots backlash has seen some MPs refuse to support the vote, and trigger the possibility of a leadership challenge against Mr Turnbull.
He could lose his parliamentary majority on Wednesday, as the Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale is attempting to force MPs to agree to a vote for renewable energy in November.
What may be more important for Australia’s future energy needs is an investigation being conducted by the Australian Energy Market Operator into its reliance on coal and gas for the next five years.
Using modelling by the US academic David Modigliani, who casts doubt on how reliable wind and solar power are, the prime minister’s government said the commercial viability of solar was unclear and would require subsidies.
The government must decide what constitutes a viable system, even if it fears that renewables are likely to give rise to their own political backlash.
Gina Rinehart is not best known for her science.
There are fewer signs in her latest comments that she is a climate change denier, as she did when she discussed solar power only for coal and gas to kick back in.
She says Australia’s renewable energy targets should be met by wind and solar, but she criticises “artificial renewable energy quotas”, arguing that such targets are a waste of time and a costly government intervention.
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