Labor says Australia can remain energy 'superpower' – but only if climate wars end

Katharine Murphy Political editor
Labor says boosting the domestic renewables industry will have flow-on benefits for traditional industry, with metallurgical coal required to manufacture wind turbines. Photograph: David Gray/Reuters

Australia is in a position to replace thermal coal exports with the export of renewable energy technologies if the parliament can settle an energy policy and end a decade of policy chaos, the Labor frontbencher Pat Conroy says.

The shadow assistant minister for climate change and energy will use an appearance at a renewable energy conference on Thursday to argue that Australia can remain an energy export “superpower” during the transition to low-emissions energy – “it just won’t be fossilised carbon, instead it will be wind and solar power”.

Conroy says in his speech that thermal coal exports will “decline significantly over the next few decades” but Australia will continue to export metallurgical coal, “which makes up 65% of our coal exports by value, for a long time to come, as there is no other way of manufacturing steel at an industrial scale”.

He says that, with the right policy settings, Australia can replace thermal coal exports with renewable energy exports, and also develop the hydrogen economy.

Some critics of renewables – such as the former prime minister Tony Abbott – contend that a high take-up of low-emissions technology will lead to the de-industrialisation of Australia.

But Conroy argues the reverse is true. “The shift to renewables also offers Australia the opportunity to revitalise the manufacturing sector.

“As the world decarbonises its electricity supply, the nations that can transform into manufacturing powerhouses are those with the cheapest energy, which will be the nations with the best renewable energy resources.”

He says the opportunity is twofold. Australia has the highest average solar radiation per square metre of any continent in the world, plus abundant wind and wave resources, generating power that can be firmed by gas peaking plants, pumped hydro and batteries.

Conroy says Australia is also well positioned to “be the capital of mining and processing of key inputs for the renewables revolution”.

“We are the second-largest producer of rare earths, we supply 41% of the world’s lithium and we have 12.4% of global copper reserves. These are all crucial materials for clean energy and battery manufacture.”

Conroy will restate Labor’s commitment to create renewable energy zones if it wins the next federal election. He says the zones will be central to developing new industries such as hydrogen, direct electricity export and new energy intensive manufacturing facilities.

He says boosting the domestic renewables industry will have flow-on benefits for traditional industry, with metallurgical coal required to manufacture wind turbines.

“In a similar vein, if we source local steel for the wind farms that will be built to meet Labor’s 50% renewable energy commitment, this would need 423,000 tonnes of Australian steel. This is around 10% of Australia’s annual steel production.”

He says producing a coherent development plan for Australia’s renewables industry “is not some hippy nirvana” but a transition already underway in other countries.

Conroy says the US remains a case in point, despite Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris agreement and winding back some of the environmental regulations of the Obama era. He says there are close to 3.4m clean energy jobs in the US, 200,000 jobs in the United Kingdom and 350,000 in Germany.

The speech is critical of the Turnbull and Morrison governments for floating and rejecting a series of energy policy options during this term in government, and Conroy notes that industry and the general public “are crying out for a vision for our energy sector”.

The new energy minister, Angus Taylor, was invited to address Thursday’s renewables conference but declined.

Labor is yet to determine its final position on the future of national energy guarantee – the policy developed by the Coalition to promote reliability and emissions reduction in the electricity sector – before being dumped by the new Morrison cabinet.

But while the opposition’s position is not yet final, the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, has sent a number of public signals over the past month that the ALP is likely to keep the Neg mechanism with a higher target for emissions reduction.

A number of industry stakeholders are lobbying the ALP to keep the Neg.

Last month, Shorten told the ABC “we think that there’s something that we can work with there” and “we are prepared to use that as part of our framework going forward”.