It will take time and brains to fix the energy crisis that has forced the NSW government to ask consumers to curb their power usage for the last two nights.
The causes of the crisis range from the jump in coal and gas prices as a result of the war in Ukraine; the outages in half a dozen major coal-fired power stations at the same time; the floods and cold weather; and some complicated glitches in the national energy market, which distributes power to the east coast and South Australia.
Australians are grappling with the complexity of these issues but one thing that will definitely not help is more of the simplistic, ideological nonsense that has substituted for policy in the past decade.
This is especially a criticism of the Coalition. After doing nothing for its nine years in power to develop energy and climate policy that could be implemented, it is still throwing around the same tired slogans it used to delay action in the past.
Last week, Nationals leader David Littleproud tossed out the thought bubble that the solution was nuclear energy. It is a complete red herring. Even if Australia ignored all the well-known financial arguments against it and pushed the button on nuclear power tomorrow, a plant would take 15 years to build.
Meanwhile, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton, who in government opposed ambitious climate action, has produced the nonsense that the crisis has occurred because the power industry has been “spooked” by the ALP’s plans to promote renewables “too quickly”.
The crisis is the result of economic, geopolitical and technical factors. It was not caused by the anxiety some in the power industry might feel about a new government that has barely got its feet under the desk.
While most of the ideological nonsense is coming from the right, there is quite a lot on the left too. The Greens and NSW Labor are claiming privatisation caused the crisis. This ignores the fact that the outages in coal-fired plants which drive the crisis have occurred both in privately owned and public plants in Queensland.
Energy Minister Chris Bowen has taken the right path in withholding judgment while state and federal experts rather than spin doctors work out a plan to re-open the coal-fired plants and lower the spikes in power prices.
They have managed for the past two nights to keep the lights on, but some complicated decisions lie ahead. For instance, Bowen must decide whether he can or should redirect gas from Queensland which is currently going to export back into the domestic market.
The issue is not as simple as some pretend. While the extra gas could lower domestic prices, it is not clear how necessary it will be once the coal-fired plants reopen.
Moreover, “reserving” gas for the local market is a radical step that could undermine Australia’s global investment reputation because the gas companies were promised they could export their gas before they invested billions into developing the gas fields.
There will be a lot of this sort of fine-tuning, but it can only work if the Albanese government also sets long-term priorities. On Thursday, it took a major step in this direction by confirming its detailed commitment to reduce emissions by 43 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The government should follow this up by laying out a comprehensive plan to reach that goal. It must include a timetable for closing coal while gradually and carefully replacing it with renewables and storage such as batteries or gas-fired peaking stations. Industry can take it from there.
Of course, consumers want action as soon as possible. Australia must have a reliable supply of electricity at a reasonable price.
But once there is a plan rather than just silly slogans, the pieces of this puzzle will start falling into place.
Bevan Shields sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.