IN October last year, the Turnbull government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee, or NEG for short, was being hailed as a workable electricity policy that the nation could live with.
Now, 10 months later, the consensus of that time has evaporated, and a stable full of hobby-horses are being whipped into position before Friday’s meeting of the Council of Australian Governments – a date that has long loomed as the NEG’s political day of reckoning.
Things may calm down once the doors of the COAG meeting close, and the participants have to weigh their individual positions against the real and pressing demands of an Australian nation demanding its politicians do the job they were elected to perform.
Nobody is pretending that the NEG is a perfect solution: indeed, it is probably impossible to come up with an energy framework that completely satisfies every one of the competing demands pulling the national electricity market in a variety of directions at once.
But politics is above all the art of the possible, so if the NEG – as it stands – is the best option that the states and Canberra have to work with at the moment, then it should be adopted without delay to end the uncertainty that electricity market participants say has been the major impediment to large-scale investment in the grid. Those who say the NEG’s carbon reduction targets are too low should remember the decision a decade ago by the Greens to scuttle Kevin Rudd’s carbon pollution reduction scheme for similar reasons.
Those coming from the other direction should accept that the NEG gives existing coal-fired generators and the big industrial energy users a degree of stability in the lead-up to a federal election that will almost certainly have power prices as a major campaign topic.
At the same time, it would be wrong to promise that power prices will fall as a result of the NEG. There are so many technological uncertainties with Australia’s – and the planet’s – shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind energy that realistic price prediction is all but impossible. With climate change a global imperative, the NEG must help keep our electricity-powered society running, while guiding it to a less carbon-intensive future. No small ask, but a reality that our various governments must accept as inevitable.