The biggest issue for this October’s election is how Queensland is going to get beyond our massive, ongoing reliance on coal for energy generation.
To be fair to our state leaders, the fact that this is even a state issue is a travesty.
Queensland has been interconnected into the National Electricity Market (NEM) since 2001. Its principle – of a competitive, nationally regulated market, ideally with a carbon price – should be well and truly established.
Once the NEM started operating, the states’ responsibility for energy plummeted. States could choose to stay in the game, as asset owners operating in a competitive market, but they were no longer truly responsible for reliability or price.
Victoria got out, privatising its brown coal generators and associated transmission network for $20 billion in the Kennett years. Between 2011 and 17 New South Wales did the same, netting proceeds of $23 billion from the sale of generators and transmission networks.
With the exception of the Gladstone Power Station which the Goss government sold to Comalco in 1994, the Queensland Government remained a commercial operator in the NEM, continuing to build coal fired power stations into the early 2000s and to own them today. The newest of those generators, Tarong North, opened in 2003. It’s part of a fleet of robust, state owned, coal fired plants and has the capacity to keep operating – and pumping out carbon – until the 2030s and 2040s.
Queensland is the highest emitting state, and one of the highest per capita carbon emitting countries in the world. Queensland’s per capita emissions are 32 metric tonnes, compared to an Australian average of 15 tonnes, 6 for Europe and 7.5 for China. Half of Queensland’s carbon emissions come from power stations.
With the Federal Government a world famous basket case on climate policy, the State Government has, quite rightly, sought to take some responsibility for the state’s devastatingly large carbon footprint.
The Palaszczuk Government won the 2015 election with a target to generate 50% of Queensland’s power from renewable sources by 2030.
Getting there is incredibly hard.
To give the government its due, progress has been made. Queensland has seen a solar boom with 2,000MW of new, large scale solar projects now operating or committed and a whopping 11,500MW proposed. A new Government owned corporation, CleanCo, has been created; new gas tenures have been opened up and power prices have stabilised, albeit partly because the $770 million cost of subsidising rooftop solar feed in tariffs has been shifted from electricity prices to the budget proper.
On the last consolidated national figures – mid 2019 – Queensland has nearly 14,000MW of installed electricity generation, 8,000 coal fired (5,500MW of which is government owned). We have 3,500MW of gas, 700 in large scale solar (a figure rapidly going up as the 1,200 committed comes online), and the rest in bits and bobs of wind, pumped hydro and biomass.
If Queensland is to meet the 50% target this mix must change. The state will need more renewables, backed up by batteries, gas or other options. The state owned generators will have to be wound right back. That won’t be cheap either in power prices or cost to the state balance sheet.
The generators are worth $3 billion on the Government’s books. With the state government already holding $72 billion in debt (projected to grow to $84 billion by 2021-22) and ratings agencies maintaining Queensland on negative watch, unilaterally shutting the generators down would plunge the State into a new debt crisis.
While the state government has done what it can so far – promoting solar and maintaining pressure on the Federal Government to develop an energy policy – the Queensland LNP has shown less commitment. Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington has acknowledged the science of climate change and indicated her support for renewable energy but opposes the renewable target. Her federal colleagues are considering more coal in Queensland, with the Morrison Government committing taxpayer funds to a feasibility study for a North Queensland coal fired power station championed by federal MP George Christensen.
The State Energy Minister, Anthony Lynham, says he’s confident Queensland will meet its target but it’s not legislated (as it is in Victoria, which is also aiming for 50% by 2030) and there is no published pathway. The diabolical dilemma for the State Government is that setting a roadmap is full of risk when the Commonwealth, which has overarching responsibility for both climate and energy, does not have a functioning energy policy.
While the climate debate so far has focused on Adani and the export coal emissions for which we are not responsible under international law, there have been no protests, no activists dressed as koalas and no policy debates about these emissions – the ones every grid connected Queenslander pumps out whenever a light is turned on.
If we are serious about climate change, then this issue is where the rubber hits the road in Queensland. Thinking Queenslanders could take pause, stop sharing photos of singed koalas for a moment and ask our leaders whether or how they intend to meet the renewable target. Or we could give up and save for a household battery.
An edited version of this piece was published in the Brisbane Times on 29 February 2020.
Rachel Nolan is Executive Chair of the McKell Institute Queensland, an independent progressive public policy thinktank focused on economic policy. She is a former Queensland Finance Minister. Neve Lynch is an intern at the McKell Institute.
 Queensland per capita emissions calculated by dividing total state emissions of 153 million tonnes in 2016 (from State of the Environment report) by census figures of 4.71 million population for the year. Verified against Climate Group Report undertaken for the Queensland Government in 2013.
 The AEMO figures are for grid power. They do not include the approximately 2,500MW of rooftop solar installed in Queensland.