Government gives Newstart recipients energy payment to smooth passage of legislation


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The government has extended the energy payment to people on Newstart – after excluding them only days ago.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the decision was made at a meeting on Tuesday night of Scott Morrison, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and himself. He indicated it was about smoothing the passage of the measure through the parliament.

There was widespread criticism of the exclusion of Newstart recipients from the payment, which will be A$75 for a single person and $125 for a couple.




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The money is due to go out very soon and the government needed the legislation to pass immediately. While Labor had flagged it would support the one-off payment, the legislation could have been amended, because the government is in a minority in the House of Representatives.

The payment was originally set to be confined to those on the age pension, disability support pension, carers payment, parenting payment single recipients, and veterans and their dependants receiving payments.

The extension, which will also cover those on Youth Allowance and other working age payments, bringing the number of recipients to five million, will add some $80 million to the original cost of $284.4 million.

Labor seized on the backdown, seeking to suspend standing orders to move a motion in the House saying the government’s backflip “has already blown an $80 million hole in the budget”, and showed the budget was “unravelling less than 24 hours after it was delivered”.

The motion condemned the government for “only looking after the top end of town and treating vulnerable Australians as an afterthought”. The attempt to suspend standing orders failed.

Frydenberg, speaking to the National Press Club, explained the original exclusion by saying three-quarters of people on Newstart moved off it within 12 months, and 99% of people on it received another payment.




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“They get a parenting payment or they get a family tax benefit payment, whereas when you’re on the Disability Support Pension or on the aged pension, you tend to be on it for longer, and that seems to be – that is your principal form of payment”.

Frydenberg said the change “will secure the passage of the piece of legislation through the parliament”.

Appearing on the ABC Q&A on Monday, Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos could not say why Newstart recipients had been excluded from the payment. “The short answer is I don’t know why,” he said. He also said he thought Newstart was too low.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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View from The Hill: Malcolm Turnbull’s home truths on the NEG help Labor in the climate wars


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

An Easter weekend in an election campaign might be a bit of a challenge for a pair of leaders who were atheists. But fortunately for Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten, declared believers, it wasn’t a problem.

Both attended church services during the so-called campaign cease-fire that the main parties had proclaimed for two of the four days.

Morrison on Sunday was pictured in full voice with raised arm at his Horizon Pentacostal church in The Shire, where the media were invited in. On Friday he’d been at a Maronite Catholic service in Sydney.

Sunday morning saw Shorten at an Anglican service in Brisbane, his family including mother-in-law Quentin Bryce, former governor-general.

Neither leader was hiding his light under a bushel.

Church, chocolate and penalty rates

Sunday was an opportunity to wheel out the kids, chasing Easter eggs (Shorten) or on the Rock Star ride at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show (Morrison). This was campaigning when you’re not (exactly) campaigning.

The minor players weren’t into the pretend game. For them, the relative restraint on the part of the majors presented rare opportunity. Usually Centre Alliance senator Rex Patrick would have little chance of being the feature interview on the ABC’s Insiders.

But while Friday and Sunday were lay days for the major parties Saturday was not (and Monday won’t be either).

For Labor, Easter has meshed nicely with one of the key planks of its wages policy – restoration of penalty rate cuts by the Fair Work Commission. Even on Sunday, Shorten pointedly thanked “everyone who’s working this weekend”.

It was the start of Labor’s campaign focus turning from health to wages this week, when it will cast the election as a “referendum on wages”.

Turnbull resurrects the NEG

The weekend standout, however, was the intervention of Malcolm Turnbull, who launched a series of pointed tweets about the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).

Turnbull was set off by a reference from journalist David Speers to “Malcolm Turnbull’s NEG”.

“In fact the NEG had the support of the entire Cabinet, including and especially the current PM and Treasurer. It was approved by the Party Room on several occasions”, the former prime minister tweeted.



“It had the support of the business community and energy sector in a way that no previous energy policy had. However a right wing minority in the Party Room refused to accept the majority position and threatened to cross the floor and defeat their own government”.

“That is the only reason it has been abandoned by the Government. The consequence is no integration of energy and climate policy, uncertainty continues to discourage investment with the consequence, as I have often warned, of both higher emissions and higher electricity prices.”

He wasn’t finished.



“And before anyone suggests the previous tweet is some kind of revelation – all of the economic ministers, including myself, @ScottMorrisonMP, @JoshFrydenberg spent months arguing for the NEG on the basis that it would reduce electricity prices and enable us to lower our emissions.”

And then:

“I see the @australian has already described the tweets above as attacking the Coalition. That’s rubbish. I am simply stating the truth: the NEG was designed & demonstrated to reduce electricity prices. So dumping it means prices will be higher than if it had been retained. QED”

“The @australian claims I ‘dropped the NEG’. False. When it was clear a number of LNP MPs were going to cross the floor the Cabinet resolved to not present the Bill at that time but maintain the policy as @ScottMorrisonMP, @JoshFrydenberg& I confirmed on 20 August.”



(Frydenberg, incidentally, has lost out every which way on the NEG. As energy minister he tried his hardest to get it up, only to see it fall over. Now he is subject to a big campaign against him in Kooyong on climate change, including from high-profile candidates and GetUp.)

Turnbull might justify the intervention as just reminding people of the history. But it is damaging for the government and an Easter gift for Labor – which is under pressure over how much its ambitious emissions reduction policy would cost the economy. It also feeds into Labor’s constant referencing of the coup against Turnbull.

Turnbull’s Easter tweets are a reminder

  • the Coalition sacrificed a coherent policy on energy and climate for a hotchpotch with adverse consequences for prices;

  • it dumped that policy simply because of internal bloodymindedness, and

  • the now-PM and treasurer were backers of the NEG, which had wide support from business.

Shorten has strengthened his commitment on the NEG, indicating on Saturday he’d pursue it in government even without bipartisan support.

“We’ll use some of the Turnbull, Morrison, Frydenberg architecture, and we will work with that structure,” he said.

Given the hole it has left in the government’s energy policy, pressing Morrison on the economic cost of walking away from the NEG is as legitimate as asking Shorten about the economic impact of his policy.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The government’s electricity shortlist rightly features pumped hydro (and wrongly includes coal)


Mark Diesendorf, UNSW

The federal government this week released a shortlist of 12 project proposals for “delivering reliable and affordable power” to be considered for subsidy under its Underwriting New Generation Investments program.

The shortlist features six renewable electricity pumped hydro projects, five gas projects, and one coal upgrade project, supplemented by A$10 million for a two-year feasibility study for electricity generation in Queensland, possibly including a new coal-fired power station.

The study is unnecessary, because the GenCost 2018 study by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator already provides recent cost data for new power generation in Australia. It shows that new wind and solar farms can provide the lowest-cost electricity, even when two to six hours’ worth of storage is added.

Hence there is no economic case for new coal-fired power in Australia. After a century of coal, it should not be subsidised any longer.




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State of the states

While Queensland and Victoria have state government policies to drive the rapid growth of large-scale solar and wind, New South Wales does not even have a renewable electricity target. Yet the retirement of large, old coal-fired stations is in the pipeline: Liddell, nominally 1,680 megawatts, in 2022 and Vales Point, nominally 1,320MW, possibly in the late 2020s.

Coal baron Trevor St Baker bought Vales Point from the NSW government for the token sum of A$1 million in 2015. He wants to refurbish it and run it until 2049 – and his plan has made it onto the government’s shortlist.

Given that Vales Point is now arguably a A$730 million asset, St Baker has made a huge windfall profit at the expense of NSW taxpayers, and so a government subsidy to upgrade it would be unjust.

With the price of solar and wind electricity still falling, it will soon be cheaper to replace old operating coal stations that have paid off their capital costs with new renewable electricity, including storage.

Unfortunately, the newly elected NSW Liberal-National Coalition government has no policies of substance to fill the gap left by retiring coal stations with large-scale renewable electricity. It will therefore be up to the federal government after the May election to provide reverse auctions with contracts-for-difference, matching the policies of the ACT, Victorian and Queensland governments. Also, increased funding to ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is needed for dispatchable renewables (those that can supply power on demand) and other forms of storage.

Driving the change

The transition to renewable electricity is already well under way, as even the federal energy minister Angus Taylor admits. The low costs of solar and wind power are driving the change. To maintain reliability, dispatchable renewables (as opposed to variable sources such as solar and wind) and other forms of storage are needed in the technology mix.

Batteries excel at responding rapidly to changes in supply and demand, on timescales of tens of milliseconds to a few hours. But they would be very expensive for covering periods of several days, even at half their current price. So there is a temporary role for open-cycle gas turbines (OCGTs) to meet demand peaks of a few hours, and to fill lows of several days in wind and/or solar supply.

Small-scale pumped hydro, in which excess local renewable electricity does the pumping, has huge potential for storage over periods of several days, but takes longer to plan and build, and has higher capital cost per megawatt, compared with OCGTs.

Small-scale pumped hydro should be the top priority for the federal program. In particular, the off-river proposal by SIMEC Zen Energy, which is part of Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance, will use a depleted iron ore pit and provide cheap, reliable, low-emission electricity for both GFG’s steelworks at Whyalla and other industrial and commercial users.




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Hydro Tasmania’s proposed “Battery of the Nation” would involve building a new interconnector across the Bass Strait, together with possibly three new pumped hydro plants. It’s very expensive and is already receiving A$57 million in federal funding. Its inclusion in the shortlist is worrying because it could soak up all the program’s unspecified funding for pumped hydro.

Furthermore, the need to greatly increase Tasmania’s wind capacity to deal with droughts appears to be an optional extra, rather than an essential part of the project.

Little information is available for the other shortlisted pumped hydro projects. UPC Renewables is proposing a huge solar farm, together with pumped hydro, in the New England region of NSW. In South Australia, Sunset Power (trading as Delta Electricity, chaired by Trevor St Baker), in association with the Altura Group, is proposing an off-river pumped hydro project near Port Augusta, and Rise Renewables is proposing the Baroota pumped hydro project. BE Power Solutions, which does not have a website, is proposing pumped hydro on the Cressbrook Reservoir at Crows Nest, Queensland.

Pumping for Snowy 2.0 (which is not part of the program) will be done mostly by coal power for many years, until renewables dominate supply in NSW and Victoria. Therefore, I give low priority to this huge and expensive scheme.




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Snowy hydro scheme will be left high and dry unless we look after the mountains


To sum up, new coal power stations and major upgrades to existing ones are both unnecessary. They are more expensive than wind and solar, even when short-term storage is added – not to mention very polluting.

A few open-cycle gas turbines may be acceptable for temporary peak supply during the transition to 100% renewable electricity. But the priority should be building pumped hydro to back up wind and solar farms. This will keep the grid reliable and stable as we do away with the old and welcome the new.The Conversation

Mark Diesendorf, Honorary Associate Professor, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: The Coalition is trapped in its coal minefield


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley was apoplectic. Home Affairs Minister
Peter Dutton, one of Hadley’s favourites, who has a regular spot on his 2GB program, had just committed blasphemy.

Dutton said he didn’t believe in the government building a new
coal-fired power station. Hadley couldn’t credit what he was hearing. “You’re toeing the [Morrison] company line”, he said accusingly.

It’s another story with Dutton’s cabinet colleague and fellow
Queenslander, Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who is part of the
Queensland Nationals’ push for support for a new power station in that state.

“Studies have come back always saying that a HELE [high-efficiency, low-emissions] or a new coal-fired power station would make a lot of sense in North Queensland,” Canavan said this week.

The two ministers’ divergent views are not surprising on the basis of where they come from. In Brisbane voters tend to share similar opinions on climate change and coal to those in the southern capitals – it’s the regions where support for coal is stronger.

What’s surprising is how the rifts at the government’s highest levels are being exposed. In these desperate days, it is every minister, every government backbencher, and each part, or sub-part, of the Coalition for themselves.

Never mind cabinet solidarity, or Coalition unity.

The most spectacular outbreak came this week from Barnaby Joyce,
declaring himself the “elected deputy prime minister” and pressing the government for a strongly pro-coal stand.

It was a slap at besieged Nationals leader Michael McCormack, after rumourmongering that McCormack might be replaced even before the election. Predictably, the NSW Nationals, fighting a difficult state election, were furious.

The Joyce outbreak was further evidence that the federal Nationals are a mess, over leadership and electorally. They have a party room of 22 – there are fears they could lose up to four House of Representatives seats as well as going down two in the Senate.




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(However it’s not all gloom in the Nationals – at the election they will gain three new women, two in the Senate – Susan McDonald from Queensland and Sam McMahon from the Northern Territory – and Anne Webster in the Victorian seat of Mallee. Whatever happens to the party’s numbers overall, the women will go from two to four or five, depending on the fate of Michelle Landry, who holds the marginal seat of Capricornia. The Nationals’ NSW Senate candidate is also a woman but is unlikely to be elected.)

By mid week Joyce was back in his box, stressing that McCormack would take the party to the election. But he was still in the coal advocacy vanguard.

The coal debate and the assertiveness of the Queensland Nationals
smoked out a clutch of Liberal moderates, who question spending
government money on coal projects (although there is some confusion between building power stations and underwriting ventures).




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The government’s policy is for underwriting “firm power” projects, on a technology-neutral basis, if they stack up commercially.

The marauding Nationals were derisive of moderate Liberals trying to protect their seats. “Trendy inner-city Liberals who want to oppose coal and the jobs it creates should consider joining the Greens,” Queensland National George Christensen said tartly on Facebook.

It was a rare appearance by the moderates, who have made a poor
showing over the last few years, True, some were crucial in achieving the same-sex marriage reform. But in general they’ve failed to push back against the right’s tightening ideological grip on the Liberal party, and the government has suffered as a result.

The week highlighted, yet again, that instead of a credible energy
policy, the government has only confusion and black holes.

With his recent announcements, Morrison has been trying to show he’s heard the electorate on climate change. But actually, these were mostly extensions of what had been done or proposed.

The Abbott government’s emissions reduction fund (renamed) is getting an injection, given it would soon be close to exhausted. And the Snowy pumped hydro scheme, announced by Malcolm Turnbull, has received the go-ahead. Didn’t we expect that? There was also modest support for a new inter-connector to transmit Tasmanian hydro power to Victoria.

The government can’t get its “big stick” legislation – aimed at
recalcitrant power companies – through parliament. It will take it to the election. But who knows what its future would be in the unlikely event of a re-elected Coalition government? It would face Senate hurdles and anyway “free market” Liberals don’t like it.

And then we come to the underwriting initiative. The government has 66 submissions seeking support, 10 of which have “identified coal as a source of generation”.

Sources say it is hoped to announce backing for some projects before the election. But this will be fraught, internally and externally, for the government.

One source hinted one project might involve coal. Even if this is
true, it won’t satisfy the Coalition’s coal spruikers, deeply unhappy that Morrison has flagged there won’t be support for a Queensland coal-fired power station. (The Queenslanders liken Morrison’s cooling on coal to Kevin Rudd’s 2010 back off from his emissions trading scheme.)

On the other hand, underwriting of any coal project would alarm
Liberals in the so-called “leafy-suburbs” electorates.

Given the proximity to the election, the government could do little more than give promises to particular projects. There is also the risk of blow back from those whose bids are unsuccessful.

There would be no obligation on a Labor government to honour any
commitments, because formal agreements would not have been finalised.

Meanwhile the government is trying to promote a scare against Labor’s climate policy, still to be fully outlined, which includes reducing emissions by an ambitious 45% by 2030 (compared with the government’s pledge of 26-28%).

But unlike, for example, the scare over the ALP’s franking credits
policy (dubbed by the government a “retirement tax”), this scare is much harder to run, except in specific regional areas.

The zeitgeist is in Labor’s favour on the climate issue, not least
after sweltering summer days and bushfires.

The public have a great deal of faith in renewables – in focus groups people don’t just like them, they romanticise them.

It seems the government can’t take a trick on climate and energy
policy – even the school children are reminding it of that.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Coal turns lumpy for Scott Morrison and the Nationals


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Scott Morrison’s government is struggling with a fresh crisis,
the combination of a bitter domestic within the Nationals and the
conflicting imperatives of pitching to voters in Australia’s north and south on the highly charged issues of energy and climate change.

Former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce on Monday turbocharged his push to regain the Nationals leadership with a media blitz.

Obviously the former Nationals leader would like his positions back
now (despite saying “we’ve got to go to the polls with the team
we’ve got”) but if that’s not possible he’s staking his claim for
after the election.

There was a manic edge to Joyce’s Monday interviews, focused on leadership and championing coal. Explaining why, while he wouldn’t move for a spill, he’d feel no “guilt” about standing if the opportunity came, he described himself as the “elected deputy prime minister of Australia”. That claim was based on occupying the position when the Coalition won the election.

Bizarrely, he also questioned that emissions could be measured. “It is a self-assessment process by the major emitters … And then it’s compiled by the government. So basically, it’s a proposition about a supposition,” he said on the ABC.

Although these days he sounds more over-the-top than ever, Joyce resonates with Queensland Nationals fearing a loss of seats – they have boundless faith in his campaigning power, and are highly critical of the ineffectiveness of party leader Michael McCormack.

One of their key KPIs for McCormack has been that he must successfully pressure Morrison for the government to underwrite coal-fired generation.

But McCormack hasn’t been able to deliver, and that became obvious on Monday, when Morrison indicated the government won’t be nominating a Queensland coal project for underwriting.

“For such a project to proceed, it would require the approval of the Queensland state government,” the Prime Minister said.

“Now, the Queensland state government has no intention of approving
any such projects at all. So I tend to work in the area of the
practical, the things that actually can happen”.

Annastacia Palaszczuk might derive some wry amusement to find the
PM sheltering behind her skirts.

The Queensland rebels are less amused, seeing this as evidence that
McCormack has lost the battle (if he ever joined it) and worrying the Prime Minister is “cutting Queensland adrift to sandbag Victoria”.

Morrison certainly knows that to embrace a coal project would be
counterproductive for the Liberals in Victoria, where a number of
seats are at risk.




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But it is not just Victoria, or even just Liberal seats.

A hard-fought state election is underway in NSW, and the Nationals have much at stake.

They have several seats on or near the north coast where concern about climate change would top commitment to coal.

Lismore is a case in point, where the Nationals have their member retiring, and polling is showing a strong Green vote.

The regional vote is seen as crucial to the NSW election outcome,
and it is very volatile.

The destabilisation in the federal party is the last thing the NSW
Nationals need right now. If the state Nationals do badly on March 23, there will be recriminations and that will flow back into the federal backbiting and panic.




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How McCormack will go managing his rebellious party in the coming
weeks is problematic.

He displays poor judgement under pressure, as he did on Monday, after Joyce said the Nationals could pursue policies in their own right because “we are not married to the Liberal Party”.

“I understand when you have a marriage that it’s a two-way
relationship,”. McCormack shot back. “You don’t always get what you
want, but you have to work together … That’s what I do with the
Liberals.”

The man who lacks “cut through” had cut through, in an unfortunate way, to Joyce’s marital failure.

On Monday night, the row over coal took a new turn, threatening a
dangerous further escalation.

A batch of moderate Liberals, in a co-ordinated effort, waded into the debate, with public comments opposing taxpayer funds being used to build or pay for any new coal-fired power station.

They included Trevor Evans, Jason Falinski, Tim Wilson (who likes to call himself “modern” rather than “moderate”), Trent Zimmerman, Jane Hume – and Dave Sharma, the candidate for Wentworth.

Their comments were made under the cover of supporting the Prime Minister, but they had been wanting to say their piece for quite a while.

Once again, raging energy and climate wars are burning out of control in government ranks.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why proposals to sell nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia raise red flags



File 20190222 195861 1fyoxnd.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Saudi Arabia has many possible motives for pursuing nuclear power.
TTstudio/Shutterstock.com

Chen Kane, Middlebury

According to a congressional report, a group that includes former senior U.S. government officials is lobbying to sell nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. As an expert focusing on the Middle East and the spread of nuclear weapons, I believe these efforts raise important legal, economic and strategic concerns.

It is understandable that the Trump administration might want to support the U.S. nuclear industry, which is shrinking at home. However, the congressional report raised concerns that the group seeking to make the sale may have have sought to carry it out without going through the process required under U.S. law. Doing so could give Saudi Arabia U.S. nuclear technology without appropriate guarantees that it would not be used for nuclear weapons in the future.

A competitive global market

Exporting nuclear technology is lucrative, and many U.S. policymakers have long believed that it promotes U.S. foreign policy interests. However, the international market is shrinking, and competition between suppliers is stiff.

Private U.S. nuclear companies have trouble competing against state-supported international suppliers in Russia and China. These companies offer complete construction and operation packages with attractive financing options. Russia, for example, is willing to accept spent fuel from the reactor it supplies, relieving host countries of the need to manage nuclear waste. And China can offer lower construction costs.

Saudi Arabia declared in 2011 that it planned to spend over US$80 billion to construct 16 reactors, and U.S. companies want to provide them. Many U.S. officials see the decadeslong relationships involved in a nuclear sale as an opportunity to influence Riyadh’s nuclear future and preserve U.S. influence in the Saudi kingdom.

Of the 56 new reactors under construction worldwide, 39 are in Asia.
IAEA, CC BY-ND

Why does Saudi Arabia want nuclear power?

With the world’s second-largest known petroleum reserves, abundant untapped supplies of natural gas and high potential for solar energy, why is Saudi Arabia shopping for nuclear power? Some of its motives are benign, but others are worrisome.

First, nuclear energy would allow the Saudis to increase their fossil fuel exports. About one-third of the kingdom’s daily oil production is consumed domestically at subsidized prices; substituting nuclear energy domestically would free up this petroleum for export at market prices.

Saudi Arabia is also the largest producer of desalinated water in the world. Ninety percent of its drinking water is desalinated, a process that burns approximately 15 percent of the 9.8 million barrels of oil it produces daily. Nuclear power could meet some of this demand.

Saudi leaders have also expressed clear interest in establishing parity with Iran’s nuclear program. In a March 2018 interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned, “Without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”

As a member in good standing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Saudi Arabia has pledged not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, and is entitled to engage in peaceful nuclear trade. Such commerce could include acquiring technology to enrich uranium or separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. These systems can be used both to produce fuel for civilian nuclear reactors and to make key materials for nuclear weapons.

Adel Al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S., discusses his government’s concern about Iran’s nuclear program.

US nuclear trade regulations

Under the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, before American companies can compete to export nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia, Washington and Riyadh must conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement, and the U.S. government must submit it to Congress. Unless Congress adopts a joint resolution within 90 days disapproving the agreement, it is approved. The United States currently has 23 nuclear cooperation agreements in force, including Middle Eastern countries such as Egypt (approved in 1981), Turkey (2008) and the United Arab Emirates (2009).

The Atomic Energy Act requires countries seeking to purchase U.S. nuclear technology to make legally binding commitments that they will not use those materials and equipment for nuclear weapons, and to place them under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. It also mandates that the United States must approve any uranium enrichment or plutonium separation activities involving U.S. technologies and materials, in order to prevent countries from diverting them to weapons use.

American nuclear suppliers claim that these strict conditions and time-consuming legal requirements put them at a competitive disadvantage. But those conditions exist to prevent countries from misusing U.S. technology for nuclear weapons. I find it alarming that according to the House report, White House officials may have attempted to bypass or sidestep these conditions – potentially enriching themselves in the process.

According to the congressional report, within days of President Trump’s inauguration, senior U.S. officials were promoting an initiative to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, without either concluding a nuclear cooperation agreement and submitting it to Congress or involving key government agencies, such as the Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One key advocate for this so-called “Marshall Plan” for nuclear reactors in the Middle East was then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, who reportedly served as an adviser to a subsidiary of IP3, the firm that devised this plan, while he was advising Trump’s presidential campaign.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by national security adviser Michael Flynn and senior adviser Jared Kushner, speaks on the phone with King of Saudi Arabia Salman bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud shortly after taking office, Jan. 29, 2017.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The promoters of the plan also reportedly proposed to sidestep U.S. sanctions against Russia by partnering with Russian companies – which impose less stringent restrictions on nuclear exports – to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia.

Flynn resigned soon afterward and now is cooperating with the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign. But IP3 access to the White House persists: According to press reports, President Trump met with representatives of U.S. industry, a meeting organized by IP3 to discuss nuclear exports to Saudi Arabia as recently as mid-February 2019.

Rules for a Saudi nuclear deal

Saudi leaders have scaled back their planned purchases and now only expect to build two reactors. If the Trump administration continues to pursue nuclear exports to Riyadh, I believe it should negotiate a nuclear cooperation agreement with the Kingdom as required by U.S. law, and also take extra steps to reduce nuclear proliferation risks.

This should include requiring the Saudis to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol, a safeguards agreement that give the agency additional tools to verify that all nuclear materials in the kingdom are being used peacefully. The agreement should also require Saudi Arabia to acquire nuclear fuel from foreign suppliers, and export the reactor spent fuel for storage abroad. These conditions would diminish justification for uranium enrichment or opportunities for plutonium reprocessing for weapons.

The United States has played a leadership role in preventing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, one of the world’s most volatile regions. There is much more at stake here than profit, and legal tools exist to ensure that nuclear exports do not add fuel to the Middle East fire.The Conversation

Chen Kane, Director, Middle East Nonproliferation Program, Middlebury

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Newsflash. The government doesn’t need to break up power companies in order to tame prices. The ACCC says so



File 20181207 128202 130403n.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Victoria’s Loy Yang brown coal power station at night. Breaking up generation companies might do little to bring prices down.
Shutterstock

Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

Who wouldn’t want cheaper power?

And who wouldn’t enjoy a bit of a stoush between the big bad generators and the government, trying to break them up on our behalf?

Even if it was largely tangential to keeping prices low.

The “big stick” of forced divestiture, where the government through a court could order an energy company to sell off bits of itself, never made it to a vote in the final chaotic fortnight of parliament just finished.

It will be the subject of a Senate inquiry that will report on March 18. After that, parliament is set to sit for only seven days before the election, so its possible it’ll never happen, under this government.

The government’s bill is good in parts

Parts of its Treasury Laws Amendment (Prohibiting Energy Market Misconduct) Bill are uncontroversial.

The main trigger was the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission’s June report, Restoring Electricity Affordability and Australia’s Competitive Advantage.

It found against forced divestiture, but thought along similar lines to the government in some respects.

The legislation presented to parliament this month bans three types of misconduct:

  • electricity retailers’ failing to pass on cost savings
  • energy companies’ refusing to enter into hedge contracts (agreements to buy and sell at a particular price) with smaller competitors
  • generators’ manipulating the spot (short term) market, for example by withholding supply.

It imposes civil penalties for the first, forces companies to offer contracts for the second, and provides for divestiture orders for the third, after they have been recommended by the government and approved by the Federal Court.




Read more:
Consumers let down badly by electricity market: ACCC report


There are good reasons for the government to act on the three behaviours, although each of the its proposed solutions raises concerns.

The ACCC wants something similar but different

Firstly, the ACCC did not identify the legislation’s first target as a major cause of high prices. They did observe that it is complicated to shop around and the offers are confusing, and sometime next year Australian governments will force retailers in some states to offer fairer default offers at an affordable price.

But it not clear why the energy sector has been singled out as an industry whose retailers have to pass on cost savings, and not supermarkets or banks or airlines or petrol stations, or any other kind of industry.

Secondly, the ACCC most certainly did raise concerns about dominant generator-retailers preferring not to enter into hedge contracts with competitors, particularly in South Australia.




Read more:
FactCheck Q&A: are South Australia’s high electricity prices ‘the consequence’ of renewable energy policy?


It recommended that the Australian Energy Market Commission impose a “market making obligation” forcing large, so-called gentailers to buy and sell hedge contracts.

Its recommendation has the same intent as the one proposed by the government, although it has the advantage of being administered by a regulator that already exists.

Thirdly, the ACCC also concluded that concentration in the wholesale market means higher prices. Its report focused on the bidding activity of the Queensland government owned generator Stanwell Corporation.

Manipulation isn’t a major price driver

The Grattan Institute identified market manipulation by generators as a contributor to higher prices in our July 2018 report Mostly working: Australia’s wholesale electricity market.

But we found it made a much smaller contribution than high gas and coal prices and the closure of ageing coal generators.

We recommended a rule change to constrain generators’ bidding practices in specific circumstances.




Read more:
Why the free market hasn’t slashed power prices (and what to do about it)


The ACCC recommended giving powers to the Australian Energy Regulator to investigate and fix such problems.

It considered a divestiture mechanism of the kind in the government’s leglislation, but rejected it as extreme.

Its own less extreme recommendations would “if implemented, be a better means to restore competition to a level which serves consumers well”.

Breaking up corporations is a broader question

There may well be a case for breaking up corporations whose size prevents or substantially lessens competition. It happens overseas.

The government cites the example of the United States Sherman anti-trust legislation. It has been in place since 1890 and has been famously used to break up Standard Oil and AT&T. The ACCC does not have this power.

There is debate about whether it would work in the much smaller market of Australia.




Read more:
Uncomfortable comparisons. Why Rod Sims broke the ACCC record


Allan Fels, a former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission a believes it would.

But quite sensibly he argues it should apply across the board, including sectors such as banking in light of the findings of the royal commission.

Ian Harper, who led the government’s 2015 competition review, is less convinced. However, he says if a divestment power is introduced, it should be introduced broadly.




Read more:
Harper Review: a mixed basket for Coles and Woolworths


It’s worth considering divestment powers broadly, rather than rushing to introduce them in one sector of the economy in what was to have been the leadup to Christmas because of a concern that its prices were too high.

The ACCC has already delivered a comprehensive report on the means to bring them down.

The government would be better served acting comprehensively on its recommendations.The Conversation

Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

View from The Hill: Malcolm Turnbull and his NEG continue to haunt the government



File 20181204 34148 17lkcuy.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The former PM via twitter effectively inserted himself into Question Time – in real time.
Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

If anyone needs further evidence of the self-defeating weird places
the Liberals seem to find themselves in, consider what happened on
Tuesday.

Malcolm Turnbull made another intervention in the political debate,
this time talking about the National Energy Guarantee, when he spoke
at an energy conference on Tuesday morning.

“I’ve strongly encouraged my colleagues to work together to revive the
National Energy Guarantee. It was a vital piece of economic policy and
had strong support, and none stronger I might say, than that of the
current Prime Minister and the current Treasurer,” he said.

This and the rest of Turnbull’s observations on energy policy provided
abundant material for a question time attack by a Labor party bloated
from dining on the unending manna that’s been flowing its way from
some political heaven.

As Scott Morrison sought to counter this latest attack by concentrating on
Labor’s substantial emissions reduction target (45% on 2005 levels by
2030), suddenly a tweet appeared from Turnbull.

“I have not endorsed “Labor’s energy policy”. They have adopted the
NEG mechanism,“ Turnbull said – adding a tick of approval – “but have
not demonstrated that their 45% emissions reduction target will not
push up prices. I encouraged all parties to stick with Coalition’s NEG
which retains wide community support.”

Here was the former PM effectively inserting himself into Question
Time – in real time.

Morrison quickly quoted from the tweet, but it couldn’t repair the
damage done by Turnbull’s earlier comments.

All round, it was another difficult day for the government on the energy front.

The Coalition parties meeting discussed its controversial plan
providing for divestiture when energy companies misuse market power,
with conduct that is “fraudulent, dishonest or in bad faith” in the wholesale market.

The government has put more constraints on its plan than originally
envisaged. Notably, rather than a divestiture decision resting with
the treasurer, it would lie with the federal court (although precisely what this would mean is somewhat unclear).

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told a news conference: “This power will be on the advice
of the ACCC [the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission] to
the Treasurer, and then the Treasurer will make a referral to the
Federal Court. The Federal Court will then be empowered to make that
judicial order.”

There had already been backbench criticisms of the divestiture proposal expressed to Frydenberg last week; the changes dealt with some of these.

But the plan is still leaving some in Coalition ranks uneasy.

According to the official government version, in the party room 18
speakers had a say, with 14 supporting (though a couple of them were
concerned about the interventionism involved) and four expressing
varying degrees of reservation. No one threatened to cross the floor.

Backbench sources said the strongest critics were Jason Falinski,
Russell Broadbent, Tim Wilson and former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop,
while milder criticisms came from Craig Laundy, Scott Ryan and Jane
Prentice.

There were two main worries about the measure – the potential negative
impact on business investment and its inconsistency with Liberal party
free market principles.

Bishop – who, it might be recalled, was recently saying there should
be a bipartisan deal with Labor on the NEG – highlighted the
investment implications and the issue of sovereign risk.

She said: “This is not orthodox Liberal policy. We need to do more
consultation with the industry and we need to be cautious of
unintended consequences of forced divestiture”.

Addressing the concerns, Morrison told the party room that a variety
of principles were at play.

The energy sector was not “a free market nirvana” but rather “a
bastardised market,” he said. The law was targeted at situations where
sweetheart deals came at the expense of consumers.

Energy minister Angus Taylor said governments of the centre-right,
including the Menzies and the Thatcher governments, had acted to
ensure markets operated for consumers.

Taylor invoked an example of the beer drinkers against the brewers,
when Thatcher had been on the side of the beers drinkers.

Frydenberg produced a quote from Menzies’ “Forgotten People”
broadcasts about the need to balance the requirements of industry with
social responsibilities.

The legislation, which is opposed by Labor even with the changes, is
being introduced this week. But there is no guarantee that it can be
passed by the time of the election – not least because there are so
few sitting days next year.

So the most controversial part of the government’s “big stick”, which
has caused so much angst with business, may never become a reality.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Labor’s battery plan – good policy, or just good politics?



File 20181122 182059 wylcnu.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
With the right settings, Labor’s new scheme could benefit householders as well as the grid itself.
Shutterstock.com

Guy Dundas, Grattan Institute

Federal Labor obviously likes the politics of giving rebates of up to A$2,000 each to 100,000 households of prospective voters so they can install domestic batteries. But is this good policy that will support Australia’s transition to a reliable, affordable, low-emissions energy system, or is it just middle-class welfare?

The Grattan Institute has previously been critical of solar subsidies similar to this program. In 2015 we found that household solar photovoltaic (PV) installations driven by state and federal government subsidies cost Australia around A$9 billion. Many solar incentive programs were uncapped, and their costs blew out as the price of PV systems dropped rapidly.

The parallels with battery technology are clear: batteries may be expensive and uncommon today, but many commentators expect them to drop rapidly in price.




Read more:
Households to get $2000 subsidy for batteries under Shorten energy policy


More recently, my colleagues and I have lamented the Victorian government’s return to the bad old days of solar subsidies. Its Solar Homes program promises A$1.24 billion in subsidies over 10 years and would roughly triple the level of household solar in Victoria. Yet most households will be financially better off installing solar even without this subsidy. If fully implemented, it will be a great waste of taxpayers’ money.

The case for public subsidies for household batteries is stronger than for household solar panels. Batteries are better able to help cut the cost of the entire energy system and so don’t just benefit the people who install them – they also benefit electricity consumers more generally. By releasing stored power when most needed, batteries can reduce reliance on expensive “peaking” power plants that operate only at times of high demand. And they can reduce the cost of expanding network capacity to supply all customers at peak times.

By contrast, solar primarily eats into midday demand, which is already low due to the output of the large existing fleet of solar panels. While solar has historically reduced peak demand to some degree, the Australian Energy Market Operator considers that this effect is reducing as solar has pushed peak demand later in the day.




Read more:
Slash Australians’ power bills by beheading a duck at night


Impact of rooftop solar PV on peak demand.
AEMO 2018, The NEM Reliability Framework

In a perfect world, households would have enough private incentive to install batteries when they benefit the entire system. If households faced higher electricity prices at times of peak demand, they would be rewarded for reducing system-wide costs by installing batteries.

But we do not live in this perfect world. Governments are reluctant to mandate that households pay higher prices during peak periods, and retailers find it hard to convince households to accept these more complex tariffs. Cost-reflective pricing is unlikely to become widespread any time soon, meaning there is a case for public subsidy to household batteries – provided the subsidies are capped, and end when battery prices inevitably fall.

Using smart controls to coordinate multiple batteries can maximise their benefits. These so-called “virtual power plants” allow the controller to reduce a household’s draw on the grid at peak times, thus reducing costs for both the household and the system. Federal Labor should increase the benefits of its policy by mandating that people who receive a subsidy participate in such a scheme, and by targeting installations to areas where the network most needs support.




Read more:
Virtual power plants are in vogue, but they can be like taking a sledgehammer to a nut


On balance, federal Labor’s policy appears to be a sensible step towards a smarter, lower-emissions electricity grid. It can be tweaked to maximise benefits to the whole system, not just to the lucky households that get government assistance. And its cost is capped, which reduces the risk of the sort of cost blowouts that have plagued solar subsidy schemes.

Unlike some of the Coalition’s policies, such as its plan to underwrite new generation, Labor’s battery policy is likely to help rather than hinder Australia’s energy transition.The Conversation

Guy Dundas, Energy Fellow, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Labor’s energy policy is savvy – now is it scare-proof?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Hours before Bill Shorten delivered his energy policy on Thursday,
Scott Morrison’s office had circulated an attack.

Labor’s plan was for a “carbon tax”; the proposed subsidy for “pink
batteries” would leave households “$8000 out of pocket”.

It was a wild broadside that said much about how the government hopes
a massive scare campaign can be an effective front line weapon in next year’s election.

In 2016 Malcolm Turnbull declined to run a heavily negative campaign,
especially against Shorten personally. When things went pear-shaped he
was strongly criticised for his approach.

Tony Nutt, Liberal federal director at the time, speaking soon after
the election, defended the approach by saying research had confirmed
voters were sick of political aggression and wanted to see a positive
vision and plan. But others in the party were not convinced.

Labor, for its part, did very well with its “Mediscare”.

In more desperate circumstances and with a new leader, the Liberals at
the next election will go all out stoking fears. Morrison is a much
better negative campaigner than Turnbull ever could be: he delivers
lines sharply and is not troubled by inconvenient nuance.

The government, assisted by the cooling of the housing market, has
been stepping up its warnings about the effects on house prices of
ALP’s negative gearing plan. Labor’s proposed crackdown on cash
refunds from dividend imputation is also a ripe target, especially for
agitating retirees (although pensioners are exempt).




Read more:
Pensioners would retain cash refunds on franked dividends under Labor backdown


And now that Shorten has released the energy policy this week, the
Coalition is reaching back into the past for lines and spectres.

Labor’s promise to subsidise home batteries ($2000 for
households with incomes under $180,000) is dubbed “pink batts to pink batteries” to trigger memories of Kevin Rudd’s ill-prepared policy that cost several lives.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor went for the ultimate try-on, when he
posed outside the Tomago Aluminium Smelter in Newcastle and claimed
that “if all of Bill’s batteries were installed, it would keep this
smelter, this business, going for less than 15 minutes”. “Bill’s
batteries” are not, of course, aimed at powering Tomago.

The old line about the ALP putting a “wrecking ball” through the
economy with its policy is getting a fresh workout.




Read more:
Households to get $2000 subsidy for batteries under Shorten energy policy


In crafting its energy policy, Labor is drawing on different, more
recent history – the widespread support from the business community
and other stakeholders for the National Energy Guarantee that the
Coalition abandoned amid its leadership meltdown.

Shorten says a Labor government would try to get bipartisan agreement for a NEG, but not rely on doing so.

In an interventionist approach, Labor proposes an additional $10
billion for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation; its investments
would support large scale generation and storage projects.

Labor’s investment would be in renewables, pushing towards its target
of 50% of Australia’s energy coming from renewables by 2050. In
contrast, the government is planning early next year to have a “short
list” of dispatchable power projects, focusing on coal, gas and hydro,
that it will look at underwriting.

An ALP government would also provide $5 billion for “future-proofing”
the energy network – the transmission and distribution systems.

Labor’s energy policy is in the context of its commitment to a much
more ambitious emissions reduction target than the government has – a
45% economy-wide reduction by 2030 on 2005 levels, compared with the
Coalition’s 26%-28%.

This week’s announcement is about the energy
sector only – the opposition will release soon its climate change
policies to lower emissions in other sectors including
transport. The government, homing in on the 45% target, is conjuring up scares about the nation’s cattle herd and the like.

Labor claims its energy policy would drive power prices down; the
government says it would drive them up. In fact no one can be sure
what will happen in the next few years in a situation where we are
undergoing a major transition to a different energy mix.

Nor is it clear which side will win the coming debilitating round of the
energy-climate wars.

The ALP would be unwise to underestimate the power of the scare. On
the other hand, the government’s own policy looks like a
shredded garment now it has torn up the NEG. Its “big stick’,
including the threat of divestitures, and its promised “short list” of new
dispatchable power projects don’t really cut it.

Labor would be heartened by the early responses its policy is
receiving from business groups, despite their reservations.

In a crack at the government’s threat, the Business Council of
Australia welcomed “Labor’s commitment not to support heavy-handed,
intrusive changes into the energy sector such as forced divestiture”.

Most notable in the reaction of these groups, however, was their
hankering for the NEG.

The Ai Group said a revised NEG was “still achievable” and “would be
greatly preferable” to a government directly underwriting new
generation, versions of which were being proposed by both major
parties. The BCA was pleased Labor was taking the NEG to the election,
reiterating that it was “a credible, workable, market-based solution
to the trilemma of affordability, reliability and reducing our
emissions”. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry was
likewise encouraged by the reference to the NEG.

This indicates that Labor’s decision to include the NEG in its plan is
not just sound on policy grounds but is politically savvy. By keeping
alive the NEG option, Labor has reached out to business.

Surely many Liberals are now starting to think that far from giving
themselves a break against Labor by rejecting the NEG, they may have
put themselves at a serious disadvantage which could be hard to
overcome even with a fierce scare campaign.

This also raises an interesting question for after the election, if
Labor wins. Given the widespread support for a NEG, would a Coalition
opposition persist in rejecting it? Much would depend on the factional
make up of the Liberal party of the day.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.