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It’s time for Australia’s renewables industry to go all in

Large-scale technology transitions are often a messy affair, especially when there is a powerful, established incumbent being challenged. At some point the incumbent understands the threat and use every tool at their disposal, usually money, political influence and media, to maintain the status quo.

Successful disruptors are prepared for the battle and aggressively make use of their strongest weapons, which are often social license and public desire for the new technology.

A recent example of this was Uber’s approach to disrupting the transport industry. The young startup built a social movement that made it extremely hard for any single city to stand against them, even if they had to use aggressive tactics to get there.

They had huge marketing budgets, lobbied hard and asked for forgiveness not permission.  While Uber has some serious IR issues that should not be condoned, its proactive approach meant that in just a few short years they went from being a disruptive startup to a regulated part of the transport landscape.

The renewables industry is in the process of trying to disrupt our energy system. Following the script, fossil fuel incumbents are fighting hard to see off the threat. They are pouring money into political lobbyists, marketing campaigns and PR strategies that throw doubt on the benefits their renewable competitors are offering.

In response, you would expect the renewables industry to make the most of their sizeable advantages and run an aggressive strategy to quickly rout the incumbent.

On paper, it shouldn’t be much of a competition. Renewables are now at the point where they are superior in almost every aspect – public perception, economics, speed to construct and environmental impact. The technology they are offering is recognised as the key solution to the greatest threat facing human civilisation – climate change.

This has led to every climate scientist in the world advocating for renewables rapid uptake, as well as the UN and most importantly, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians. Indeed, there is unlikely another example in the history of technology where there has been an industry whose interests so closely aligned with a social movement.

Yet, incredibly, with everything to gain, the renewables industry seems content to let others fight the battle. When you turn on the TV you will see ads for coalgas and oil, talking up the jobs they provide and how fantastic they are for the environment.

Visit any parliament in Australia and you will bump into numerous fossil-fuel lobbyists on the way to your meeting. Renewables are providing jobs and energy security for Australia, but the media continues to be dominated by stories of the importance of coal and gas to our economy.

Last year the coal lobby spent $5m on political campaigning at a minimum and this doesn’t include the combined $20m+ budget of APPEA and the Minerals Council. The renewables industry? Almost nothing. When was the last time you saw an ad for the renewables industry?

Climate and environment campaigners and organisations have spent hundreds of thousands of hours and millions of charity dollars advocating for the renewables industry – even to the point of developing plans and lobbying government on specific projects like the Solar Thermal tower at Port Augusta and more recently the Star of the South offshore wind farm.

The mining industry have in the past gone to great lengths to emulate social movements, setting up astro-turf (fake grassroots) groups and funding denialist think-tanks.

However, the Australian renewables industry provide basically zero financial support to an authentic climate movement who do so much to promote and advocate for renewables.

For the fossil fuel incumbents it’s not just about securing their existing market-share, but seizing new opportunities early. For example, APPEA (the voice of Australia’s oil and gas industry) see hydrogen as a strategic opportunity for the gas industry. Using their permanent offices in Darwin and Perth as a base, they are heavily investing resources in lobbying to kick-off hydrogen projects using gas as the feedstock.

With the renewables industry mostly missing in action, local NT and WA politicians are not hearing of the opportunity to make clean hydrogen generated by renewable electricity.

Even when the renewables industry do step into politics, they take a weak and cautious approach.

A case in point are the federal election policy recommendations recently put out by the Clean Energy Council. The top recommendation is a minimum 50 percent renewable target by 2030. Given the build rate in 2018 of 6GW of renewables, this target would actually mean a severe slow down in the industry. This would likely be an existential risk for individual renewable developers as their project pipeline falls off and they are forced to rapidly downsize their ambitions and teams.

Can you imagine the Minerals Council advocating for their industry to slow down?

Given what we know about the rapidly falling cost of renewables the renewables industry should be directing its peak bodies to advocate for Australia to rapidly move to 100% renewables and beyond so we can begin to electrify other sectors of the economy.

A reluctance to play politics is a handicap for the renewables industry. They have opponents that are desperately fighting for survival and will do anything to delay the energy transition. It’s time to make a choice – continue to politely work quietly behind the scenes, or join the army of climate activists, scientists and researchers who are already all-in.

Eytan Lenko is a technology entrepreneur and clean-energy transition advocate.

Nicky Ison is a clean energy commentator, campaigner and social entrepreneur.

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