OPINION | Shorten's Hydrogen promise is good politics

OPINION

Crispin Hull

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It was not so much a pork barrel, but a hydrogen barrel, that was rolled out in the knife-edge marginal Queensland seat of Flynn this week.


Opposition Leader Bill Shorten promised to set up a National Hydrogen Innovation Hub in Gladstone as part of a $1 billion plan to boost the emerging hydrogen industry.

It was good politics, combining local concerns about jobs and industry with broader concerns about global warming. It was also good science and business.

It was good politics because unlike most pork-barrelling it could not neutralised and matched by the other side, as for example the Townsville stadium in 2016 and the Cairns James Cook University hospital in 2019 and any number of roads, schools and other hospital expansions in marginal seats in the past.

Rather, the politics became better for Labor when, to the opposite of being matched, it evoked the 19th century response from Resources Minister Matt Canavan that: “Coal is Australia's biggest export, it employs thousands of people and thousands more could get jobs if Labor ended its unholy alliance with radical green activists and backed jobs.”

Well, yes, asbestos and whale oil provided thousands of jobs until their health and environmental costs became too great.

The seat of Flynn is held by the LNP by 1.04 cent, or just 814 votes. It was held by Labor from 2007 to 2010. It is one of the Reef Seats, a string of marginal seats up the Queensland coast where the fight is starkest between industry based on old coal technology which provides substantial financial aid to the Coalition on one hand and the environment, particularly the Great Barrier, on the other.

Two of the Reef Seats are the most marginal in the Parliament: Labor held the Townsville-based Herbert by just 0.02% in 2016 and the LNP holds Capricornia by just 0.63%. Three others are held by the LNP by under 4%: Flynn on 1.04%; Dawson on 3.34%; and Leichhardt on 3.95%. The other Reef Seat, Kennedy, is comfortably held by Bob Katter who heads his own party.

The fight between the reef and coal, made stark by the Coaltion-supported Adani mine, was made starker when the Turnbull Government’s attempt to look like it was doing something about the reef backfired.

In April last year, the Turnbull government announced it was giving $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation (GBRF), which at the time had annual revenue of about $10 million and only six full-time staff. The foundation was backed by business people, some in the coal industry. This month the National Audit Office found that the hastily put together grant did not meet transparency guidelines.

Meanwhile, the expert body on the reef, the 44-year-old Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, went perplexed and empty-handed.

In decades past it used to be the Coalition and the conservatives who stood for progress, development, entrepreneurship and support for industry and business, especially those engaging in innovation and technology. But since 2013 the Coalition appears to have become so captive of existing industry, particularly coal and big agriculture, that it has closed its eyes to the new. It has become so blinkering that it denies the very science that would ensure sustainable business.

It used to be the Coalition that supported good business models, but since 2013 it has closed its eyes to the sound business models of renewable energy in favour of Soviet-style state intervention into heavy industry.

Many Liberal Party members are reported as being in despair and would like this mark-time, caretaker government to put an end to itself as soon as possible so the party can regroup, rethink and modernise in Opposition.

It seems unlikely that the Morrison Government has time to change its spots before the next election even if it had a mind to, which it does not.

It hands on a plate to Shorten and Labor numerous opportunities to combine the traditional pork-barrel with other electoral concerns like regional jobs, the environment and export industries.

The interesting thing about clean hydrogen is that it can work like battery energy. Water can be separated into oxygen and hydrogen by the application of a solar-generated current. This is called electrolysis. The hydrogen can then be tanked and transported, including for export. On recombining with oxygen, it can generate heat and electricity.

Solar farms can be placed on Australia’s abundance of flat, sunny land which has little or no agricultural use, unlike, say, in Japan or South Korea.

Sure, the technology needs refinement, but is not decades away as the Coalition asserts. New technology tends to catch on very fast, taking a lot of people by surprise.

Speaking of business cases for renewable energy, I can report that it is five years this month since we installed our rooftop solar.

In that time it has generated 40,000kWh of electricity. At Ergon Electricity’s retail price of 25.3 cents a kWh, it comes to $10,120. The system cost us $9320.

That does not mean the system has paid for itself quite yet. Some electricity went into the grid and generated less than 25.3 cents a kWh. And some account has to be made for interest on the $9320, but a lot less than most economists would imagine because, as behavioural scientists will tell you, people are unlikely to invest the money they would spend on solar into interest-bearing deposits or repayment of existing loans. It is more likely that they would blow it on consumption.

From here on for us it will be a couple of thousand a year extra to spend on the good things in life rather than paying for electricity, much of which is coal-generated.

In all, it was a very sound investment, better than paying down a mortgage or investment loan or putting it in an interest-bearing deposit.

And certainly better than buying shares – particularly in coal-mining companies.

 

 

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