BY: Tracy Sorensen

Goodbye fossil fuels. It was an exciting ride. You gave us so much. But here’s your gold watch and a card signed by all of us.

The farewell party for fossil fuels isn’t here yet, but it’s coming. According energy expert Craig Memery, the fossil fuel industry is already on its way out – for economic reasons. Speaking at the Bathurst Community Climate Action Network Annual General Meeting on October 29, Memery said Australia currently had a massive over-investment in generation capacity with three gigawatts of generation capacity mothballed over the past few years. He said the average price for energy was “not high enough or volatile enough” to be profitable. “I expect there won’t be any more new coal-fired power stations in Australia.

Memery is the consumer advocate for the Alternative Technology Association (ATA). He explained that the problem for the coal-fired power stations is that demand is dwindling. While there are a range of reasons for this, one is that people have been voting with their feet and going solar. They’re not necessarily using less energy; it’s just that they are no longer getting it all from coal. Through an accounting quirk, our agencies don’t actually record power from solar panels as an input into the system – they just write it off as less demand.

So all these coal-fired power stations, originally expected to bring their owners mega profits into the distant future, are starting to look like white elephants. According to Craig Memery, they’re actually facing a “death spiral”.

The death spiral scenario goes like this: First, massive investment in assets like power stations, poles and wires. Followed by people going solar. Then declining demand, causing the power companies to try to recoup more of their investment dollars though power bills. Followed by more and more people going “off the grid”, leaving a smaller and smaller pool of remaining customers to share the load of paying for all that expensive investment. In the end, all you have left as your customer base is a hapless bunch who can’t afford to get off the grid.

Clearly, the best solution is to put coal out of its misery as soon as possible, and build an energy future based on renewables. Instead, the government is withdrawing support for renewable energy and we’re being asked to fund – and fund again – the long, slow death spiral of fossil fuels.

Still, despite the madness at the top, communities are taking matters into their own hands. According to Craig Memery, there are about 100 community renewable energy groups across Australia working on local solar and wind energy projects.

Tracy Sorensen is a member of Bathurst Community Climate action Network.