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Monday, November 12, 2012

Origin Energy under scrutiny over anti-renewables stance

Origin Energy, Australia's largest energy retailer, came under intense scrutiny today from shareholders at the Annual General Meeting in Sydney over it's energy portfolio placing great emphasis on development of gas, poor investment in wind and solar power, and a campaign by Managing Director Grant King to destabilise the Renewable Energy Target.

At one stage a banner was quickly unfurled infront of the board on the stage which said "Origin: Build wind and solar, not coal and gas". It was just as quickly taken down.

According to Ian Rose on twitter, investors were more interested in reading a flyer talking about lack of solar than the annual report.

Origin Managing Director Grant King blamed the solar renewable energy target scheme for costing the company as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald: "The uncapped nature of the small scale renewable scheme has led to an increased cost of the scheme to customers of about approximately $3.2 billion,’’ he said. “The $3.2 billion cost of the [scheme] would have allowed most Australians to have smart meters installed.”

But shareholders were worried about the miniscule contribution of renewables to the overall generation portfolio. At one stage Grant King talked about how great the work with wind farms is, but neglected to mention it only makes up 1% of Origin's energy product.

Similarly, Origin's investments in gas, including CSG, was strongly talked up, with no mention of the carbon pollution emission risks or social unrest this is causing in rural farming communities. At one stage the Origin board was challenged on due diligence around CSG. "Please don't make Origin another James Hardie."

“We won’t jeopardise our social licence and we certainly don’t want to be a James Hardie,” chairman Mr Kevin McCann said. “We have a team of environmentalists working with the government under strict regulations in Queensland. But it is important to note that gas is no longer a transitional fuel." reported the Sydney Morning Herald.

But that is exactly what gas is. A transition fuel. Coal seam gas is a carbon intensive fossil fuel that won't last forever. Extraction through fracking using a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals risks damage to agricultural land and underground water and acquifers that many farmers and rural communities are dependent upon. Developing gas infrastructure at the expense of developing renewables results in Carbon lock-in: social-technological inertias increasing our addiction to coal-fired energy and the CSG. The earlier we develop 100 percent renewable power generation, the more likely we are to avoid 6 degrees of Global warming this century.

Origin has provided $A3.6 billion to the $US23 billion ($A22.2 billion) Australia Pacific LNG project, of which it is a 37.5 percent stakeholder. The project mines and converts coal seam gas (CSG) to liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Queensland. Rural and Farming communities continue to protest CSG citing environmental damage and impact on the land, the water system and agriculture caused by hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

Lindsay Soutar, National Coordinator of 100% Renewable lobby group made a statement prior to the AGM which said:

“We know that Origin has been hard at work lobbying MPs to cut the renewable energy target. But Origin’s anti-renewables stance has more to do with defending its poor investment decisions in coal and gas than with the cost of the target.

“While the world is embracing renewable energy with $271 billion invested globally last year – more than that invested in coal and gas - less than 5% of Origin’s energy generation comes from renewables sources. It’s increasingly looking like Origin has backed the wrong horse.

“While Origin’s public advertising is trying to maintain an image of being renewable energy leaders, behind the scenes they are major renewable energy blockers, trying to change the rules of the game to suit their own investments.

“Origin has over 500,000 Greenpower customers who actively support renewable energy. They would be very disturbed if they realised the lengths Mr King has been going to destabilise the Renewable Energy Target” said Ms Soutar.

"A recent poll of 1800 Origin customers showed that 90% of them would consider switching to a retailer who genuinely supported renewable energy.

“Grant King is completely out of step with the community in his attempts to stifle renewable energy. Today we are calling on Origin to stop blocking and start backing renewable energy.

“If Mr King really cared about rising energy prices, he’d do well to focus less on his own bonus, and more on investing in the only source of power whose costs are falling – wind and solar” said Ms Soutar.

Last week, Origin Energy shares dropped to the lowest level since 2008 after it issued a profit downgrade. A PriceWaterhouseCoopers (UK) report - PwC Low Carbon Index 2012 (PDF) - last week warned that business-as-usual is not an option "More carbon intensive sectors need to anticipate more invasive regulation and the possibility of stranded assets." warned the report.

It is about time businesses like Origin Energy started being energy leaders in strategic investment in non polluting energy. One of the reasons there has been a massive adoption of small scale solar in Australia under the Government's Renewable Energy Target is because business is failing to make the large investments in large scale solar thermal and wind farms, and exploring the possibilities of geothermal and wave technologies, both of which show great potential.


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