Clean Energy Council's Controversial Appointment

Imagine if Greenpeace or the WWF announced their new chairperson was also the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Shell or BP? It’s unimaginable but something akin to that has happened in the clean energy industry.

Before I launch into this, a disclaimer. I’m involved in Australia’s solar power sector, but anything I express here is my opinion and may not reflect the opinions of any company I’m associated with.

Australia’s Clean Energy Council (CEC) describes itself as being Australia’s “peak body representing Australia’s clean energy sector.” It has over five hundred members, including many from within the small scale solar power industry.

The Clean Energy Council has a fair bit of clout within the Australian solar sector. In order for Australians to be eligible for government solar rebates and other incentives such as feed in tariffs, their solar installer must be accredited by the Clean Energy Council. This is a good thing in my opinion. Australia has a fantastic safety record when it comes to solar power installations as a result of this accreditation requirement.

However, as trade bodies grow, they can sometimes veer away from their original mission a little or de-prioritise the interests of the many members who helped them gain power; the same members that continue to help pay their salaries. Things that may have never been contemplated previously slowly become options due to various influences. Compromises may be made and deals struck for what is perceived to be “the greater good”. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intention.

I really don’t know what is happening behind the scenes at the CEC, but I fear they are beginning to lose their way a little.

A recent example of this is the CEC’s appointment of a new chairman. Michael Fraser, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of AGL, was unanimously elected to the position earlier this week. AGL is a major player in Australia’s energy industry in both electricity generation and as an electricity retailer.

According to the AGL web site, Mr. Fraser “led the rapid expansion of AGL’s upstream energy interests in renewables, thermal power generation and upstream gas exploration and development.

The first bit sounds good, AGL certainly does have substantial interests in large scale renewables; but rapid expansion of “thermal power generation and upstream gas exploration and development” isn’t so great – it’s terrible.

If Michael Fraser’s blurb read, “led the rapid expansion of AGL’s upstream energy interests in renewables and implementation of strategies for the scaling down of thermal power generation and upstream gas” .. etc; or “maximizing efficiency and minimizing environmental impact from existing assets”; that would have been a track record snippet more suitable for someone now in the role of Chairman of the Clean Energy Council.

Thermal power generation includes coal. As for the gas exploration and development, well, some of it is CSG – Coal Seam Gas. It’s often extracted through hydraulic fracturing; more commonly known these days as fracking. Fracking is becoming a big concern in the USA and elsewhere given the damage the extraction process is wreaking on the environment.

Here’s a trailer from GasLand, just showing the tip of the iceberg of issues associated with fracking in the USA.

Of course, we’re assured any fracking operations carried out here in Australia are perfectly safe; we Aussies being so smart, green, regulated and all that. I’m not reassured and many others aren’t either.

Some of the concerns in relation to fracking in Australia are outlined here. Beyond the fracking, evidence has recently emerged to suggest that burning gas isn’t quite as climate friendly as previously thought either. An increasing shift to gas could actually accelerate temperature rises due to methane leaks and the nature of gas when burned compared to coal combustion.

There’s no getting around it; we need to get away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible – their continued use should be seen as a stepping stone, not a long term solution; yet Michael Fraser has “led the rapid expansion” in fossil fuel related activities in AGL.

AGL Energy Limited also owns a 32.5% interest in Great Energy Alliance Corporation, which has the Loy Yang A Power Station as its major asset. Loy Yang A is one of the biggest power stations in Victoria and burns brown coal – an emissions intensive fuel.

So, we have the new chairman of the Clean Energy Council up to his neck in fossil fuel. One type, emissions intensive, another type using highly controversial extraction methods.

I don’t know Michael Fraser personally and this is not a personal attack on him. I’m sure he is a very competent fellow in his line of work. He may be a Really Nice Guy and a Top Bloke. Mr. Fraser might donate 90% of his income to the homeless and rescue abandoned puppies and kittens on the weekends for all I know; but that strong corporate association with bucketloads of quite unclean and certainly not renewable energy remains.

We’ve probably all worked in jobs where some aspects of the operations or company policy we simply don’t agree with. However, this seems more than just an unfortunate association through his work or an unpleasant aspect that comes with the territory of his role at AGL. Michael Fraser appears to actively support a massive expansion of the Coal Seam Gas industry.

Additionally, he and AGL are “not fans of feed-in tariffs” (see previous link); a crucial incentive in Australia’s home solar power revolution and one that is being strangled as some states close down programs. This has left some new owners of rooftop systems not covered by previous programs exporting their surplus solar electricity into the mains grid for little or no payment from electricity retailers. This clean electricity is then resold by some retailers to other customers as green electricity and priced higher than standard supply. All the solar industry and solar households want is a fair price for the generators that electricity.

On a related point – in the Australian state of New South Wales, solar feed in tariffs being in limbo for months so far has seen small-scale solar installation enquiries plummet by 90% and thousands of people have lost their jobs. Some of the companies that have shut their doors I assume were paid-up members of the CEC. Those companies or their installers would have also ponied up a decent chunk of cash to the CEC for training and accreditation. I haven’t heard much from the CEC in regard to issues in that state for some time – it’s something I believe they should be publicly raising hell about every single day while the situation continues.

That’s yet another concern – the CEC’s focus appears to be drifting towards large scale renewables and yet the benefits of rooftop solar power are many – it’s a critical part of Australia’s clean energy future.

Anyway, back to the main point – given all this (and this is only the CliffNotes version), the Clean Energy Council’s appointment of Mr. Fraser was at best, in my opinion, a mistake – and one the CEC should rectify; regardless of whatever policy influence Mr. Fraser may or may not have in the organisation in his role. It is simply not a good look for the Clean Energy Council to have someone leading a company so immersed in fossil fuels and opposed to a fair go on feed in tariffs in such a position.

In the Clean Energy Council’s own vision statement, they say they do not support traditional coal fired electricity generation or large scale, 100% gas fired generation (including from coal seam methane gas). AGL/Michael Fraser have interests in both.

Again, I draw an analogy of Greenpeace appointing BP’s CEO as their chair person. After all, BP make solar panels too. Greenpeace just wouldn’t do it for reasons that are obvious – it would gut their credibility; and that is something I believe the CEC risks through this appointment.

A campaign suggestion added to GetUp! (Australia’s equivalent of MoveOn) which in part draws attention to Mr. Fraser’s association with CSG and his new role has already captured AGL’s attention it seems. They joined in the GetUp! forum thread, referring to CSG as “natural coal seam gas”. Arsenic is natural. So is uranium. So is coal. So is crude oil. “Natural” means nothing – it’s all about the extraction, processing, distribution, consumption and associated effects on the environment.

It’s not called NCSG, it’s called CSG. It’s just a word I know, but I think it was a poor and very distasteful attempt by AGL (if it was indeed them) to sell Mr. Fraser and CSG; one bordering on greenwashing – and it really didn’t help make Michael Fraser’s appointment look any more credible.

It also reinforced that any “green” message regarding fossil fuel or “facts” touted by the industry should perhaps be treated with a grain of salt – preferably not salt residue from fracking activities though; as that appears to be rather nasty stuff.