“Power for the People – An Uncensored Story of Electricity in Australia 1770-2015”

A science-fiction short-story of the ’60s was called The Subways of Tarzoo. It conjured up a picture of an alien world whose entire surface was covered with giant harps whose function was to harness the energy of the wind to generate the electricity its inhabitants needed to survive. But as their energy requirements increased, they were forced to move underground to give their vibrating harps greater space to exploit the wind.

This apocalyptic image came to mind as I read a piece in Crikey this week by one of my favourite journalists, Guy Rundle (though he commentates, rather than reports). His piece was headed The End Of The Capitalist Society, and it excoriated the Abbott Government (Guy is an unreconstructed soixante huître) for undermining the RET, the Renewable Energy Target.

In particular he lambasted the Coalition for criticising wind-farms. He depicted Tony as a latter-day Don Quixote, tilting at wind-turbines which, far from being the blight on the landscape the Coalition is making out, were quite beautiful.

As the poet might have written:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden wind-turbines

Rundle went on: ‘Turbines are elegant. Compared to pylons marching across the landscape – which attract no criticism – and open-cut mines, they’re aesthetic masterpieces.’

Yet the main point of his excellent piece is that renewable-energy sources are undermining capitalism, and will – along with other things like free open-source software – eventually force it underground, to eke out a precarious existence after the new form of socialism takes over the planet.

Though that may be a bit over-the-top – the Gnomes of Zurich and their mates are more resilient than he would like to think – what he says has a kernel of truth in it. For capitalism – like democracy – is under siege from booming dirigist economies like China and new low-energy technology that doesn’t need a share-market to flourish.

Rundle’s pejorative message was that cheaper energy from solar, wind, and other ‘renewable’ sources – augmented by emerging battery-bulk-storage technologies – spell the end of the dominance of ‘Big Power’ (‘Big Coal’, ‘Big Oil’, ‘Big Gas’, and Big Everything-Else). (And that is not to talk about the energy-elephant that is not even allowed into the room – nuclear power.)

There is no question that energy costs are falling (contrary to what your power bills tell you). The cost of generating, transmitting, and retailing electricity has been dropping for years – indeed decades.

As my wife Sandra (Jobson) Darroch’s new book on electricity (‘Power for the People – An Uncensored Story of Electricity in Australia 1770-2015’) shows, ever since governments, State and Federal, got their sticky fingers on the power-stations, the ‘poles-and-wires’, and the electricity retailers – the three elements of the energy-supply chain – they have refused to pass on these savings, and instead have ripped off the consumer unconscionably and outrageously. (And that is not to go into – which she in fact does – the chronic corruption that has bedevilled the electricity industry in Sydney and NSW since 1904, when the lights were first turned on.)

The NSW State Government in particular has stripped billions out of a fundamentally efficient and profitable industry to cover its deficits and budget shortfalls, and to finance its pet projects. To mix animal metaphors, successive governments, both Labor and Coalition, have fleeced a cash cow to bankroll their pork barrelling.

Yet this is coming to an end. The cow is drying up, while the pig has wised up… which is where Rundle’s dystopian end-of-capitalism vision clicks in. So let me quote him again:

‘the advanced areas of the world – such as northern Europe and China – are well on the road to post-capitalism… soon people will be itching to convert to self-funding solar and half-a-dozen other new technologies, and will eventually resent the obstruction of things that will improve their lives. As these technologies challenge the basis of capital itself, so too will they challenge the fundamental divisions of class. If Labor doesn’t get ahead of this, the Greens will – and in a decade this broad, high-tech working-middle class will become their class, and Richard Di Natale’s forecast of a 20% vote will look modest in retrospect. Labor in the 21st century is on the way to following the fate of the British Liberal Party in the 20th – a once-mighty progressive force, reduced in a short passage of time to a rump, victim of a refusal to tackle the contradictions inherent in its programme.’

Strong stuff! Yet, as Sandra reveals in her book, much of these matters is already out of our hands. In their desperate bid to squeeze out some last minute milk, they sold off not only the farm, but the cow too. Most of Australia’s energy sector is now owned by American and Chinese interests. Who, for example, do you think owns Energy Australia, your friendly local electricity supplier? The Hong-Kong-based China Light and Power Inc, run by an Indian-Jewish clan, the Kadoorie family.