Coauthored with Dan Cass. Published by The Punch

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama outlined his vision for an America powered by clean energy, traveling by High Speed Rail, and competing in global clean technology markets. Obama set out a clear principle: “[I]nstead of subsidising yesterday’s energy,” he implored, “let’s invest in tomorrow’s.”

Excellent idea Mr. President.

By choosing the future, not the past, President Obama has opened a fierce technology competition with China and Germany, to bring the cost of renewable energy down below gas, coal and nuclear.

Given that Tony Abbott and the Coalition are following the US Tea Party model and reject clean renewable energy on ideological grounds, it’s up to Prime Minister Gillard to follow Obama’s lead.

Under the guidance of Steven Chu, Obama’s Nobel-laureate Secretary of Energy, the US Department of Energy is investing strategically to turbo-charge US technology in the renewable energy race. Loan guarantees have locked-in the construction of the world’s largest concentrating solar thermal power plant and wind farm.

The 390 MW Ivanpah solar thermal project in California and 845 MW Shepherd’s Flat wind farm in Oregon will provide enough clean electricity to power over 375,000 homes. The 110 MW Tonopah solar thermal plant will use molten salt storage to generate solar electricity 24-hours a day, threatening coal’s monopoly on baseload in Australia.

The crown jewel of America’s renewable energy programs is the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative which is bringing baseload and distributed (rooftop) solar electricity costs down, on track to be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. The realization of this goal will reshape the global energy system.

Why has Australia not joined the SunShot-type? We are blessed with world-leading solar scientists, but they are undermined by the lack of support from politicians and capital markets and dogged by ideological attacks from ill-informed sections of the media.

Labor government does have the ticker for nation-building. Labor’s National Broadband Network is ambitious and effective. Why can’t Labor do the same on energy?

Vested interests and the quarry mentality have kept Labor from switching its loyalty from fossil fuels to renewables. Democracy has been deaf to the Australian public, who are overwhelmingly in support of renewable energy (Exhibits AB, and C). Powerful forces have prevented the Australian government from adopting Obama’s typically American pragmatism; divesting out of yesterday’s energy sources and investing aggressively in tomorrow’s.

Most people are unaware that the Federal government is quietly designing energy sector investments far greater than the $13.2 billion for clean energy in the carbon price package. The Energy White Paper (EWP) consultations will conclude in a few months, setting in train perhaps $40-60 billion of investments in coal, oil and gas-based infrastructure.

Martin Ferguson, Minister for Energy and Resources, started the White Paper consultations in 2008. This was derailed after the last election, when Labor Government negotiated the carbon price and renewables package with the Greens and independents. Ferguson is trying to regain his power and use the White Paper to undermine the legitimate progress of the solar and wind industries.

Minister Ferguson’s handpicked reference group is dominated by yesterday’s technologies. It includes 15 companies including Caltex, Origin, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. The 22 member group has three people with uranium experience, 11 from fossil fuels and plastics, and six from the electricity industry.

Who represents tomorrow’s technologies and future generations? There are no solar or wind companies, and not one single environment or renewable energy group on the reference group (Former BP executive Greg Bourne was appointed when he was WWF CEO but has since retired from that organisation.)

Most people would be upset to learn that the companies who profit from technologies of the past are dictating our energy future. Former Liberal advisor Guy Pearse turned whistleblower when he revealed in 2006 that a “Greenhouse Mafia” dominated that Australia’s energy politics under John Howard.

Does PM Gillard have the courage to challenge the Greenhouse Mafia, and force Minister Ferguson to balance his White Paper group with renewables interests?

Australia has the world’s best solar resources, but is ceding leadership on solar, to keep our berth on the sinking ship that is fossil fuels. We could be like America, shooting for the sun, not digging holes in the ground. Australians embrace technological progress – we love our mobile phones and computers – and it’s about time the government made a decisive break with the dirty fuels of the past.