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Don’t let the lights go out in Australia

Energy runs your life. Most commonly transmitted as electricity, it runs your home, your workplace, your city and our nation. Without it everything stops and the lights go out.

Thomas Edison invented the light bulb in 1879. Almost instantly it became indispensable to modern life. He went on to create General Electric, sometimes better known as GE.

Today GE supplies electrical equipment and turbines all over the world. Our equipment supports hydro generation in the Snowy scheme, coal in the Hunter, gas on the Central Coast and wind power in regional communities. Almost every electron generated in Australia passes through GE equipment at some point on its journey.

So, energy is GE’s life-blood. More importantly, it’s the life-blood of the Australian economy.

To keep that blood flowing, and affordable for Australian families and businesses, we urgently need major reform to our energy sector. Everyone in our industry knows this, yet successive Australian governments have regrettably – until hopefully now – put the issue on the back burner.

That’s no longer an option. The recent state-wide blackout in South Australia has brought these issues to dramatic public attention.

Without a plan supported by all levels of government, our national electricity network is a 51,000km mish-mash that will struggle to meet the long-term needs of our homes, hospitals, offices, and factories.

There are currently no plans for new base-load generation. Massive onshore gas resources are locked up by various state government bans across the country. The uptake of renewables will be hamstrung without the planning and technology to improve system-wide reliability. The ‘network’ is a mess of contradictory policy, outdated regulations and appalling inefficiencies.

Australia should be an energy superpower. Along our southern coasts the ‘Roaring 40s’ drive wind turbines. Across the countryside, clear skies pour energy down onto solar farms. Our coal and gas reserves are the envy of the world. What we need is a state-of-the-art energy network, infrastructure and integrated policy framework to harness it all and deliver it to our homes and businesses. Texas is already achieving this. It accounts for almost a third of U.S. natural gas production, while also leading the nation in wind-powered generation.

Instead our system is struggling. When baseload generators are under a cloud, when whole states are plunged into darkness, when the price of power spikes to thousands of dollars in the blink of an eye, when the interconnectors that carry the precious current to South Australia and Tasmania are constricted, these are all symptoms of an ageing, ailing system.

Australians flick a switch and their lights go on – it’s not negotiable. Government can’t allow that certainty to break down. They will be faced not only with furious householders, but the prospect of wholesale business closures and job losses.

No one will invest in energy-dependent industries like manufacturing unless reliable and affordable energy is guaranteed. Investment dollars will flow off-shore and thousands of jobs will follow them.

The Prime Minister and Premiers meet in Canberra today and energy policy is their top priority. Australia desperately needs a national energy plan fit for the 21st Century. Our political leaders must grasp the nettle and produce a real, comprehensive action plan to meet this challenge.

Otherwise, it’s lights out.

Geoff Culbert is President and CEO, GE Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

This article was originally published in the Daily Telegraph, 9 December 2016.

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