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Why ‘Coal’ Fitzgibbon can dump on solar, but other MPs can’t

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The intervention of the government’s chief whip, Joel Fitzgibbon into the renewable energy debate – he wants the renewable energy target to be dumped, or at least cut back , and railed against the “rent seekers” in the renewable sector – was quite dramatic. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise, and there are good reasons why other MPs will not follow.

As Fitzgibbon himself noted, he has vested interests of his own to protect. His safe seat of Hunter is in the heart of coal country, and is home to two of the state’s biggest coal-fired generators, the Bayswater and Liddell black coal generators, both of which are being crunched by the impact of lower demand and growing renewables, but, according to an article in Herald Sun, are offering generous salaries to their workers. Little wonder that the Greens afforded the pseudonym of “Coal” Fitzgibbon.

“Much of what we say in this place reflects our local electorates, and that is only natural and that should be the case,” Fitzgibbon told parliament on Tuesday. “I represent an electorate where coalmining forms a very important part of our economy. I represent an electorate where coal-fired power generation represents an important part of our economy.

“More importantly, like all of us, I represent consuming businesses and consuming households. Those households and those businesses are really concerned about cost of living issues. They are very concerned about the rising price of energy, and we all know in this place that there are many reasons for that—the carbon price is only a small part of it. Big network investments, particularly in states like New South Wales, take the lion’s share of the blame.”

Householders and small business are certainly worried about rising electricity prices, and that’s why members of parliament want to think a little more carefully about what they say.

Even in Fitzgibbon’s own electorate, the uptake of rooftop solar is among the highest in the state. According to data from the Clean Energy Regulator, more than 2,000 households in town such as Maitland and Cessnock have put solar on their homes in recent years to help offset rising electricity costs, and more are thinking about it. In some regions, that number is reaching 10 per cent of households, or at least 20 per cent of voters with solar already on their roof. In areas of Adelaide, the figures are double that in some areas.

Fitzgibbon has a big enough margin (more than 12 per cent), not to have to worry about his attempts to can the renewable energy target, which would have a major impact on rooftop solar. But other members, particularly those in the mortgage belt around the major population centres, can’t be quite so carefree. Solar PV, and the right of households to play their own part in delivering clean energy, reducing emissions, and saving money, is likely to emerge as a significant election issue.

Nothing illustrates this better than the following graph, supplied by Professor Ray Wills via the City of Cockburn, showing the suburbs of Perth and Fremantle and the deployment of solar. The darker the purple, the more rooftop PV has been installed. The darker purple indicates between 2MW and 3.5MW of rooftop PV installed in a single postcode.

In the inner suburbs, there have been negligible amounts. In the mortgage belts, where electricity prices are felt the most, there has been an overwhelming rush to install solar PV. And the story is similar in other cities, as we pointed out in this story and this story too.

 

What’s interesting is how this translates into electoral boundaries. The proliferation of solar is smack-bang in the middle of several highly contestable electorates, as this graph borrowed from the ABC’s electoral hub indicates. This is likely to be a scene repeated throughout the country – a combination of mortgage belt rich solar, and marginal seats.

And given that even conservative organisations such as the Climate Change Authority and the Australian Energy Market Operator have forecast a trebling of deployment of rooftop solar between now and 2020, that represents a huge chunk of the electorate that will want to know what their candidates have to say about rooftop solar in particular, and renewables in general.

As Fitzgibbon said in his speech on Tuesday: “Have a think about that for a moment. I ask all members to think about that. Fossil-fuel-rich Australia is now seeking to source one-quarter at least of its energy consumption from renewable sources.” Yep, and most people are not coming to the same conclusion as you, Mr Whip.

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