Turnbull’s sleight of hand on clean energy investment

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has put his own stamp on clean energy investment in Australia, dumping Coalition plans to scrap the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, but announcing new plans to essentially de-fund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and replace it with a new “Clean Energy Innovation Fund.”

hunt turnbullThe retention of the CEFC will be welcome and signals a potential shift from the anti-renewable policy stance of the Abbott regime that preceded him.

But the move to de-fund ARENA and create a “new” fund using money already allocated to the CEFC is nothing but a sleight of hand, and an elaborate ruse by Turnbull to save more than a $1.3 billion and get his new pet-word “innovation” included in a financing scheme. It may also be designed to meet Australia’s Paris commitment to invest “new money” in clean energy innovation.

But the move may back-fire, because although the new set-up will continue to support near commercial projects, the technologies and ideas at the formative stage of the innovation process may be left stranded, without funding. According to the former chairman of ARENA, Greg Bourne, Australian innovation may move overseas to get the necessary support. So much for the innovation nation.

The Turnbull government has been showing less interest in ARENA, and its cost to the budget, and over the last few months has not renewed contracts for directors, and allowed it to narrow to a single director, the head of Greg Hunt’s environment department.

ARENA will continue to manage its current projects, and complete its $100 million funding program for large scale solar projects. But after that its funding will be stopped and it will effectively be morphed – along with its staff – into an annexe of the CEFC and the new fund.

Under the new plan hatched by Turnbull and Hunt, ARENA’s grants-based funding strategy will be replaced by “innovative” finance such as debt and equity funding – effectively lending money and buying shares in the investments.

The remit under the new CEIF banner will also move beyond renewable energy and include energy efficiency, already a major focus of the CEFC, and “low carbon investment”.

Hunt said the CEIF will mostly invest in “storage, in new  battery technology, in smart  grids, in some of the exciting  solar visions that people have  hoped for and imagined for  Australia but which are only  now really becoming reality.” The sort of thing that ARENA was already doing, but may now happen under a fund rebranded by the Coalition.

The new fund will have $100 million a year to invest, but this money will come from funds already allocated to the CEFC. It is being drip fed over 10 years so as “not to overwhelm the market”.

The long term unallocated ARENA budget – amounting to around $1.3 billion – has been withdrawn. This, however, needs approval from parliament, and Turnbull may have a fight on his hands to achieve this once Labor and the Greens see through the proposal, unless it occurs in a joint sitting post a double dissolution.

The Coalition effectively killed ARENA’s unallocated $1.3 billion funding in last year’s budget, excluding it from the forward estimates. But if the Coalition wants that money to disappear completely it needs to change the act, and that will require support from the Senate.

Turnbull said the new fund would target early-stage clean energy projects that had trouble growing to the size and maturity needed to attract private equity. He cited one project that could be supported as the solar tower plus storage facility proposed for Port Augusta by US company SolarReserve.

“We are promoting innovation and new economic opportunities, enhancing our productivity, protecting our environment and reducing emissions to tackle climate change,’’ Turnbull said in a statement. “An example of a project could be a large scale solar facility with storage in Port Augusta.”

That comment drew  enthusiastic support from local community groups pushing for those solar towers – although less so from the CEFC itself. But again Turnbull appears to be giving with one hand and taking with another.

One major concern is the future of the “research” component of ARENA, which has been playing a critical role in providing data, information and knowledge on new technologies, such as grid integration, mapping solar and wind resources.

The Government will also set a target rate of return of one per cent above the government bond rate – compared to the CEFC’s target of 4 per cent above the government bond rate – effectively turning it into a venture capital fund, although one already exists in the form of the Southern Cross Ventures.

“We hope that they do better but that’s their target, so instead of giving  100 per cent of the taxpayers’ money  away, our goal is to receive 100 per cent of the taxpayers’ money  back but with an additional return,” Hunt said at a news conference.

Hunt was particularly critical of ARENA, saying that grants had been made “without a lot  of follow-up as to whether it’s effective.” Others noted that ARENA had recouped $600 million in projects that had been approved by the Howard and Labor governments but did not look promising.

Still, it appears that the government did not approve of large grants to individual projects that offered no return to the taxpayer.

While technically ARENA will not be “merged”, it will be stripped of all its powers. Its few remaining executives will help assess projects for the new fund, but will not be involved in decision making, which will lie entirely with the CEFC board.

Clean Energy Council CEO Kane Thornton said the move effectively took with one hand and gave with another, by reducing ARENA’s access to capital grants and replacing it with new mechanisms using CEFC’s existing money.

Thornton said the new fund will be able to provide both debt and equity, but the question remained to what extent debt and equity can replace the gap previously filled by grants.

“We are pleased that the CEFC is going to live on, but we are disappointed that the government will press on and reduce the budget for ARENA and its ability to provide capital grants.

“These have been critical to ARENA’s success to date, not only in funding large scale solar projects but also in its significant R&D support.”

Staff within ARENA are believed to be horrified by the changes, particularly the decision to bring a halt to funding to start-up technologies and research. They say the focus on the new fund, and the need for it to get a return on investment, will effectively rule out a whole category of funding requirements.

“How many early stage renewable energy projects out there are in a position to one, pay back the money, and give a return on investment,” said one.

Mark Butler, Labor’s climate change spokesman, said Turnbull was trying to make his government look different to Tony Abbott’s, “but he has failed again.”

He accused Turnbull and Hunt of “hitting renewables at the CSIRO” while giving money for research into ‘health effects of wind farms’, and noted Turnbull continued to support Abbott’s direct action policy, which Turnbull had called” fiscal recklessness on a grand scale.”

“Malcolm Turnbull is a sell out on renewable energy just like he is on climate change,” Butler said. “How can we trust them? No new ideas, no new money, just smoke and mirrors.”

John Grimes, the head of the Australian Solar Council, was even more damming.

“Malcolm Turnbull’s Clean Energy Investment Fund is like an exquisitely decorated Easter Egg. It looks great on the outside, but inside it’s a rotten egg,” he said in statement.

“By its very nature early stage research is speculative.  Almost no projects will be fundable under this model.  This will cut the guts out of renewable innovation in Australia”.


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  • Alastair Leith

    Port Augusta Solar Thermal with storage doesn’t need a second rate innovation fund to replace AREANA it needs a mechanism to provided it with a PPA or an investment market that has been rebuilt from the Abbott/Turnbull government’s destruction of confidence and clean energy jobs.

  • JeffJL

    Just like road finding. They re-announce the dollars.

    Take $1.3 billion and give back (as loans) $100 million for 10 years.

    Fail Mr Turnbull, Fail.

  • Rob G

    MT is obviously trying to capture the climate vote, but anyone knowing how this government operates, knows full well that science and climate change is at the very bottom of the list (warships/subs, corporate tax cuts, subsides for mining and FF projects are the priority). Like hospitals and education, it has become the target of budget cuts.

    All that aside, if MT had a master plan to bring the right onboard with renewables and climate action he would try an put it under the “innovation” umbrella. There is absolutely no way he would ever be able to bring in a ETS or any policy that would change behaviour dramatically. Therefore, on that alone we can see that he will never be able to deliver anything meaningful. Brave decisions are something that will elude this government (unless it’s a direct assault on the poor – they are always happy to go down that road).

    • john

      I think MT is just praying he wins the next election however just how he is going to get rid of the dead or is that dreadwood in his party is a problem.
      As is very apparent the dreadwood is making noises all the time as to this announcement it is window dressing full of waffle but really not morally true.

  • DogzOwn

    Just shout big taxpayer dollars on offer to private sector but no plan so they can’t be held accountable, just like health, education and rest of agenda from IPA. Except from ACT, is it really true that no new big projects since Abbott was elected? Donut’s look like there’ll be any more. How about R&D into Turnbull Syndrome?

  • DogzOwn

    Again on Q&A, Frydenberg’s words were that emission reduction target for 2030 is world’s second biggest, effectively 50%. He confirmed this is per capita. Expecting 50% population growth, Greg Hunt says we don’t actually need to reduce emissions at all, just keep the same, divided by 50% more people. But don’t you need to divide by twice as many to get 50% reduction? Turnbull himself now looking like nothing more than rotten egg.

    • hydrophilia

      Expecting 50% growth, a cut in power per capita would require 25% shrinkage in emissions.

  • Blair Donaldson

    Now you see it, now you don’t. The LNP version of the pea and thimble trick.

    Renewables will not receive any meaningful support so long as the Conservatives are in government and/or the lonely Christian right lose power and influence.

  • al loomis

    why complain about politicians, if you are too ignorant, too lazy, too frightened to get democracy? all politicians are crooked, haven’t you figured that out yet?

    • JeffJL

      Not all politicians al.

      • al loomis

        it only needs one eddie obeid, and party solidarity does the rest. but they are all crooked, can’t get in office by telling the truth.

  • john

    This as astute move because it looks like huge amount of money $1 billion and it is going to be invested now after that announcement very few people are going to look at the details.
    The details as explained being that this not ” wasted on grants “, so no one is going to look any further.
    Devious decisions often come back to bite is all i can say.
    The previous fund was exceeding its return.
    As no board members have been appointed it is essentially defunct.
    These details are too difficult to find so home free.

    We do live in interesting times not necessarily truthfully of enlightening times.

  • Ian

    Turnbull’s “Clean energy innovation fund”, supporting early stage clean energy projects. Does anyone see the words renewables or carbon free energy in these phrases? We need some counter phrases of our own. How about the old Furphy” carbon capture and storage” which means coal business as usual with taxpayer funds used to supply a ” clean energy” smoke screen. ” reinventing the wheel” or ” if you at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” supplying valuable funding and research resources on projects like solar thermal, that have failed repeatedly overseas.

    We have technology such as wind ,solar photovoltaics, hydro, pumped storage and possibly batteries that are tried and tested and found to be very successful. Why not roll these out instead of flogging discarded technology dead horses.

    • solarguy

      Ian, I agree with what you have said, except about solar thermal. Yep, some in the past haven’t done so well, but in recent years, power tower CST has cracked it. Crescent Dunes 110Mw in Nevada and similar in Spain with up to 17hrs storage. All good to add to the mix you mentioned above.
      We can get this train rolling, we just need to throw the Lunatic Nazi Party out on their arse, this coming election.

  • Dispassionate

    Everyone understands that all this money is our money?
    There are comments in here about education and health, which are actually state responsibilities. Maybe if the states stop using their money in wasteful ways by trying to pick winners and distorting the market, allow the market to pick the least cost emissions reduction techs by providing good regulation and policy!
    This is really what governments should be doing! They shouldn’t be sticking their bibs into markets with taxpayers money as history has shown the spending is far less efficient than opening pathways ways and steering through good policy and regulations.

    • Barri Mundee

      You’d support a tax on carbon then?

      • Dispassionate

        Yes, I do believe that is the best avenue in regard to emissions reduction and this seems to be the consensus among economists.
        At least then the market will decide how best to allocate resources rather than direct inefficient government intervention

  • johnward154

    Prime Minister Turnbull claims he has taken $1billion from the CEFC

    A further $ 1bn will be ‘drawn ‘ from the “Green Bank ” to Clean up the Barrier Reef, a $100 million to Steel works in Whyalla SA, today He has dedicated a further $1bn to Better Cities from the CEFC.

    The offence of fraud against the Criminal Code, i.e. directing misapplication of monies. Section 49(2) (a) of the crimes and misconduct Act 2001.

    Evidence of the misleading and deceptive behavior of ministers of the crown including the Prime Minister.

    Let’s consider again, the law of the land; the limits the CEFC Act 2012 imposes on the responsible Minister’s mandate.

    Section 65: The responsible Ministers must not give a direction under subsection 64(1):

    (a) that has the purpose, or has or is likely to have the effect, of directly or indirectly requiring the Board to, or not to, make a particular investment; or

    (b) that is inconsistent with this Act (including the object of this Act).

    My question is, regarding Misfeasance:

    Knowing this, how can the Prime Minister continue to use the Clean Energy Finance Corporation

    funds as a Slush fund for his election. When his “access” to these Funds are to product of Misfeasance? Is the Prime Minister accessory after the Crime?

    John Ward

    20 Grosse Road

    Gordon, Tasmania


    03 62921211