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How can we overcome Australia’s renewable energy policy deadlock?

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It has now been three months since the release of the Finkel Review Report and its recommendation for a Clean Energy Target – and the federal government seems no closer to deciding what the renewable energy policy landscape will look like after 2020.

Adam Bandt recently pointed out that Labor’s willingness to vote for anything that will shore up support for the renewable energy industry provides an opportunity for the Liberals to propose any combination of weak schemes (Emissions Reduction Fund, anyone?).

Alternatively, in-fighting within the Liberals is leading to the renewable energy policy space being so toxic that our Prime Minister appears to prefer it isn’t discussed at all (unless it’s a token fly-over in a helicopter of an already existing asset, spruiking an already announced project).PolicyPersuasion jpeg copy

In the meantime, individual states are ‘going it alone’ with renewables, leading to a patchwork of policies that don’t necessarily integrate well with a national market.

Large-scale renewable energy companies are benefitting from a reduction in the cost of renewable energy investment and the support of state governments, but are also variously concerned about: network connections; profitability impacted by 30 minute settlement periods; and the potential for spread of grid-support requirements that will see excessive physical inertia ‘support’ for wind farms.

Agencies are pushing for “demand-side measures” (eg batteries and demand management (AEMO) but have delayed changes to the ’30 minute settlement period’ (AEMC).

Consumers, on the other hand, have to worry about the ‘gold plating’ of networks, retailers choosing to move people onto high cost standing rate tariff structures, variability in feed-in tariffs or the potential for ‘solar taxes’, not to mention the odd dodgy solar retailer.

So what can be done?

According to my research, published last month, there is the potential for industry and community to influence the direction of energy policy. However, this requires the development of a clear and consistent message – i.e. something that can be acted on – and requires industry and community stakeholders to work together.

The example used in my research is Western Australia’s premium feed-in tariff.  In the 2013 budget it was announced that the premium feed-in tariff available to existing solar households would be reduced, and then discontinued, well ahead of the initial 10-year timeframe. This would see a reduction in financial returns for approximately 75,000 WA householders. It also represented a backflip on a WA government commitment to support the local renewable energy industry.

The response to the decision to discontinue access to the premium feed-in tariff was rapid and effective.

Industry advocacy groups quickly contacted members of parliament to make them aware of the likely consequence of the decision – unhappy voters and the perception of an unreliable government.

A public advocacy group, Solar Citizens, created an online petition to gather the names of people opposed to and/or affected by the decision (almost 10,000), which in turn created awareness of the government’s policy change and its potential impact.

Many householders, some of whom I spoke to, contacted their local members of parliament noting their displeasure about the proposed change – and that the decision was leading them to consider voting differently in the next state election. This proved important in leading individual MPs, concerned about maintaining their seats, to contact the state minister for energy and treasurer about the potential for reversing the decision.

Finally, renewable energy industry and public advocacy groups engaged with media organisations to spread the message about the government’s decision.

Interestingly, my research indicated that many of the people we believe have the power to influence the energy industry – including those in energy agencies and utilities, members of parliament and government representatives – don’t necessarily have much influence in the overall direction of energy policy.

Instead, policy is developed by Cabinet, sometimes seemingly without any thought for consumers or industry. (Turnbull’s recent claim that AGL was considering extending the life of the Liddell coal power plant – only to be rebuffed by AGL CEO Andy Vesey – is an extreme example of this).

Based on my research, the best chance there is to influence the direction of energy policy is to create a mass of political pressure. If industry and agencies agree on a particular message – and this message is strongly enforced and promoted by a mass of the voting public and media agencies – there might be the potential to influence the direction of government policy.

There have been clear attempts at this in the past. For instance, when the Clean Energy Council and the Australian Aluminium Council, two groups with typically opposing views in relation to renewable energy policy, released a joint statement requesting the Abbott government to finalise a course of action on the Renewable Energy Target.

The decision to come together behind a common voice was effective, not only in highlighting to conservative members of parliament that the Renewable Energy Target genuinely impacts industry, but the merging of diverse voices proved interesting to the media as well.

(In this case the ‘push’ wasn’t successful – it was another six months before an agreement was reached. But this was also at a time when public interest in the Renewable Energy Target was waning – there are only so many review reports the public can take before it ‘checks out’.)

Perhaps the problem, as it currently stands, is that the complete policy black hole surrounding renewable energy at the federal level has left it almost impossible to craft a clear message that industry members, community members, agencies (if independent) and parliamentarians can get behind. It’s hard to tell where this will land at this stage – but there are plenty placing confidence in the new AEMO head, Audrey Zibelman, to be able to create messages that all can support.

Dr Genevieve Simpson is an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Agriculture and Environment, at the University of Western Australia.

  

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  • trackdaze

    Make no mistake the coalition pushing liddell to remain open is more about undermining future investment in renewables.

    The coalition have seen the boom in wind and solar and batteries since hazelwood announced its closure and sees liddell closure as shoring up investor confidence further out.

    Worth noting the Clean energy target reduction was about the size of liddell.

    • Rod

      RET?

  • Andrew Buckwell

    That the Abbott-Turnbull government can remain impervious to influence from the energy generating companies, the polls, their own inquiry authors, and parliamentary overtures from Labor, shows it would rather self-immolate at the ballot box than compromise.

    It now impossible that a feasible and de-cabonising investment policy for energy can be found under this government. Influential Coalition members see any deal with the progressive side of politics on the clean energy target as a defeat in the broader culture war they seem to want to fight on every issue: ‘renewable energy’ is just another ‘political correctness gone mad’ issue. Defeat cannot be tolerated as it emboldens the opposition and suggests that you are wrong.

    As our inability to even fudge and bluster our way to our Paris commitments becomes clearer over the next 12 months, expect Abbott’s hardening towards the international obligations he signed to become the mainstream Coalition view, whereby discussion on withdrawal is met with ‘meh’, rather than alarm or shock.

    • Mike Westerman

      It should be clear that the Nationals, having largely failed their former support base among the farming community, are now trying to cement their relationship with the mining community that are equally ubiquitous in regional areas. It’s a pity that those communities can’t see the degree to which both industries are dominated by the big end of town who has little regard for them. However, the economics of rooftop solar in regional areas is so compelling that most people are coming face to face with what RE looks like, and seeing the benefits on their power bills. And that grassroots impact is something Turnbull and Joyce can’t reverse. The announcement of some viable pumped hydro schemes and the tripping of some thermal plants this summer will see the collapse in support for coal and leave the Nats looking very silly.

      • Rod

        Agree re the support from those who experience their own renewables.
        Re the thermal failure: Here’s a hypothetical question.

        SA
        1pm December 25. Not a lot of wind but plenty of solar, 700MW maybe plus whatever is BTM.
        And one of our big gas units has a wobbly. The voltage excursion trips every grid connected solar array in the State. The interconnector isn’t much use, because they don’t have a lot to spare this Summer.
        Do you think that gas unit will get the blame for the possible System black or renewables?

        Fingers crossed, it doesn’t happen or if it does, the battery saves us.

        • Kevan Daly

          Your SA scenario would be extremely useful. We’d find out how the solar farms respond to multiple disturbances before there are enough of them to cause a black system event.

          • Rod

            Pretty sure solar farms would have more robust settings than home inverters?
            We have little in the way of Large scale solar atm. Roof top is a worry.
            AEMO alluded to it in their security report.
            There is an article here somewhere about how close we came due to 3 units at TIPS B tripping after a transformer explosion in the switchyard.

          • Ian

            The reason rooftop solar cannot contribute to grid stability is because most home solar systems are passive. The solar array generates electricity as designed and it is either used or exported. If the grid experiences a blackout then these sorts of home solar shut down. They are totally dependent on the grid for electricity management functions.

            This situation is technologically easy to remedy: home solar batteries and home electricity management can allow more consistent electricity flows from distributed sources to the grid and can allow is landing in the event of a blackout.

            Quite clearly home batteries are an important part of the grid stability mechanism and should be subsidised extensively.

          • Rod

            I don’t know the settings but my inverter has low and high voltage cut off.
            It would be nice that now AEMO has seen the problem, they encourage storage incentives but I can’t see it happening in the current political environment.

          • solarguy

            If a system black happened during day light hours an auto change over switch would allow the household to self consume PV generation while being islanded from the grid even without a battery. These switches could be retro fitted. However, inverters could come with this feature as part of their normal set of functions. Something to think about.

      • Joe

        Hang on a minute, The Country Party …I mean ..The Nationals are still supporting some farmers…The Coal Farmers, yes. I don’t get how farmers still support Bananabee Joyce / National Party. Our Farmers well know what climate change is all about and to support a political party that ignores the science and then propose to keep burning FF’s is just suicide for farmers. Surely self interest dictates that farmers abandon Joyce / The National Party.

  • Robin_Harrison

    I can see you have to be a bit diplomatic but your term federal government inertia should read a federal government owned by the fossil fools.

  • Joe

    ..Deadlock…I would say Roadblock is more accurate. It is The COALition that is purposely being a Roadblock. They are owned and corrupted by Big Fossil Fuel. The only solution is for The COALition to be gone. We need a progressive minded government and not this charade that we are witnessing at the moment. We have a climate emergency on our hands and all Turnbull & Co can offer is …More, More.. Coal.
    The economics and the environment say RE is the way to go.

    • jm

      At the moment they clearly are not owned by AGL… 🙂

      • Joe

        Let’s see after the ’90 Days’ undertaking