Solar energy is a great success story in Australia. It has been the backbone of the renewable energy revolution at the personal level. People love it and can’t get enough of it. It has been the game changer transforming households from passive energy users to proactive energy generators.
The old fossil fuel vested interests have thrown everything at it from refusing to reform the National Electricity Market rules, to destroying feed in tariffs, to undermining the Renewable Energy Target, repealing the carbon price and maintaining fossil fuel subsidies – but still the revolution gains momentum.
People are now looking to residential batteries coming down the cost curve so that they can escape the system. They want to control their energy supply and demand, and their energy bills, at the same time without constant adverse interference. Electric vehicles are the icing on the cake.
A key component of the current momentum and the solar revolution is the renewable energy generation and energy efficiency brains base Australia has developed over time in our universities and research institutions. We have some of the best scientists and researchers in the world. But they struggle to stay employed and to secure research grants.
I came to understand that very well when I watched the manipulation and gross incompetence of those Ministers and bureaucrats designing and overseeing the Solar Flagship program. The rules were written in such a way that the grants were inaccessible to those who needed them. The time delays between grant advertising and any being made were ridiculously long. In the 2010 election campaign money was taken out of Solar Flagships and other renewable programs to fund Cash for Clunkers and for the flood levy.
So when the opportunity arose to fix it, as part of the negotiations to secure the Clean Energy Package, I took it. Renewable Energy was to be supported from earliest research and development through to pilot stage and then on to commercialisation. It would be done through two new independent and interdependent statutory authorities with independent boards. Both had legislated funding. ARENA had $3 billion funding from the budget and CEFC from an off budget $10 billion.
Solar flagships and other Renewable energy programs were rolled into ARENA, which would concentrate on grant funding from earliest stage to pilot stage. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation would then overlap to an extent from pilot through to commercialisation and beyond by providing loans. The profits from the CEFC investments would be recycled into ARENA giving it an ongoing grants funding base.
The independent statutory authority arrangement was to stop hostile Ministers from raiding and undermining the purpose for which they were set up. The compromise was Martin Ferguson as Energy minister retained them in his portfolio but had no power to wreck them. I announced the new arrangements at a Clean Energy Conference. ARENA and the CEFC were hard fought and huge wins for the Australian Greens and for the country.
The Abbott Government tried to destroy them both, but the design of both – with their own carefully written legislation and finance arrangements – saved them from political interference beyond the efforts to rewrite the investment mandate of CEFC and destroy the Boards. The Senate was the insurance against bad governments. The need for parliamentary approval to abolish them or take money from them has lasted the distance, notwithstanding the 2014 budget in which Tony Abbott with the support of Clive Palmer’s PUP, Muir et al took $700 million from ARENA.
That is why I am so disgusted by the current behaviour of the Labor Party. It was The Australian Greens in negotiation with PM Julia Gillard and Minister Greg Combet who delivered ARENA and CEFC and protected them from Martin Ferguson and future hostile Governments. It would be ironic indeed if it is Labor’s Bill Shorten and Mark Butler who carry on Ferguson’s agenda, maintain fossil fuel subsidies and cripple early stage research in Australia via ARENA by taking $1 billion grant funding from it. They apparently don’t value the Gillard government legacy or the investments made by ARENA and CEFC but that of course won’t stop them from visiting them renewables projects, hard hats and flouro vests at the ready.
As to the utter nonsense of a fabulous new fund for solar thermal. Give me a break. CEFC has a $10 billion fund on which to draw on the recommendation of its experts and its board and under the guidance of its legislation. What Malcolm Turnbull did was to engage in political interference by requiring $1 billion of the existing fund be set aside for solar thermal. CEFC has solar thermal already on its watch but the profit margins that Matthias Cormann and PM Turnbull have tried to impose are the very thing that will slow it down.
But in this post-truth and post-fact politics world, a sleight of hand raiding ARENA of $1.3 billion to spend on anything other than renewable energy and rebadging an existing $1 billion as a new fund is regarded as genius for the Liberals. While Labor doing the same is regarded as responsible “budget repair”.
It is actually a direct attack on the rapid transition to renewable energy, on innovation, on research and jobs but most importantly it is a direct attack on addressing the ever accelerating climate emergency. Instead of getting onto a war footing and rapidly transitioning to 100% renewable energy, LNP and Labor are fiddling the ecological and budget books while the planet burns.
Christine Milne is a former Senator and former leader of The Greens.
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