ACT Energy Minister Simon Corbell intends to rally state governments to implement their own renewable energy policies should the Abbott government adopt the “dismal” recommendations of the Warburton review.
Corbell, speaking ahead of the opening of the 20MW Royalla solar farm, was highly critical of the Warburton report and the apparent ideological prejudice against renewables within the federal government and conservative circles.
If the federal government acts on the Warburton recommendations, he said, then the outlook for renewable energy in Australia will be “dismal”, notwithstanding the efforts of his own territory.
“I think that sub national levels of government are going to have to do the heavy lifting if we continue to see this policy paralysis and lack of bipartisanship, and the ignorance on the part of federal policy makers,” he told RenewEconomy in an interview (You can read the full transcript here).
“The states and territories are very well positioned to act. They can put in place their own renewable energy schemes, whether it’s mandated renewable energy targets, whether it is feed in tariff support arrangements.
“That combined with measures for mandated energy efficiency requirements that can help reduce demand, are a strong suite of tools that should be deployed carefully, and ingeniously by state and territory governments.”
“Once we see the result of the government response to the Warburton report, it would be my view to speak to my state counterparts to see if there was a will to develop some coordinated policies that could support renewable energy across the states and territories.”
Right now, the ACT is the brightest beacon for the renewable energy in Australia. On Wednesday it officially opened the 20MW Royalla solar farm – the largest in Australia and, extraordinarily, the first in the National Electricity Market.
The ACT has another 20MW of solar farms about to be built, is closing an auction for 200MW of wind energy capacity later today, and also plans an auction for 50MW of advanced solar projects, which essentially means projects that include storage.
That is all part of the 90 per cent renewable energy target the ACT has set itself for 2020. It is not likely that the ACT can be more ambitious than that, although Corbell has flagged the return of feed-in tariffs for rooftop solar to bridge the gap if the small-scale target is removed.
But Corbell is conscious that the country needs more projects to bring in competition, which will help lower costs and financing.
Corbell is likely to find receptive voices in South Australia and Victoria. It was Victoria and its then Labor government that effectively saved the renewable energy industry a decade ago when it implemented a state-based target when then federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane pulled the plug on the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target.
The November state election in Victoria is likely to feature renewable energy as a prominent issue, and all the polls indicate a victory to Labor.
South Australia, though another state Labor government, has grabbed nearly one half of all large-scale renewable energy investment in Australia, thanks mostly to its 33 per cent target by 2020.
It has almost reached that target, although it is yet to announce if it will raise it. It has, however, set a target of another $10 billion in renewables investment. Without the federal RET, however, it will need its own scheme to ensure that happens. That could take the state towards a very high renewables scenario – even the $1.5 billion Ceres wind farm would account for 15 per cent of the state’s demand and take the share of renewables to around 55 per cent.
This week, SA Sustainability, Environment and Conservation Minister Ian Hunter described the Warburton report as “anti-science.” Hunter said: “We are concerned that this federal government, which appears to fly against the accepted, worldwide consensus on climate change, will make an ill-considered and ideological decision on this very important issue.”
Tasmania has a nearly 100 per cent renewable energy electricity grid, but its hydro and wind power plants will suffer greatly if the RET is closed to new entrants, or curtailed. The state also wants to build more wind farms and hydro facilities so that it can export this clean electricity to the mainland. It says it can easily provide clean baseload power that could replace one of Victoria’s big brown coal generators.
State Energy Minister Matthew Groom is reportedly planning to fly to Canberra this week to urge the federal government against scrapping the RET. “We’re very anxious about any decision that the federal government might make to this scheme that could disadvantage the state,” Premier Will Hodgman said.
NSW is interesting. It has made all the right noises about renewables, mostly through environment minister Rob Stokes, who is particularly supportive of rooftop solar, and commercial-scale solar, as well as community energy, and has backed the ACT’s wind auction, which will likely see wind farms built in southern NSW.
But although Stokes would like NSW to be the “California” of Australia, the state’s policy does not yet match its rhetoric. California, for a start, has a 33 per cent renewable energy target by 2020, and is thinking about increasing this because the policy is so successful.
NSW, on the other hand, supports the 41,000GWh target, but says it should be “pushed back” because of falling demand and scaled back to match a “real” 20 per cent of demand. The irony is that, according to analysis by Frontier Economics and separately by The Climate Institute, NSW has the most to lose by that policy. Apart from the spillover of the ACT scheme, little would be built in such a scenario.
Stokes was pressed at a standing committee last month by Labor’s Luke Foley on whether NSW had a separate 20 per cent target, as per its election commitment, or was merely part of a national scheme. Stokes was unclear, but appeared to settle for the latter. “No man is an island,” he quoted from John Donne Devotions 17. “There is no republic in New South Wales so we have to be cognisant of working together with our partners across Australia.”
The two biggest opponents to such moves would be the Queensland and Western Australian governments, not because they are beholden to the fossil fuel industry, but because they are the fossil fuel industry.
Those states still own the fossil fuel generators that are most threatened by renewables, and pay enormous subsidies on the cost of delivery of coal and gas to consumers (to the tune of $600 million a year each).
This reduces the opportunity for renewables to compete on a level playing field. But even when the WA government, for instance, has sought options to reduce the subsidies it can no longer afford to pay, it ignored renewables and instead contemplated importing coal from Indonesia to fire its ageing generators.
Corbell was damming about the lack of knowledge about new technologies, particularly solar and storage, among conservative governments, whom he accused of mixing ideology and the protection of vested interests in with their antipathy to renewables.
“Until we have a better level of understanding and visibility among our key decision makers about where we are going, we will continue to suffer second rate policy setting on behalf of the national government and some state governments,” he said.
So what of his chances to gain some traction at state level?
“My sense is that a number of jurisdictions would be receptive to that, although the nature of policy settings is uncertain,” Corbell said.
“They see the economic value of it in terms of economic development and jobs, and the importance of it in the transition to a low-carbon future, and the opportunities for investment that flow from that.
“We are seeing very encouraging signals from NSW, and we are seeing strong push back against the Napthine government settings in Victoria.
“South Australia and Tasmania have both indicated the importance of renewable energy in their economic and energy agenda, so I think there is scope to support that. But it is still very early days.”