“We are only a small economy, but we are forward thinking. We are an early adopter, and that means we are a leader.”
One would like to think that that was a comment made about Australia in a global context. After all, aren’t we supposed to be the “innovation nation”. But, alas, it is not. It is about the Australian Capital Territory, and the context is Australia and the partisan nature of energy and climate politics.
Those words come from Simon Corbell, the ACT’s environment and energy minister, and the architect of the territory’s 100 per cent renewable energy target, which will be reached by 2020. He is also the man credited for keeping the renewable energy industry afloat in Australia in the last few years as it came under relentless attack from federal and state Coalition governments.
Sadly, at least for Australia’s renewable energy industry, Corbell is about to take his leave from the political arena after a 19 year career, having decided not to recontest the ACT elections that will be held this weekend.
With his departure, Australia will lose its finest energy minister in recent years – someone who realised he found himself in the middle of an energy revolution and had the wit, vision and skills to do something about it.
Corbell’s legacy looms large. His policies have kept interest from international players in the local market, helped drive down costs, and develop the large scale solar industry.
Under his guidance, the ACT has pioneered battery storage, initiatives, helped introduce new forms of community ownership and been responsible for the construction of half a dozen wind farms – Hornsdale stages 1,2, 3, Ararat, Connooer Bridge, Sapphire and Crookwell – that would not have gone ahead otherwise.
He has also ensured that the ACT will become the centrepoint for investigations into the so-called hydrogen economy – and has unveiled trials for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and the use of excess wind and solar to provide “green” hydrogen for use in gas-fired power station.
Most of all, the 100 per cent renewable energy target – and its accompanying emissions reduction – stands as the benchmark for Australian climate and renewable energy policy and a blueprint for what is possible with a bit of careful planning.
Other states will not be able to be anywhere near as ambitious, but will adopt many of his policy initiatives, particularly the reverse auction bidding mechanism and the contracts for difference that Corbell has put in place.
Already, Victoria and Queensland have indicated that they will follow his path. It even gained the approval of former environment minister Greg Hunt late last year before the Coalition’s right wing erected the barricades and decided that the party would use the South Australia blackout as a launch-pad for another attack on renewables.
Corbell is frustrated by the latest developments.
“We are very conservative country and we are a very inward looking when it comes to what the possibilities are for the energy supply sector,” Corbell tells RenewEconomy in an interview.
“Globally, many countries are demonstrating extraordinary innovation, but in Australia there is too much business as usual. I see that at CoAG (the meeting of state and federal energy ministers), they know this is a problem but they say they will get round to it eventually. But this is not a question we can put up for another day, we need to be doing it now.”
Corbell did not start out with such high ambition. He was appointed environment minister in 2008 by former chief minister John Stanhope, who asked him to deliver on Labor’s election platform, which had been to deliver a 20MW solar plant, the first of its type in Australia.
Corbell went to Europe, looked at various policy ministers, and he and his team ame to the conclusion that a reverse auction was the best way forward. But because this project came at a time of soaring electricity costs, thanks to the gold plating of the grid, and talk of the carbon cost, it took 18 months to convince his fellow ministers that it was the right thing to do.
“We started with modest ambition. We got authority for a reverse auction feed in tariff and the initial allocation was for 40MW.
“And we went from there. We got our price projections right. We made conservative estimates and the cost pass through was less than I had advised cabinet.
“That did a lot to inspire confidence and lock in renewables as the main driver of out emissions reductions target. We talked about gas, we talked about energy efficiency, but it because very clear that the most effective way to achieve those emissions reductions was to decarbonise our electricity sector.
That project is now well on its way. A target for 90 per cent renewables became a target for 100 per cent renewables by 2025, and then that was brought forward to 2020. The Royalla and Mugga Lane solar farms are operating, as are the Coonooer Bridge, Ararat and Hornsdale stage one wind farms. The other projects are in or about to begin construction and the ACT is also conducting tenders for one of the target battery storage initiatives.
Corbell says $400 million of investment has been brought to the ACT, and it is now the headquarters of many renewable energy and software companies.
Even the local Liberal Party, when faced with evidenced that it will have nothing like the cost impact that they had claimed, have come on board.
“We had the converstion 4 or 5 years ago that the rest of Australia is having now. We are a small economy, but we are forward thinking.”
Indeed, on costs, Corbell’s team (and there has never been more than six) have devised a clever system that took advantage of the energy markets and effectively locked in a cap on electricity prices for the next 20 years.
If wholesale prices across Australia rise, the ACT gets a net benefit because the extra revenue is passed back to the ACT rather than pocketed by the developers of solar and wind farms.
“They (the local Liberal Party) tried to prsocute the cost argument, but they lost. The plan has a 90 per cent approval rating. No wonder they have come on board. “
He is, however, deeply concerned by the developments at federal level, and the attack on renewables led by the federal Coalition, and supported by state-based Liberal parties.
Corbell had been optimistic after the CoAG ministers meeting in August, which had seen energy ministers – many of them now holding the title of environment minister as well – talking about environmental objectives for the energy industry.
In previous years, he said, energy ministers “weren’t allowed to talk about environment or climate issues” at COAG. (Some of those previous federal ministers include Martin Ferguson, now working for the oil and gas lobby, and Ian Macfarlane, now working for mining lobby).
Corbell is disappointed with the political reaction to South Australia, and says much of the analysis – and the over-riding assumption by so many that it must have been the fault of wind energy – as fundamentally flawed.
“I was very surprised at some of the commentary, particularly from those who felt it was a reason to slow down change. The language of the federal government has changed quite significantly and that is disappointing.
“We are still thinking about our grid in terms of what it was instead of what it needs to be.
“We fail to imagine what the grid would actually look like … and this really comes down to information systems and data mangement systems that sit in our grid, and the need to manage much more complex range of inputs.”
He is worried about the push to double down on gas generation, particularly after the recent events in South Australia. “Gas may have a role but it needs to be constrained by more reasonable assumptions of the capacity of storage.
“Otherwerwise we just may be locking in another fossil fuel for the next 20-30 years and we would be locking in consumers to higher costs for much longer. And we will have the same issue of stranded assets”
And he hopes that the inquiry to be led by chief scientist Alan Finkel will reflect that. But he says that depends on who is co-reviewers are, and to what extent it will look at not just the Australian experience, but what is happening elsewhere.
“Finkel will do a robust and very good job, but need to make sure that review as a while looking not just at Australian experience but drawing on experience of others dealing with higher penetration of renewables, and managing it with a higher level of energy security.
But Corbell says that to make this transition work, people’s imaginations have to be captured as well.
“That’s what is missing in this debate. This is a technological transformation. It is exciting and people can be excited about that. And whey they see and are seized by the vision, they overwhelmingly support it.
“What is missing is a bit of passion and vision about where we want to go. We get so caught up in technocratic arguments we are missing the fact that we have got to take people with us.”
Corbell believes that the National Electricity Market could, and should, be decarbonised by 2040 – a target that is implicitly recognised by the Climate Change Authority in its latest report to the government, and by the government’s signing of the Paris climate treaty.
It won’t happen overnight, but it can happen a lot quicker than most expect. “We had a team of just 5 to 6 people. That policy unit ran the auction process, they ran the battery program. Imagine what Australia could do if it really put its mind to it.”