The new head of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Ian Learmonth, says distributed energy – including solar, battery storage and demand management – will be one of his main focuses when he takes the reigns of the $10 billion institution in May.
“The CEFC is very broad ranging – and we’re agnostic about clean energy technologies – but I’m particularly interested in the way that distributed energy is emerging in Australia,” he told RenewEconomy in an interview on Friday after his appointment was announced.
“There are 1.5 million solar households in Australia, battery technology is emerging, there is demand management, and some very interesting opportunities.
“We are seeing those already coming to the CEFC. There is an incredible entrepreneurial spirit.”
Many in the energy industry expect a rapid shift in the energy market from one that focuses on large, centralised fossil fuel generators, to a “distributed” system where much of the power required is sourced from household and business consumers.
These technologies, mostly rooftop solar and battery storage, will dovetail with smart software that can integrate the systems, demand response, trading and back-up power.
It also fits in with his recent work as the head of impact investing at Social Ventures Australia, where the focus was on helping disadvantaged households.
“At Social ventures, we have been looking at reducing costs to government and employment benefits, hopitalisation and prison costs – and we’ve also been working on affordable housing,” he said.
“Government is increasingly looking at private capital to build out the shortfall in affordable housing – and if that can be done in an energy efficient way, that is even better.”
Learmonth said he was not worried about the political debate around the CEFC, which the Coalition has tried to dismantle, has widely criticised and then tried to push towards non-renewable technologies such as “clean” coal.
“I’d like to think that lot of the challenges of the past are behind the organisation, and it is seen as an important participant in this market. I think the government has a huge amount of respect for the organisaiton. I am not troubled by (the past).”
However, he agreed with outgoing CEO Oliver Yates, another former Macquarie banker, that there is virtually no investment interest in clean coal technology.
“They are not opportunities that have been presenting themselves; for various reasons they have enormous challenges about them. They are not investable projects – for many reasons that are unlikely to change.”
Learmonth said he had had a big involvement with renewable energy financing whilst at Macquarie’s London base, financing wind projects in Germany, solar projects in Italy and offshore wind in the UK.
He has also been involved with carbon trading ventures and was chairman of Palisade-owned Waterloo wind farm on his return to Australia, where he took up a role as investment head of Social Ventures. He has also served on the financing committee of the CEFC for the past nine months.
“I see this role as one of most important positions in the clean energy market.”
Learmonth won’t be short of available funds. Yates says he is leaving Learmonth with more money than he started with, as returns on investment have left $10.2 billion in the kitty.
Yates was reluctant to focus on any particular transaction, saying that the major achievement had been the “diversity” of investment across solar, wind, storage, energy efficiency and distributed energy.
But he did highlight the lending support for the unique Sundrop Farms solar project, which is using solar towers to provide heat and some power for the giant tomato-growing facility in South Australia, and the financing of the Moree solar farm at the height of the attacks on the renewable energy target.
“Who else would have stood up and said we can underwrite that,” Yates said of Sundrop. “That really is a unique and exciting project.”
He also said that bankers, in general, were now a lot more focused on the opportunities for clean energy.