Queensland energy minister Dr Anthony Lynham has described the controversial and much lampooned new restrictions on solar installations as “visionary”, and predicted they will result in more TAFE courses, more qualified electricians and a more highly skilled work force over the longer term.
The new rules, which came into effect on Monday and mean only licensed electricians can mount and fix solar modules on projects larger than 100kW, have been described as a farce by many in the industry, which warns of rising costs, project delays and choked investment.
But Lynham says he supports the new rules introduced by industrial relations minister Grace Grace, because they will result in a more highly skilled workforce.
“I see a booming renewable energy industry in this state. I see an unprecedented demand for electricians, associated apprenticeships and other people with the skills required,” he told the Clean Energy Council’s large-scale solar forum in Brisbane on Thursday.
“Unless we make a move now to … create that workforce, we will be lost. We have to be visionary. This regulation allow us to be visionary.”
Queensland has a 50 per cent renewable energy target, which Lynham insists will still be met, and has attracted more investment in large-scale solar (around 3,500MW) than any other state.
Many in the forum were astonished by Lynham’s “visionary” claim, and hope that the state government will eventually find a workable compromise to a new restriction that they suspect is the work of the Electrical Trades Union. Safety concerns used to justify the move have not been properly explained.
The industry warns that investment will dry up, and large rooftop solar installations may now be halted, large scale ground mounted projects will be delayed and costs will rise because of the difficulty finding enough qualified electricians who are interested in doing manual labour.
Catriona McLeod, investment director at Esco Pacific, a leading developer, warned of rising costs, delays and sovereign risk.
In a panel session following Lynham’s speech denying that the move could add significantly to costs, and timelines, Mcleod said: “The bigger issue is that investors might be looking at what is happening … and decide that state policy is unpredictable and shift their funds elsewhere.”
Lynham, meanwhile, blamed the federal government for the delays in the state government’s own renewable energy auction plans. The government announced plans for what is known as Renew400, combining large-scale renewables with some storage in 2017, and called for expressions of interest that year, but nothing has been heard of it since.
Lynham blamed the lack of clear policy at federal level, “shifting goalposts”, and some “crazy” COAG (Council of Australian Government) meetings. “It’s a tough gig,” Lynham said. “If we don’t get some consistent energy policy, I don’t know where we are going to land this.”
The lack of progress on the RE400 has frustrated many in the solar industry, and the lack of federal policy has not raised barriers to tenders held by other states – including Victoria, NSW and South Australia – or many utilities and corporate off-takers.
One option may be that the RE400 will form part of the newly formed CleanCo, which is taking over assets such as the Wivenhoe pumped storage facility and Swanbank gas generator, and will have a mandate to expand into renewables.
Lynham insisted that the solar industry had a strong future in the state – particularly if the “dinosaurs” in Canberra were removed in this Saturday’s election.
“The outlook for the sector is just so strong. You will provide us with cheaper energy, you will provide us with the solution for climate change.”