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Protect the Renewable Energy Target

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 15 Jun 2015

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (20:57): I too rise to speak on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015. First up, I want to place on the record that we need to consider this bill in the context of a government that has a completely irrational antipathy towards renewable energy. How do we know that? Let me count the ways! I will come back to this in more detail later, but I think this is really important for anyone looking at these debates in the future. I am sure they will pore over them and think: what were they thinking at the time with all the evidence that we know now about the direction in which we need to go in Australia? They will say: 'How could this have been?' We have Joe Hockey and his comments about hating wind farms. We have the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and his comments previously about hating wind farms. We have an ostensible review of the renewable energy target. In the face of a promise before the election that the government would not be changing the target, we have a review. The person appointed to run that review is someone who has a history of denying the reality of human-induced climate change and who has worked in the fossil fuel industry.

That said, I know that there are coalition MPs and senators who do not have an antipathy to renewable energy, who do understand the challenge that we are facing in relation to climate change. I would like to think that they are looking on in horror at the stance that is being taken resolutely by their leadership at this time in history. Particularly, if they have kids and grandkids, they know that the decisions that we are making today will inevitably have far-reaching consequences that we will all be held responsible for.

Here we have a bill that will reduce the target for the amount of renewable energy that we will have available to us in 2020 by 8,000 gigawatt hours at a time when countries around the world are doing the opposite. The worldwide investment in renewable power generation in 2014 was almost double that of fossil fuels. In early 2014, 144 other countries had renewable energy targets. I deplore the reduction of the renewable energy target from a target of 41,000 gigawatt hours by 2020 to 33,000 gigawatt hours. I also deplore the fact this legislation exempts heavy emitting, trade exposed industry. That will have the effect of shifting more costs onto households and businesses.

This is hard to reconcile, when we think about the rhetoric of this government. Do not listen to what they say; look at what they do. I deplore the changes to regulations associated with this legislation that will allow native forests to be burnt again. Burning wood for energy to keep us warm, and later to heat water to create steam to turn turbines, was something that we did in the past. That was the Industrial Revolution, which saw forests destroyed to feed the fires and to drive the looms and machines. Who would have thought in 2015 that we would be returning to a situation where we would be classifying the burning of trees as renewable energy when we in fact have the technology and we have infinite supplies of sunshine and wind that can feed the energy needs of the future?

Not only that, but we risk burning whole logs in forestry furnaces in an irresponsible and desperate attempt to prop up an industry that is incapable of being economically sustainable without huge government subsidies. The amount of money that goes into propping up the forest industry is there on the public record. This is just one more example of that. The other thing that people need to understand is that this will also have the effect of undermining further the investment in the real clean energy, like solar and wind, because allowing the burning of biomass will actually take up a proportion of the target-about 15 per cent, to use the forestry industry's own figures.

But why is that? Why would a government create uncertainty in the way that they have done? What evidence is there that they have been deliberately destabilising and undermining the renewable energy sector? Can it just be a matter of aesthetics? We know that Joe Hockey hates wind farms. He told us in May last year when he was speaking to Macquarie Radio. He was asked about whether the government would target clean energy programs in its quest for massive spending cuts. He was very candid and said:

Well, they say get rid of the Clean Energy Regulator, and we are.

He then mounted an attack on wind farms, specifically the wind turbines operating outside of our national capital here in Canberra. He said:

Well, if I can be a little indulgent, I drive to Canberra to go to Parliament and so on, I drive myself, and I must say I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive and I think they are just a blight on the landscape.

He was not asked his opinion about the look of coal fired power stations or nuclear power stations.

But he is not on his own. It must be something about being on radio that encourages an intimate, sharing tone among members of the cabinet. We had the Prime Minister last week speaking to Alan Jones and confessing that he finds wind farms:

... visually awful ... they make a lot of noise.

Our Prime Minister was very frank last week. He said:

What we did recently in the Senate was reduce, Alan, reduce, capital R-E-D-U-C-E, we reduced the number of these things that we're going to get in the future. ... I would frankly have liked to reduce the number a lot more but we got the best deal we could out of the Senate. ... And if we hadn't had a deal, Alan, we would have been stuck with even more of these things.

Those are the Prime Minister's own words.

Then we have the review of the RET last year, where the hand-picked reviewer, Dick Warburton, had worked as a former Caltex chairman in the fossil fuel industry. He denies the evidence of human induced climate change and he is a pro-nuclear advocate. The cost of that review was over half a million dollars. The review's own RET modelling showed that keeping the renewable energy target at its level or expanding it further will actually push power prices down. Again, I ask this: when we think about the rhetoric of this government that professes to be so concerned about the cost of living for people in Australia, if they were really serious about relieving electricity bills, why would they not be lifting the target instead of reducing it?

We have a RET that is reducing pollution, creating jobs and bringing power bills down. Why would any responsible, thoughtful, orderly or methodical government set about to destabilise it? I think the answer comes back to something the quite a lot of people have explored during this debate; that is, the influence of mates. We have mate Maurice Newman, chairman of the Prime Minister's Business Advisory Council, who talks about the RET, renewable energy and climate change not being about facts or logic but being concerned about a new world order under the control of the United Nations. We know that the government has many mates in the fossil fuel sector who stand to lose a lot if the push to renewable energy continues unabated.

Indeed, Minister Ian Macfarlane let the cat out of the bag last September when on ABC Radio he told us: 'There are about 9,000 megawatts, around five to nine coal power generators' excess capacity, which would be driven out by clean energy under the existing act.' Of course, this will happen. We are moving inexorably away from fossil fuels to a clean, decarbonised energy future. Trying to prevent it is as ludicrous as trying to turn back the tide. But what we see here is fossil fuel investors, fossil fuel companies and people who stand to make a lot of money out of the industry determined to prolong the carnival as long as possible and make as much money in the meantime. We have a government that is doing everything it can to support that endeavour.

Meanwhile, if we think about the effects on the people that this government purports to govern for-the people of Australia-we will have more landscape destroyed by coal and gas mining; we will have stranded assets; worse climate change; and we are reducing our readiness to transition to clean energy. As we approach the time, and it will happen-I fear, ultimately, without much notice in the end-when other nations de-carbonise and stop taking our coal, our gas and our fossil fuels. That is when we will have a workforce in Australia that will not be transitioned to the clean energy future and will be out of jobs on a mass level. Given the claims of this government to manage the economy, it is grossly irresponsible to jeopardise both existing jobs and the jobs of the future by ignoring every indicator that a transition is needed now. The evidence is there.

We have the clear evidence of the effect of deliberately induced uncertainty on the part of this government. The uncertainty has shattered investment confidence. Investment in Australia in all renewables fell 35 per cent in 2014. It was the lowest level since 2009-this at a time when the rest of the world is moving ahead. In China there was an increase of 33 percent; in Brazil, an increase of 50 per cent; and Australia fell 35 per cent-it went 35 per cent backwards last year. In the solar industry employment fell 28 per cent-down by 5,000 jobs to 13,000 jobs, and prior to this government being elected there were 23,000 jobs in the solar industry. This is a government that purports to be good economic managers. Thirteen large-scale photovoltaic projects went on hold. Large-scale renewable investments fell 88 per cent to $240 million, back to 2002 levels. Only four wind farms were being built. Australia fell from number 11 worldwide in relation to large-scale renewable investments to number 39-behind Burma, Panama, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica and Honduras.

Now we have this proposal that we are debating-to reduce the RET. Supported by Labor-yes-to reduce the RET to create certainty, and the only certainty that we really have is that the RET will be reduced. There is certainty that any reduction in the 2020 target will reduce the amount of new renewable energy investment over the next decade. That is certain. As well as that, it is certain that this will significantly damage investments that have already been made in good faith, based on the existing legislation-the existing target. There is certainty that reducing the target will have a significant impact on the commercial viability of all current and future projects, because the value of revenue for large-scale projects is based on the value of renewable energy certificates created by the LRET scheme, and that is determined by the demand and supply dynamics of the market. If the 41,000 gigawatt-hour target is reduced, the market dynamics will fundamentally change and the value of RECS will decline. This will correspond to a material reduction in the revenue that a project would receive, and it will result in significant financial impact. This, again, is at the hands of a government that purports to be responsible economic managers.

I want to speak briefly now about the particular perspective of someone coming from South Australia, which I am proud to say is that renewable energy capital of Australia. We have the highest level of energy generated from renewable sources in the nation. If the RET is reduced-

Senator Singh: Mr Acting Deputy President, on a point of order. Whilst I acknowledge that South Australia is going ahead in leaps and bounds in renewable energy, Tasmania still remains the renewable capital of Australia.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Dastyari ): There is no point of order. I will remind the Senator that frivolous points of order are not going to be tolerated in this Senate while I chair.

Senator WRIGHT: I must admit, it is a healthy debate to be having. I think that it is really important that we are vying to be the renewable capital of Australia. I have to say that the evidence is there that, indeed, South Australia is the renewable energy capital of Australia, and I will go onto establish why. South Australia has the highest percentage of homes with solar panels, at 23 per cent; the most energy sourced from renewables; and the most investment at risk-$2.9 billion of investments in clean energy, and there is a risk that that will go overseas if there is not enough certainty and if the RET is reduced. There are South Australian projects at risk. There is the Ceres wind farm on the Yorke Peninsula-a $1.5 billion investment, and more than 500 jobs. There is the Infigen Energy Woakwine wind farm in the south-east-150 jobs created. There is the Pacific Hydro Keyneton wind farm in the Riverland-more than 500 jobs created. We have Port Augusta, where recently there has been an announcement that the Alinta power stations-the two coal-fired power stations near Port Augusta-will be closed by 2018, which will, indeed, introduce the possibility that South Australia will become the first totally renewable energy state in Australia.

South Australia has 517 accredited solar installers; 16 wind projects of 561 turbines and 1,205 megawatts of capacity. Today, Tindo Solar, which makes the only Australian produced solar panels, and other solar industry representatives, are saying that there will be damaging job losses in South Australia-which is already experiencing significant job losses in many other areas of manufacturing-if the renewable energy target is changed and reduced. The predictions are that large-scale solar will beat wholesale coal power pricing anywhere in Australia by 2020 in less than five years.

When we come back to the closure of the coal fired power stations near Port Augusta, we also know that there is an extremely strong community push-from the residents, from the council and from many others-for a concentrating solar thermal plant. There has been a lot of work done on the feasibility of that plant, with a potential for baseload power to be created there using molten salt. It is a very exciting initiative. There is a lot of enthusiasm in the community and, as I said, from the council, because there has been a long history of damaging health effects from coal fired power stations in Port Augusta. Moving to a solar thermal power station would be an amazing opportunity for South Australia to showcase baseload power. There would be jobs available for the existing power workers to be able to work there and there would also potentially be jobs in manufacturing, in creating the components-the mirrors, and the panels-which would be used in any associated wind farms as well.

There are a lot of good things happening in South Australia. It is absolutely imperative that those things are happening in South Australia, because it is a state where there are significant challenges in terms of other manufacturing. It is a state which the current government are ignoring at this stage. If they are insistent on going ahead and allowing the passage of this legislation to further undermine the renewable energy target, that will only make the situation far worse for South Australia.

So I urge my colleagues to think seriously about this legislation, to think about the future and to think about what we are doing. I urge them not to be beholden to short-term interests in maintaining and propping up an energy source that we know has health effects, is contributing to climate change and is more expensive than the alternatives; I urge them to vote against this legislation.


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