Standing up for Canberra

Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Repeal) Bill 2014

I wholeheartedly oppose the repeal of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency because it is a backward step for our country and it will have a significant effect on our ability to compete in a low carbon future. Labor is fully committed to ARENA and to its role in improving the competitiveness of renewable energy technology and increasing the supply of renewable energy in Australia.

It has been interesting to listen to the speeches over the last few weeks from people around the community, but particularly government members, about the great work being done by ARENA—how it is investing in world-class renewable projects, providing certainty to the sector and creating jobs. However, while those opposite acknowledge the considerable success of ARENA, they still want to get rid of the agency through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Repeal) Bill 2014. I assume this is purely for ideological reasons rather than for the great benefits generated by ARENA, not just in terms of developing and supporting world-class renewable energy projects but most importantly in terms of creating jobs for Australians right across the nation.

I want to go into the background of ARENA. Labor established ARENA in 2012 as an independent agency designed to improve the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies in Australia and to increase the supply of renewable energy to Australia's electricity markets. ARENA provides financial assistance to organisations, largely through grants. It has been providing these grants to nearly 200 renewable energy agencies or organisations for development projects. I note that 70 per cent of ARENA's funding has gone to projects in rural and regional Australia—that is, 70 per cent to country Australia. The Abbott government's axing of this body and its very important work puts many of those projects and jobs in jeopardy.

I also want to talk about a few of the 200 projects that ARENA has supported to date, including 27 projects based right here in the ACT. The projects that I want to talk about today are quite extraordinary. They focus on solar energy and on improving the way in which we generate solar energy. One of the projects here in the ACT is an Australian solar energy floor casting system. ARENA has put just over $3 million into this project, and it has a total project value of $7.6 million.

The lead organisation for the project is the CSIRO. As we know, those opposite have a complete disdain for the CSIRO. I think they are getting rid of about 500 jobs there. This is not really surprising, given the fact that they do not even have a minister for science. Why would they respect a world-leading organisation such as CSIRO, which produces extraordinary research that benefits not just Australia but countries around the world, particularly the agricultural sector?

The partners of this extraordinary project are the Australian Energy Market Operator, the Bureau of Meteorology, the University of New South Wales, the University of South Australia and the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It is not just Canberra but also academic organisations, laboratories and bureaus right across Australia that see the benefit of this investment. This project was developed because there was difficulty in providing accurate supply and demand forecast models on solar energy, and so the project sought to improve those models and, through the process, increase commercial viability and ensure the stability of the electricity grid.

The benefits of the project are that it would produce the most advanced operational solar forecasting system available and, through its unique research-access to data, provide a platform for knowledge sharing for researchers, investments industry and governments. It not only has an immediate effect, being able to better forecast what was happening in the solar space, but also has a knock-on effect of benefits for the academic community, industry and government.

The other project I will highlight today is worth just over $4 million of ARENA funding and has a total project value of just over $15 million. The lead organisation of this project is the wonderful Australian National University. Its project partners are the UNSW, Trina Solar and Tempress. The locations involved are interesting: Sydney, Changzhou in China, Vaassen in the Netherlands and here in Canberra. This project is interesting for the fact that it is looking to focus on advanced surface and contact technologies to improve solar cells. The project benefits are to develop advanced industry-ready cell designs that reduce costs and increase efficiency, and to access new markets. The benefits of these improvements will flow to Australian customers through the project partner Trina Solar, which is one of the largest suppliers of solar panels in Australia.

There is another project here in the ACT to do with solar panels, specifically for the relatively hot and arid Australian environment. Unfortunately, the photovoltaic modules are not optimised to operate in Australia, so significant improvements are required in energy yield. Module failure rates tend to affect the production of solar, because these panels are not optimised to operate in Australia. This project, through just over $500,000 of ARENA funding and $1.2 million in total funding through the ANU, is designed to improve solar panels so that they gave greater cost effectiveness of PV in Australia, to provide a better understanding of PV module degradation in Australian conditions and also to make locally manufactured PV modules more competitive in the Australian market and, I suppose, the international market—particularly in those areas where the circumstances are similar to Australia, those hot, dry and arid areas.

These are extraordinary projects that are just some of the 200 ARENA has supported to date. It is extraordinary to think that they could be no more. On 1 July this year, ARENA celebrated its second anniversary. It has been in existence for two short years and has succeeded in shifting Australia's energy landscape. Under Labor's renewable energy policies, wind power generation has tripled. The number of jobs in the renewable energy sector has tripled, and the number of households with rooftop solar panels has increased from 7,400 to almost 1.2 million. Labor's renewable energy policies have been a success story but are now under attack from this government. This government is seeking to undo that important work, and it is important work that has significant benefits for regional and rural Australia. Why is ARENA so important for renewable energy? We have learned from renewable energy markets overseas that stable, longterm policy provides the renewable energy industry with the certainty it needs to expand. In Australia, ARENA is an important part of this long-term policy setting.

We should be learning from the rest of the world. The number of countries with renewable energy targets more than doubled between 2005 and 2012, with at least 118 countries—over half of the world's countries —now having renewable energy targets in place. Of these, 109 countries have policies to support renewables in the power sector. Currently 19 of the G20 member countries have some sort of renewable energy support policy, and all of Australia's top 10 trading partners have policies to promote renewable energy. Worldwide, an estimated five million people work directly or indirectly in renewable energy industries, and that is going to grow. Global investment reached US$243 billion in 2010, an increase of 30 per cent from 2009. This is a growth industry. In order for Australia to maintain its competitiveness in the international arena, we have to develop industries that will be able to compete in a low-carbon environment, in a low-carbon world and in a low-carbon market. The move proposed by the government is regressive. In addition to getting rid of ARENA, the government is considering getting rid of the renewable energy target, either by scrapping or significantly weakening it. It is not just an attack on the renewable energy sector through ARENA but also an attack on the RET.

As we all know, the RET was introduced by the Howard government in 2001 as part of its climate change strategy and sought to increase renewable electricity generation by an additional two per cent by 2010 on top of existing generation. Until now it enjoyed bipartisan support. It is quite extraordinary that it enjoyed bipartisan support for such a very long time. The target was subsequently expanded in 2009 by the Rudd government to 20 per cent of all electricity generation by 2020.

Despite the now Prime Minister and ministers promising prior to the election not to change the RET, saying, 'We have no plans to change the renewable energy target', a number of ministers have now vowed to abolish it. Despite this promise, we now hear that the RET is placing 'upward pressure on power prices.' Consequently, we had the Warburton review. As a result of that review, the whole renewable energy industry is in a complete state of flux and uncertainty.

Modelling has established that the abolition of the RET would see no reduction in household power prices and cause carbon emissions to climb by 15 million tonnes a year on the back of a nine per cent increase in coal fired power. The modelling, commissioned by the Climate Institute, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund, indicated that for a household consuming 6½ megawatt hours of electricity annually —which is the New South Wales average—reducing the renewable energy target would add about $35 to the annual power bill Most of this increase would take place after 2020. For the same household, an abolition of the renewable energy target would add about $80 a year to the annual power bill. The modelling indicated that reducing the renewable energy target would cost the federal budget about $680 million in extra funding to meet Australia's target of five per cent emissions reductions by 2020, This would be in addition to the socialised costs amounting from higher levels of pollution, which the model estimated conservatively to be about $14 billion.

Not surprisingly, we learnt last week that the government's apparently independent review of the RET recommended that it significantly weaken or even scrap the target. But this recommendation is completely out of step with what the Australian community wants. A recent Newspoll, published in The Australian on Wednesday 20 August, showed that 98 per cent of Australians support renewable energy. I would like to take the few minutes I have left to read from just a couple of the emails that I have received from the Canberra community on this issue—some of those 98 per cent of Australians who support renewable energy. This letter from a constituent says:

May I register with you my strong objection to any proposal to weaken or reduce the Renewable Energy Target. Any such step is retrograde and gives no benefit to the community at large, whilst encouraging the fossil fuel industries.

Another constituent says:

The Renewable Energy Target has been remarkably successful in building clean wind energy throughout regional Australia. With bipartisan support, it has driven over $18 billion of investment thousands of jobs, delivering community benefits and bolstering rural economies.

Clean wind energy guards Australian consumers against the risk of power price rises. It cuts the wholesale cost of power and reduces our exposure to the swiftly rising price of gas.

These are just a few of the views of the 98 per cent of Australians who support renewable energy. With the world moving towards renewable energy—I think 19 of the 22 G20 member countries have some sort of renewable energy support policy in place—it is just extraordinary that this government should swim against that tide.

This government's attack on renewable energy is an ideological one. Scrapping the ARENA and scrapping the RET will do nothing to reduce power prices. It will be devastating for the renewable energy sector in Australia. Most importantly, it will lead to job losses, and it will put Australia behind the rest of the world when it comes to renewable energy. We on this side completely oppose this retrograde step.

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