MPI - Renewable Energy

October 12, 2016

We rise very enthusiastically to talk about this matter of public importance, the government's failure of leadership in energy system modernisation. In opening, we reiterate how proud Labor is of its record in government on renewable energy. Over six years its record was extraordinary. We became under Labor, as a nation, one of the world leaders in renewable energy. Over our six years in government we went from a position of there being 7,400 households in Australia with solar panels on their roofs to 1.2 million—1.2 million households were freed from the shackles of the electricity grid; a democratic revolution. Wind power in Australia tripled over the course of our six years in government. We became a world leader in utility-scale deployment of renewable energy. In just 2013 we approved in government the largest PV solar farm in the Southern Hemisphere and the largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. Jobs in the renewable energy sector over a six-year period tripled—during a period including the global financial crisis jobs in this sector tripled. Unsurprisingly, carbon pollution levels from one of the most emissions intensive electricity sectors in the world started to reduce for the first time in history. In just one year, 2012-13, carbon pollution levels from the electricity sector, responsible for fully one-third of Australia's pollution footprint, went down by 7½ per cent. Unsurprisingly, billions of dollars of investment flowed into Australia through this renewable energy revolution. In 2013 the leading index on investment around the world in this industry, the Ernst and Young Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index, rated Australia as one of the top four destinations for renewable energy investment in the world—up with the powerhouses of China, the United States and Germany.

This government's record could not be more different if they tried—and they have tried very hard. Only two contributions have been seen in energy policy from this government—a regular refrain that coal is good for humanity, and attack after attack after attack on the renewable energy industry. They did not waste much time starting. In spite of the fact that the former Prime Minister, Prime Minister Abbott, promised at the 2010 and the 2013 election to keep the existing renewable energy target in place, after another infamous radio interview with Alan Jones—I do not know what Alan does to them when they go on air—Mr Abbott walked away from that six-year commitment of the Liberal Party and sought to abolish the renewable energy target.

Unsurprisingly, investment confidence collapsed. In just one year investment in this industry collapsed by 88 per cent and thousands of jobs were lost. We plummeted in the investor rankings—I know my friend the assistant shadow minister will talk about this. We went down to No. 39 as spenders in renewable energy. A country with the best renewable resources of solar, wind, wave, geothermal in the world, we plummeted to 39th!

We finally restored a bipartisan position around the renewable energy target. In the meantime pollution went up by five per cent in the electricity sector in just two years. Generation in brown coal, the heaviest polluting form of electricity generation, increased by 10 per cent under Prime Minister Abbott and Prime Minister Turnbull. That was followed by a series of attacks on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and ARENA, which I am glad Labor has resolved. But still we have no renewable energy policy beyond 2020. To most observers, this simply boggles the mind: a country with the natural resources we have and with the mines and the innovative businesses we have which are ready to invest and ready to continue to push the envelope in efficiency and effectiveness of renewables technology. It boggles the mind that a government that talks about jobs and growth, a government that talks about innovation and a government that talks about being open for business has turned its back so squarely against this industry.

A wave of tens and tens of billions of dollars of investment and jobs is sweeping across the world, through every one of more than 150 nations with a renewable energy target. Last year, for the first time in history, investment in renewable energy exceeded the combined investment in coal power, gas-fired power, hydro power and nuclear power, and it will never be different. China built 50 gigawatts of renewable energy in 2014 and built another 50 gigawatts in 2015. For context, that is the size of Australia's entire electricity system. Last year we were fairly happy with the fact that we added one gigawatt of solar to Australia's electricity system. The United Kingdom, where the sun shines—as far as I can tell—three days a year, added four gigawatts. Such is the loss of investment confidence under this government in this industry.

People held out some hope that things would change with the change of Prime Minister. There was a great sense of hope, but there were some mixed signals. There was a backdown by the new Prime Minister on the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. Mr Turnbull praised South Australia as a leader in clean energy very openly during the election campaign, and we did finally reach an agreement over recent weeks to preserve the work of the Renewable Energy Agency. But the last fortnight for the Prime Minister has been a shocker—it has been a shocker.

What happened in South Australia was an unprecedented weather event—an unprecedented event. People will have seen the photos where the winds and the tornadoes tore down 23 extraordinarily large and robust steel transmission towers, tripping generation across the state. Now the Deputy Prime Minister gave us the benefit of his deep understanding of electrical engineering and meteorology. In the middle of the storm, while emergency services workers were still putting themselves in danger's way to protect the South Australian community, he decided that he would play some politics. There used to be a protocol that said you do not play politics while people are in danger's way and while the emergency services personnel and the army are still doing their work. I am sure the member for Wakefield will talk about his electorate. The Deputy Prime Minister gave us the benefit of his conspiracy theories; and it was all about intermittency; it was all about the wind blowing too hard for the wind generators to keep blowing.

Frankly, that is just rubbish. It has been made very clear by people who know even more about this thing than the Deputy Prime Minister, if that is possible to believe. After the delivery of the Energy Market Operator's report at the end of last week, the Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel said:

If you had a natural gas generator there, and the voltage was collapsing, and the frequency was collapsing, that natural gas generator would have taken itself off the grid just as rapidly as the wind farms had taken themselves off.

And AGL—which has the largest coal fleet in Australia and is not just a renewable energy company, said:

AGL has safely run its wind turbines in South Australia for the past eight years and is confident that when generation does not degrade the reliability of the electricity system.

This is just a premeditated attack by the Deputy Prime Minister on renewable energy and, given this man's approach to climate and energy policy for more than a decade, we should not be surprised.

The real concern though is that it was echoed by the Prime Minister. We have been alive on this side of the House to the challenges involved in our energy system: the need to decarbonise it; the need to ensure there is a good, orderly replacement of the coal fleet—which is frankly getting too old to continue to operate for much longer—and the challenge involved in generation becoming much more distributed. But this is an opportunity as well. Only in the last few hours, the Queensland government released an independent report about its renewable energy target for 2030, which the Prime Minister has described as 'unrealistic' and 'unachievable'. According to this report, that target would lead to $6 billion in new investment in that state and more than 6000 new jobs every year over the decade from 2020 with no impact on either the reliability of the system or prices. In saying that, it echoes the conclusions of the review panel that former Prime Minister Abbott set up to review the national renewable energy target.

Renewable energy is not just cleaner; increasingly it will be the cheapest form of electricity available and a form of electricity in which Australia has a competitive advantage. Bloomberg New Energy Finance released a report in recent weeks showing that the levelised cost of solar power in Australia is substantially lower than that of America, Europe, China and India. This government needs to recognise the transition is underway. The Deputy Prime Minister might not like it, but the transition is happening in any event. This government needs to shake off the ideology and sit down and apply its mind to some serious transition policy that secures Australia's energy system into the future.