DOORSTOP: 6/2/19

February 06, 2019

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

BRIAN MITCHELL, MEMBER FOR LYONS: G’day I’m Brian Mitchell, the Federal Member for Lyons, we’re here today at beautiful Connorville in the Northern Midlands with Roderic O’Connor, the owner here at Connorville, with Mark Barnett from Agri-Energy Alliance, with Shadow Minister for Climate Change and Energy Mark Butler, and my Tasmanian colleague Ross Hart the Member for Bass and David Downy, the Mayor of the Northern Midlands.

We’re here today to talk about innovation in renewable energy, Tasmania is a powerhouse when it comes to renewable energy. We’ve got the best solar, the best wind, the best hydro in the country and what we’re determined to do here in Tasmania is make Tasmania the powerhouse of the nation. And what we’re talking about today is an innovation in solar and I’m going to come right now to Mark Barnett from Agri-Energy Alliance who can talk more about what we’re doing here today.

MARK BARNETT: The Agri-Energy Alliance is a likeminded group of farmers that have come together to generate their own power, to distribute that power around their farm and here in Connorville we’ve got a 55 kilowatt ground-mounted system that services irrigation pumps and effectively brings down the cost of Roderic O’Connor’s power bill and contributes to the grid, thereby developing capacity in Tasmania to bring down the power costs for all Tasmanians. The Agri-Energy Alliance is putting on a power to the paddock conference on March 19 to discuss these issues and to bring famers together and introduce some Australian and global leaders in renewable energy. We’re very excited about it and this particular site demonstrates some of the innovation here in Tasmania that we have.

JOURNALIST: Mark, do you think the current system is a bit flawed?

BARNETT: Is the current system flawed? I think what we need is to go hard on the innovation, to work with all the players like TasNetworks to develop systems that allow us to distribute that power in a more cost-effective way thereby bringing down the price of our power for all Tasmanians, that’s what’s important. We want to develop the ability to leverage all of that money that has been spent on our irrigations systems by complimenting that with cheaper power so that we can improve our productivity.

JOURNALIST: Are you getting enough support from the state government on these projects?

BARNETT: State government has offered incentives to get started, which is fantastic, we encourage that, we encourage more of that, obviously.

JOURNALIST: Farmers here, are they having to pay more to get power on other parts of their property than they are just to the irrigators here?

BARNETT: Well the trick is when you put a solar system it’s connected to one particular meter and you’ll see behind us it then goes to the transformer and is transferred to the grid. Well then when they’re not using it, and you can picture an irrigation pump that’s not being used during the winter is putting power back into the grid when the other side of the farm they’re importing it at a retail rate which is typically 2-3 times higher than the wholesale rate that they’re putting it into the grid. So that’s problematic, that’s not allowing them the best opportunity to get the best value, it’s like buying a tractor and saying I can only use it in one paddock, you’ll want to be able to have that equity that allows you to spread that power across the whole farm but I guess more importantly we want to be able to understand in agriculture what is the true contribution that agriculture can make to our energy mix, we don’t know what the capacity of Tasmanian agriculture is to produce energy and add that to the state mix. That’s one of the objectives of the Agri-Energy Alliance to help determine those things and to become a buying group for farmers to be able to leverage that opportunity of high volume distribution of power that drives money back into those communities where it should be.

JOURNALIST: As well as self-sufficiency?

BARNETT: Absolutely, that’s important and that’s certainly important to Roderic, he’s said that on a number of occasions that not being reliant on others is an important part which is something that is important to every single farmer.

JOURNALIST: So is the alliance calling for more equity so that farmers that put into the grid can buy back at that same rate that they’re getting rather than buying back at the retail rate? Is that what you’d like to see happen?

BARNETT: What we would like to see is the innovation within the network that allows us to transfer power between meters on the farm as a first step. Following that it is being able to utilise the technology that is available to us to be able to trade power in the same manner that would if you grew a crop of wheat and we’ve been working with Mark Butler and various people on initiatives to be able to help us do that.

JOURNALIST: State Labor promised to do that before the last state election, would you like to see the current State Government do that?

BARNETT: We’re happy to talk to anybody who will help drive profitability and performance and better production in agriculture.
MARK BUTLER, SHADOW MINISTER FOR CLIMATE CHANGE AND ENERGY: Thank you Roderic for having us out here today to look at this really impressive product you’ve got here and I’m really glad to be here with my colleagues from the Federal Parliament. What Mark Barnett has talked about is a really important example of market rules in the electricity system across Australia, not just here in Tasmania, not working in the interests of consumers. At the end of the day Roderic and farmers and households across the country are putting their money where their mouth is by investing in their own energy generation and it’s important that we have rules that mean those homeowners  and those farmers and land-owners are able to get full value from that investment instead of transferring the value to the big power companies, whether they’re state-owned power companies as they are here in Tasmania or big multi-national private power companies that we see on the mainland. The idea that Roderic is not able to use the full value of the generation from the investment that he’s made behind us is something that needs to be fixed and it’s something that needs to be fixed urgently.

Now Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist who delivered a report the year before last to the Federal Government, talked about this, the ability for owners of energy assets like the panels behind us to either be able to use the full value or be able to trade with their peers. Maybe neighbouring land-owners, or in the cities, neighbouring households and trade at a fair price for them rather than exporting it at a very low price to the big power companies and then having to buy it back, as Mark says, maybe 2,3 or even 4 times that value. Ireally want to congratulate the Agri-Energy Alliance here in Tasmania for taking this issue up, for recognising that when land-owners, like Roderic, put substantial money into an investment like this, it is only reasonable to assume that they are able to derive full value from it, rather than transferring the value to big power companies.

I’ll say a couple of other things about energy because it’s been great to be here with Ross and Brian. I’m here for a few days to talk to Tasmanian energy stakeholders, whether they’re users, whether they’re energy companies, about the energy crisis that has been sweeping Australia now for a couple of years. Over the next few months Australian voters will go to the ballot box and have the clearest possible choice between two very different visions for Australia’s energy future.
At the moment there is a government in Canberra, led by Scott Morrison, that is looking to put billions and billions of tax-payers dollars constructing, or underwriting, new coal-fired power stations. The Labor Party, on the other hand, has outlined a clear, detailed, fully-costed plan to embrace a renewable energy future. And we know that from Tasmania’s decades long legacy in renewable energy that that is something that will benefit Tasmania. There are extraordinary renewable energy resources on this island, particularly the wind resources in the north. You have the best hydro resources with the proudest legacy in the nation and enormous capacity to expand that and with good, proper interconnection with the mainland Tasmania can not only power its own economy but get real value, value adding the power from the mainland as well a stream of income to this island. We want to see a real government in Canberra that takes climate change seriously, that embraces a renewable energy future and gives investors like Roderic, and so many others across this state, real value for the investment they’re putting in place on their land or on their rooftops in the cities.

JOURNALIST: So how would you change things for a farmer like Roderic?

BUTLER: Well we want to see an implementation of Alan Finkel’s recommendation, this was a very important report that the Chief Scientist has delivered to the government. But unfortunately the key recommendation of that report, the clean energy target, was embraced initially but the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull but then vetoed by Tony Abbott and his hard-right group within the Coalition party room. The Federal Government now, since the 2016 election has had eleven different energy policies and still has been unable to land a single one of them in the Coalition party room. There is a deep energy crisis in this country, there are questions about reliability, there are certainly serious pressures on business and households around the country around affordability, which is why land-owners and households like Roderic’s are taking matters into their own hands and making investments.
Now Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist set out a clear blueprint and it included things like the issues that the Agri-Energy Alliance has been raising. The need for property owners to be able to get full value from the investments they make and we want to see that recommendation, as well as the other 53 recommendations acted on vigorously, instead we’ve had a government in Canberra that has been fighting itself over its ideological divisions around climate and energy policy.

JOURNALIST: So given the State Government is a Liberal Government, would you then have to push them to implement those recommendations?

BUTLER: Well as Mark Barnett has said this should be a matter above politics and this has been the problem in Canberra, that every time we extend the hand of bipartisanship, as we did to Malcolm Turnbull when he was Prime Minister, he gets yoked in by Tony Abbott and a small group of hard-right MPs in the Coalition party room. Every single business group supported the National Energy Guarantee last year, every single state government, Labor and Liberal alike, supported the national energy guarantee, there was an overwhelming majority in the Parliament to vote for it, I supported it, Bill Shorten supported it, Malcolm Turnbull and Josh Frydenberg supported it but because Tony Abbott didn’t, the Coalition wasn’t able to land that policy. So it’s time, I think, in the national interest, to bring energy and climate policy above base politics and that’s what we need in Canberra and that’s what you’d get from a Shorten Labor Government.

Thanks very much.

JOURNALIST: Talk us through the investment that is behind us right now.

RODERIC O’CONNOR, FARMER: It happened in December, the proposal that Mark brought to me. Looking at a much grander scale than this but we thought we’d better jump in on the premise then invest at some stage in the future to cover the whole farm’s power needs through solar energy. It obviously banks on the fact that we can actually get regulation through the system that we can get this power re-directed through it to any other meter on the farm. I’m very excited about it, it’s one of my lifelong ambitions to be self-powered.

JOURNALIST: So talk us through your current struggles and roadblocks at the moment.

O’CONNOR: It seems to be taking quite a bit of time to get this proposal through the system, to try and get some result on it. I don’t think there is any problem with getting it resolved, it’s just taking a long time to get it up to the mark and we need to push it along because this is an urgent issue for the country as well as for ourselves who are looking to make a good long-term investment.

JOURNALIST: How much do you think it could save you if all the meters were connected on your farm?

O’CONNOR: It would be many tens of thousands, currently our bill is in excess of ninety-odd thousand a year, but I would hope to be bringing that down to probably ten thousand dollars a year spend. So significant in the long-term. Depending on how many solar panels we can put on.

JOURNALIST: At the moment, obviously, these panels are not hooked-up to every meter, what exactly are they helping out with at the moment?

O’CONNOR: At the moment, as you can see behind me, a small irrigation shed with two pumps, it’s helping out with that and probably for 60 per cent of the time it’s pumping back to the grid.

JOURNALIST: So are you making back the money that you’ve invested in panels so far?

O’CONNOR: We’ve only just started in late December but the return is healthy enough in its current format if you’re looking at a scale it’s probably at the low-end. The exciting part is when I can then re-build, send it around other meters around the farm.

JOURNALIST: Because if it’s going back to the grid, you were saying before you’d have to buy it back if you needed it, is that right?

O’CONNOR: That’s it.

JOURNALIST: And if they were all connected what kind of investments could you make in a farm to expand it even more?

O’CONNOR: The list is long. First thing is more irrigation investment, I’ve got two projects sitting on my books at the moment but I’m reluctant to invest until I know I’ve got this issue solved. The other thing is some infrastructure investment but primarily to try and increase the number of stock that we run.

JOURNALIST: So at the moment because of this hold-up it’s holding up investments that you want to do?


JOURNALIST: Talk us through what is actually happening on your properties, you’ve got cattle?

O’CONNOR: Cattle. Just to produce calves, we run a Merino sheep operation, a prime lamb operation, we look after managing permanent conservation governance and we also carbon trade out of our existing native forests that we elected not to harvest we’ve now put into the carbon project.

JOURNALIST: 55 kilowatt system? How many panels does that include?

O’CONNOR: Correct me if I’m wrong Mark, 180.

JOURNALIST: That would have set you back a lot, was there any assistance in getting this all up and running?

O’CONNOR: There was state government assistance of I think $20,000 and then obviously we’ve got the SDCs which are the credits you get for putting in panels. The reason also why I’m happy to try and move this project along is those SDCs each year actually decrease in value so the longer I leave it the harder it is, or the more it is going to cost me and less return I’m going to get.

JOURNALIST: And if you could interconnect these meters does that mean you can help other farmers nearby, supplying power to them?

O’CONNOR: In time. I think that’s the best part of this, if I’ve got surplus on this farm I can actually share it with another neighbour and I can actually reach an agreement with them rather than outside of the network. That’s the ultimate aim.