Renewable energy – The Australian Experience

renewable energy
Tony Abbott caricature by Donkey Hotey, Flickr

Australia’s renewable energy economy has been a fast-growing one with 29,678 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity generated by renewables in 2012 alone, representing 13.14 percent of national electricity demand. This compares with a figure of 9,500 GWh in 2006. According to the Clean Energy Australia Report (2014), of all the various renewable technologies, hydroelectricity is the largest sub-sector at 45.9 percent. Wind power takes second place at 30.9 percent, bioenergy 7.6 percent, solar PV 15.3 percent, large scale solar 0.4 percent, geothermal 0.002 percent, marine has one operational plant and there have been 901,923 solar thermal water heating installations.

As with many other countries, the main impetus towards renewable energy generation, prior to 2013 at least, was climate change. The Howard government introduced a mandatory renewable energy target (RET) in 2001 and in 2010 this was increased to 41,000 GWh of renewable energy from power stations under the Rudd government. The RET is supported by a smaller-scale Renewable Energy Scheme supporting rooftop solar PV and solar thermal hot water. Several Australian states have also introduced Feed-in Tariff Schemes (FiTS) and in 2012 this was supplemented by plans for a carbon price and a $10 billion finance fund to help support renewable energy projects. The finance fund was to be delivered by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) in July 2013, but unfortunately both these policies were later withdrawn by the Abbott government.

According to the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan, published in 2010 as a collaboration between Melbourne University’s Energy Research Institute, the environment group Beyond Zero Emissions and engineers Sinclair Knight Merz, Australia could potentially rely solely on renewable energy within a decade following construction of around a dozen large solar power stations and approximately 6500 wind turbines.

Leading the sector in Australia are two major organisations – the Clean Energy Council (CEC), based in Melbourne and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) based in Canberra.

The CEC represents and works with hundreds of renewable energy businesses across the country and across different sub-sectors, from solar and wind to energy efficiency, bioenergy and energy storage and including more than 4,000 solar energy installers. It is funded mostly by membership fees with additional finance coming from events and activities such as industry accreditation programmes.

ARENA was established by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Act of 2012, implemented by the Gillard government along with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), with the aim of increasing the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies and increasing supply.

The major challenge for Australia, besides the regressive policies of the Federal Government under the leadership of Tony Abbott, is that the counry has a multitude of obsolete and inefficient power plants. In order to progress towards a clean energy future, the big question is how best to replace these plants and how rapidly this should happen. Other issues include matters to do with grid connection, how to encourage more solar in the public housing sector and what more can be done to highlight and promote the benefits of solar, distributed energy and energy storage.

The issue of ageing and obsolete coal plants is particularly pertinent in the state of Victoria which has largely been reliant on brown coal thus far. However, the Victorian State Government has recently published a Renewable Energy Roadmap aimed at supporting the drive for a renewable energy economy. This includes discussions around job creation and modernisation of the electricity sector and a focus on the new developments in energy storage. It also sets a target of 20 percent renewables by the end of the decade. More than $40 billion worth of investment is available under the RET for these objectives and the CEC estimates such activity could generate 15,200 jobs.

The most suitable conditions for wind power generation in Australia can be found in the state of South Australia which in October 2010 had 435 operating wind turbines generating 907 MW, representing about 20 percent of the state’s electricity supply. This increased to 26 percent under Mike Rann’s administration.

Australian wind farm

The country’s largest wind farm, the Waubra wind farm, was constructed near Ballarat in Victoria in 2009, consisting of 128 turbines covering 173 kilometres. However, with regard to generation capacity the Waubra facility was overtaken by the Lake Bonney wind farm near Millicent in South Australia, generating 239.5 MW from only 99 turbines. In 2013, this was exceeded yet again by the Macarthur (Victoria) wind farm with a capacity of 420 MW.

Currently, Australia has more than 1,800 wind turbines with 1.4 million rooftop solar arrays on homes and businesses. However, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, investment in Australian renewable energy projects has now ground to a halt amid continuing uncertainty, with just one project securing finance in the six months up to April 2015. This one project was worth a mere $6.6 million dollars and they are saying that the Australian clean energy sector is now ‘uninvestable’. The policies of the Abbott government, particularly the RET Review announced in February 2014, have drawn much of the blame for this. The government would have liked to have cut the 2020 target by more than a fifth to 32,000 GWh per year by the end of the decade, representing 23.5 percent of total electricity generation in 2020. However, pressure from the industry, the Labour Party and various business groups managed to stabilise the intended cut at 33,500 GWh.


The Australian Green Party in particular have been scathing of Tony Abbott’s policies. Just recently, Green Senator Scott Ludlam of Western Australia described the Federal Government’s leadership of the country as “blundering and technically illiterate”. On the RET issue, Green leader Senator Christine Milne, speaking to The Sydney Morning Herald in April said:

“The RET was working brilliantly until Tony Abbott realised renewables were undermining the profits of the coal-fired generators and that’s why he decided to smash it. He’s removed all certainty from the renewable energy sector and handed it over to his mates in the fossil fuel sector.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has estimated that more than 2,000 jobs have been lost in the industry over the past two years

Companies are continuing to pull out of the country, thereby providing a firm indication that the international business community is not happy with the actions of the Abbott government with regard to Australian energy policy. In March this year, the country’s largest financier of renewable energy projects, Santander Bank, also pulled out.

“We’re going backward if you compare us to quite a wide range of countries” said Andrew Thomson, managing director of Acciona Energy in Australia, speaking to Bloomberg. “For companies operating in Australia, many would be saying, it’s getting extremely difficult here, why don’t we take a look at the broader region, Southeast Asia for example.”

Abbott’s obstinacy over renewables is bizarre. His attitude flies in the face of much opinion over the rest of the world. Even the Federal Government’s own analysis shows that renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, will be among the cheapest energy sources available within a decade. The Abbott government attracted spectacular criticism from around the world when it banned the CEFC from investing in wind technology, in other words, preventing a clean energy investment organisation from investing in clean energy. This ban also applies to investment in solar power by the CEFC, making it even more ridiculous. However, the government defended the move by claiming the CEFC would be able to concentrate on “emerging technologies”. Nevertheless, the Australian Solar Council believes that the policy will throttle the Australian solar industry.

Image Dept Foreign Affairs and Trade

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (Pic: Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade)

Abbott has also attempted to shut down ARENA but has not succeeded in doing so thus far. However, his government did manage to scrap an election commitment to the rollout of another one million rooftop solar systems.

The good news is that support for renewable energy remains high in Australia, according to opinion polls. That in turn means he is taking a political risk with the anti-renewables policies he’s put in place so far. Another issue Abbott will have to face is the greenhouse gas reduction target, which was due to be discussed in August. Australia’s greenhouse gas reductions will have to be larger than the current target (5 percent from 2000 levels by 2020) and that means more clean energy will have to be installed.

There is yet another problem. Many view Abbott’s actions as a move designed to protect Australia’s coal industry against competition, but the real threat to that coal is simply that other countries don’t seem to want it. And why is that? Because many of those other countries are themselves trying to make their energy industries clean and to reduce their emissions. In such a situation, the very last thing they would want to do is buy in extra coal, beyond that they can obtain from other countries. This effectively means there is an oversupply of coal generally, and the coal industry worldwide is having similar problems to Australia. Global coal is on the slide and this explains why the Australian coal industry has taken a nosedive. Abbott may love the idea of keeping Australian coal buoyant, but by the signs of it, it just isn’t going to happen.

In this political climate, Abbott would overwhelmingly lose an election. However, much of the damage has already been done. There is far too much uncertainty for companies to seriously consider investing in Australian clean energy.

However, aside from public opinion, there are other reasons to be optimistic, well up to a point. Some of the state governments are carrying on as best they can regardless of the Federal Government. Some Australian cities are going their own way as well, for example Canberra, Australia’s capital located within the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), has set a target to become 100 percent renewable by 2025. The ACT Environment Minister, Simon Corbell, recently told a renewable energy summit that states and territories could no longer rely on the Federal Government for ambitious renewable energy policies and that ACT was aiming for 65 percent renewable energy within two years and 90 percent by 2020. Corbell has also called on other state and territory governments to push their own renewable energy policies.

Meanwhile Victoria has recently reaffirmed a pledge to build Australia’s third largest wind farm at Ararat and has also committed itself to implementing its own Renewable Energy Target (RET). The solar sector in Australia is expanding exponentially, despite Abbott’s attempts to kill it off. One of the main reasons for its success, despite the Federal government, is the fall in solar costs, thereby enabling ordinary people to progress with solar installations anyway. This has in turn inspired the Western Australian government to start closing coal plants.

The fact that Australian states and territories are now also actively collaborating with each other on large-scale renewable energy projects, following a statement made by Mr Corbell in May this year, is particularly interesting. Abbott may have tried to kill off the Australian renewable energy sector, and indeed almost succeeded, but it seems many Australians have different ideas – and are now arguably in open rebellion.

About Robin Whitlock
I am an experienced freelance journalist with a wide and varied portfolio to my credit including web content, magazine articles, reporting, features, interviews, reviews and blogs. My special interests include environmental issues, particularly climate change, renewable energy, transport, green building and sustainable infrastructure. I have numerous secondary interests ranging from politics and current affairs to social justice, science, technology and innovation, historical topics and lifestyle subjects such as literature, psychology, contemporary spirituality and culture.

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