Senate debates

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Matters of Public Importance

Renewable Energy

4:44 pm

Photo of Ursula StephensUrsula Stephens (NSW, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I welcome this debate and take the opportunity, as Senator Milne has done, to challenge colleagues to consider where Australia is positioned in this debate about renewable energy. As Senator Milne just said, we are in a period of energy transformation and we have to confront those issues. The Gillard government have accepted the advice of scientists that greenhouse gas emissions are contributing to climate change and we have acted on the risks that are being created for our environment, our economy and our society. We determined to join the rest of the world in cutting carbon pollution, and to play our part in tackling climate change. As Minister Combet has said repeatedly, Australia will have to transform from one of the most emissions-intensive electricity systems in the world in order to do that. But Senator Milne is absolutely right. The global clean energy economy creates huge opportunities for Australia. It is an integral part of our continued prosperity, and the economies that are driven by clean energy will be the ones that prosper in the next century. So we need to be there; we need to be playing our part. For me the question is: do we want to be among the countries that embrace energy transformation, or do we want to compromise our opportunity to benefit from the changes that are coming inevitably towards us?

The motion before us today relates to renewable energy technologies and there are already many examples of businesses that have started taking practical steps to improve their energy efficiency, reduce their power bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We have heard many of these stories. In New South Wales there are great stories to tell, like Crafty Chef, Emu Plains. With the help of nearly half a million dollars from carbon pricing revenue, Crafty Chef will install a new commercial blast freezer which will actually help to reduce its emissions and carbon intensity by more than half and improve its turnover by more than 150 per cent. That is the real economic benefit of adopting this changing technology. Fonterra Brands in Wagga Wagga are using a $152,881 investment to reduce emissions by 89 per cent—very significant for them.

As Senator Milne so rightly said, the Renewable Energy Target scheme has been successful and has supported hundreds of thousands of households and businesses to install rooftop solar and solar hot water systems and heat pumps. We have 350 renewable energy power stations accredited under the RET scheme since 2001, and that number is growing every day. So people are moving. The shift is on and we need to really understand the opportunities that lie with that as well. Wind power has grown strongly, to over 2,000 MW capacity by 2011. Some of the clean energy technologies that we see have been dramatically reducing in cost as economies of scale and investment in innovation have delivered cost savings to energy users.

Now the government has legislated to comprehensively favour clean energy with a policy framework that puts a price on carbon, that does support the Renewable Energy Target, that does support the Clean Energy Finance Corporation with $10 billion of finance over five years to overcome barriers to investing in renewable energy, low-emissions technologies and energy efficiency. We have got the $3.2 billion Australian Renewable Energy Agency supporting stable research and development, a really critical important part of the process. It is complemented by the $200 million Clean Technology Innovation Program. We are starting to hear of great outcomes both from the Carbon Farming Initiative and the $1 billion Clean Technology Investment Program for the manufacturing industry. Some things are actually happening. You cannot deny that the move is on and you certainly cannot think that you might turn the clock back. Passage of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation legislation in June was critically important. It fills a gap which has been clearly identified between the research and development effort and the deployment of market ready technologies.

So we anticipate as a government that the carbon price and the RET legislation together can generate around $20 billion of renewable energy investment between now and 2020. That will help deliver the large-scale renewable electricity projects that Senator Milne has been talking about. It will also help Australia to avoid the mistakes of locking in higher polluting electricity generation infrastructure that is the alternative. Quite frankly, it is why a coalition government in the future cannot make any serious attempt to undo carbon pricing, regardless of their claims. There is no alternative policy that will decouple growth in the economy from the growth of carbon pollution and there is no alternative policy to drive investment in clean energy, and certainly there is no alternative plan to transform our energy sector. These are all key parts of the whole debate.

To me the issue is about thinking about the future. Advances in solar and wind energy technology such as thinner solar film and panels, solar paints, new building materials and new wind turbines are all fascinating developments. But they are improvements to existing technologies and I want to know what the future potential energy sources might be and how Australia can pursue research and development into future energy technologies. Just like Senator Milne, last year I was in Argentina and I visited one of the largest solar arrays in the southern hemisphere. It was a demonstration project being undertaken to experiment with a range of solar technologies, in pursuit of that elusive baseload power. It was very impressive, and these kinds of efforts are being undertaken around the globe. The lesson is really clear. Denmark recently dismissed nuclear as part of their energy mix and have decided to focus on wind energy, because that is their strength. And we need to play to our strengths as well. We have an abundance of energy options, but our future energy mix has to be carefully considered, based on scientific analysis and serious public debate.

Last week I was able to visit the Australian Energy Research Institute at the University of New South Wales to meet with the Institute Director, Professor Vassilios Agilides. He spoke about the work of the centre's research on integrated renewable energy sources and energy storage systems. That institute is a sustainable energy think tank that is focusing on transforming energy research into practical applications. It builds on 30 years of energy research leadership at the University of New South Wales, which is a very proud record.

The institute aims to become an internationally recognised model of collaborative interaction between academia, industry, business and community, focusing on creating sustainable energy infrastructure and stimulating some informed intelligent debate by expanding research into economics policy analysis, regulation, engineering, sciences, social sciences, economics, markets, business and technology. To me that is what makes sense. Working across disciplines means creating a system that is larger than each of its parts and an understanding of energy-related complexities that reflect our future energy needs.

Professor Agilides actually suggested that it is new generation grid solutions that can address not just our energy needs but also use renewable resources to provide energy security. Meeting our future energy needs is going to be expensive, but at least we can choose where we want to spend our investment. Investing in technologies where Australia has significant intellectual property and expertise will provide the platform for future hybrid renewable energy generation technologies rather than importing them. I think the argument is right that Australia needs to grow a new industry with the potential to generate value in a carbon-constrained world.


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