Senate debates

Monday, 15 June 2015


Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015; Second Reading

5:57 pm

Photo of Christine MilneChristine Milne (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

I rise this evening to totally oppose this legislation, the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015, that has appeared before the Senate. It is an absolute disgrace that at a time of climate emergency, when around the world countries are scrambling to increase the amount of renewable energy in their systems and to decrease the amount of fossil fuel, here in Australia we are the first developed country to formally reduce our renewable energy target, on top of being the first developed country to abolish a carbon price. We are global pariahs when it comes to climate action leading into Paris.

I want to put to bed immediately this notion that there had to be some sort of compromise to deliver certainty. That fails absolutely to understand that the government has no intention of delivering certainty. Anyone who thinks that 33,000 gigawatt hours now provides certainty for investment is kidding themselves absolutely. I want to explain how this happened. Let's go to the Tea Party Republicans in the US. They do not believe in compromise. They go after everything that they can get, pocket whatever they can and then go after the rest. They have no intention of stopping where they are. That is clearly the modus operandi of the Abbott government when it comes to renewable energy, because the Abbott government is the wholly-owned subsidiary of the coal industry in Australia. Anyone who doubts that only has to see what this government has done. The fact of the matter is that renewable energy in Australia is undermining the business case for coal. That is it, pure and simple.

On top of the reduced demand that has been occurring and the rollout of rooftop solar, we had the coal generators in Australia in trouble—9,000 megawatts too much of energy in the system—and we had a choice. We could shut down coal fired power now without in any way jeopardising energy security in Australia and actually bringing down prices to consumers, because renewable energy is bringing down the wholesale price of power; or we could try and kill renewable energy and increase the price of energy to consumers, and that is exactly what this legislation is doing. I am afraid it shows a level of naivety beyond all measure to hear the Labor Party stand up here saying that they had to compromise to deliver certainty.

There is no certainty, and if anyone needs any proof of that, just have a look at what the Prime Minister had to say last week. He said: 'The Renewable Energy Target as currently agreed, mandating that 33,000 gigawatt hours of electricity be produced from renewable sources including wind, was merely the lowest number the government could achieve within the current parliament.' They have no intention of stopping here. They want this abolished altogether. If they could have gone down further, they would have, and they would have gone as low as to the point of abolishing the RET altogether. That is their agenda. Anyone who thinks that they are stopping at 33,000 gigawatt hours has not listened to how they are intending to prop up fossil fuels.

Let me go to something else the Prime Minister said: 'What we did recently in the Senate was reduce, reduce: capital R-E-D-U-C-E the number of these things that we are going to get in the future'—that is, wind turbines; that is what he was referring to. He said, 'I frankly would have liked to have reduced the number a lot more, but we got the best deal we could.' What does that tell you? It tells you it is the best deal they can get at the moment to get it down to 33,000 gigawatt hours, but it is not over. They have put that in their back pockets and they are going to abolish the Renewable Energy Target at the first possible opportunity that they think they will get the numbers to do it. So I cannot believe anyone is running around suggesting there is any certainty or that there will be certainty delivered to the renewable energy industry if and when this absolutely flawed legislation—contrary to what the world needs, let alone what this country needs—actually passes.

I want to go to the reasons why the small target was not changed. It had nothing to do with compromises made in here; it had everything to do with the campaign that the Solar Council ran in marginal seats around the country, where they stood up and made it very clear, with contributions from people who are selling solar panels, students who are studying in the new renewable energy field, people working in retail in the renewable energy sector, people standing up and saying, 'This will cost us jobs, and what is more you hold this seat by one or two per cent, and if all the people with solar PV on their roof change their vote, we can take this seat from you.' It was the marginal seats campaign that protected small-scale solar, not any so-called compromise that has happened between Liberal and Labor. It was Bill Shorten, the Leader of the Labor Party, who stood with me on the platform in Barton and said that Labor was not for turning on this issue. Well, Labor has turned.

At what point did this occur? The people who gave cover to everybody to start this downward process that got them as low as Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, could get them to go—and he will continue his attack on renewable energy—were of course the Clean Energy Council. They were the ones who gave cover to this happening, and then out came the AWU, saying that they wanted exemptions for aluminium smelters, but that was not enough for the Clean Energy Council. They said, 'Why don't we give exemptions to all the trade exposed industries? Why would you do that? Why would you go down that path, especially seeing that aluminium smelters have been subsidised by the community forever? With bulk power contracts, they have never paid the wholesale price for power ever anywhere in the country. Because of the currency exchange rate, they have had the biggest windfall gain that they could have expected in recent times. They have had a massive windfall gain with that change to the exchange rates.

We have a situation where the AWU came out wanting aluminium and the Clean Energy Council said: 'Let's go further. Let's give all the energy-intensive trade-exposed a 100 per cent exemption.' What does that mean? I have not heard the Prime Minister out there talking about power bills. Why? Because every trade exposed industry you let off paying for their renewable energy certificates means that the community has to pay. The community has to pay more now because the energy-intensive trade-exposed industries have gotten off the hook. I will be very interested in the definition of what constitutes energy-intensive trade-exposed as to whether the petroleum and gas industries get their way and have an expanded definition of the level of exemption they can get not only for their LNG facilities but also for the gas fields and what power goes on in those sectors. It will be very interesting to see where that ends up.

We have a situation now where the Clean Energy Council is facilitating a race to the bottom. The Prime Minister is saying, 'We want as low as we can go, as we can possibly secure in this parliament,' and the Labor Party have facilitated that to get down to 33,000 gigawatt hours and a total exemption for all the energy-intensive trade-exposed, increasing the price to the community and squeezing out large-scale solar.

The fact of the matter is that renewable energy has won the energy race this century. Solar has won. What is happening in this country though is that we are missing out on large-scale solar thermal, the sort of thing that gives hope and excitement for new jobs and new investment, for careers for young people. They are all offshore now. They are going offshore, where they are building a fantastic facilities in the United States, in Spain, in China. All over the world large-scale solar is being built, but not in this country, because of the attitude of the government and the AWU going along with the exemption for the trade exposed.

Now let me get to the decision by the government to include forest furnaces. This is a ludicrous proposition: the logging of native forests in order to burn them to generate energy which is then called 'renewable'. We know that the best thing you can do for the climate is to save the carbon-dense native forests, which are carbon stores. If you were interested in looking after biodiversity in the face of the extinction crisis we are now suffering and interested in securing carbon in the landscape, you would not log native forests. As a result of the world deciding it does not want to log native forests, the bottom has dropped out of the market for native forest woodchips. That is why Forestry Tasmania has made such a mess of it and is in so much debt. Forestry Victoria and all around the country want to be propped up by a subsidy because they have no market for native forest woodchips. So along comes the government, no doubt with the support of the CMFEU, to give renewable energy certificates to native forest loggers.

Let me tell you about Forestry Tasmania. It is so far in debt that they should be trading insolvent if it were not for the Tasmanian government giving them a letter of comfort. Whilst the Labor Party federally says that it opposes the logging of native forests for forest furnaces, Bryan Green, who is the leader of the Labor Party in the Tasmanian parliament, has been urging Bill Shorten to support this particular legislation. The Labor Party in Tasmania want forest furnaces; they have always wanted them and they want them now. It is bad enough that the Tasmanian government took $30 million out of Networks Tasmania, a GBE, and transferred it to Forestry Tasmania, but now in the budget they have extended their line of credit by another $10 million to $41 million. The logging of native forests is an ideological debt disaster. Now the federal government wants to prop them up by logging native forests. Anyone who suggests that this is about waste fails to remember the past; if you fail to remember the past then you are condemned to repeat it. What we are seeing here is 90 per cent of any coupe that is logged going to woodchips—90 per cent. We are talking about burning 90 per cent of what comes off a coupe in a forest furnace, if this legislation goes through. Any suggestion of 'Oh, it's only twigs and leaves and bark' is nonsense. It is 90 per cent of a coupe that will go into a forest furnace; and it is wrong.

We have run big consumer campaigns and we will run another big consumer campaign. People might remember burnt koala certificates. Perhaps the Clean Energy Council might like to think for a moment about the reputational damage to renewable energy that they are dishing out by failing to force the government on this issue. Again, I come back to the Labor Party. Even though Bryan Green, the leader of the Tasmanian party, wants it, there were two things that the government included in this: one was the two-year reviews; the other was to log native forests to generate energy. Labor came out and said they would make one a condition of doing this deal, but not the other. If you were serious about not logging native forests, why would you not have made both deal breakers? There is no answer to that, because the reality is that Labor at the state level is very happy to see native forest logging go on and be propped up by trying to include it in getting renewable energy certificates for logging and burning native forests and driving species to extinction. That, indeed, is what this will do if they get away with it.

Before the last election I went to see the Labor government to say: 'We need to get rid of these two-year reviews from the Renewable Energy Target.' The reason it was not possible then is that, had we tried to do that, Rob Oakeshott, an independent member at the time, indicated that he would move for the inclusion of native forest logging in that and he would have had the support for the government to do it. That is why it did not get done before the last election. This has been on the agenda for some time. The Greens have held it out for a long time, and we should be holding it out now, because every certificate that you generate from logging and burning native forests is a certificate that you are using to take from future generations the biodiversity of our forests and the carbon-rich density of our forests. It an absolute act of vandalism if that is allowed to occur. That is why we should be dumping the schedule which they have shoved in this bill that would give renewable energy certificates to forest furnaces which generate energy from the burning of native forests. It is absolute destruction of the world's biodiversity, and it will be yet another indication globally of just how backward Australia is.

I want to return to the bill in a big-picture sense before closing my second reading remarks. Australia has a dig-it-up, cut-it-down, ship-it-away economy. The Greens have argued for a very long time that we need to respond to the global warming emergency; we need serious targets. We have said 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 is achievable in this country. What that would do for jobs and investment is mega. That would give the kind of direction and certainty that you need, especially if it is accompanied by a reduction target for greenhouse gas emissions, consistent with the science. That is why we have called for net carbon zero by 2040 and 80 per cent reduction by 2030. It is why we have said as far back as 2009: 'Let's go for a 40 per cent reduction by 2020.' If we were in that ballpark now, we would be laughing— Australia would be sitting on a jobs-rich boom. We would be giving so much hope to young people who want to go into universities to study these technologies and who want to make sure that we can convert our cities to a low-carbon future. They want to be supporting more public transport, the rollout of electric vehicles, the rollout of solar at residential and at utility scale with solar-thermal plants. They want to see windfarms; they want to see wave power being generated; they want to see all the new technologies. One young woman stood up in one of these forums and said she was a fifth-year solar engineering student. She had put her whole faith in addressing global warming by using her intelligence and her skills to roll this out. Now she will have no option but to go overseas. That is what we are seeing around the country.

By attacking the renewable energy target like this, destroying certainty, taking away any hope that this country will ever get on track to reducing greenhouse gases to the level they need to be to be consistent with the science, you are taking away hope from the next generation. You are denying rural and regional Australia the massive rollout of jobs that will come with renewable energy. It has already come with renewable energy.

As for this absolute nonsense about wind farm sickness, what a load of garbage. How come wind farm sickness only strikes people in countries where people speak English? How ridiculous is it? It is absolutely ridiculous. The Americans have rolled it out, it is happening in Australia and they have it in the UK. It is just ridiculous.

At the same time, you have the Senate Community Affairs References Committee reporting on the impacts on air quality and human health from small particulate matter, especially from coal fired power stations. What does the government do about that—a genuine health issue with a proven medical effect? The government just say, 'Noted. None of our business.' Where are the increased performance standards for coal fired power stations? Nowhere. There is just this ongoing, ridiculous, concocted attack against renewable energy. It is going on against solar. It is only a matter of time before they come up with a process of charging people to leave the grid. What gives me great hope is the disruptive nature of battery technology as people say, 'We are over the fact that the government in this country have actually worked to destroy renewables.'

I come back to the final and most important point, the one I started with—and that is that this will not deliver certainty. This is just a milestone on the way to destroying the renewable energy target. It is naive in the extreme for anyone to put a dollar into renewable energy on this basis when you have a Prime Minister saying, 'This is as low as we could get in this term of government, but we would have liked to have reduced it further.' Yes, they would and, yes, they will if they get the slightest chance. We have heard the Labor Party say, 'We are considering a higher target.' Where is any kind of rigor around that? We have seen no numbers and no commitment, just talk and a cooperative arrangement that will see renewable energy set back. There was no reason to go below 41,000 gigawatt hours and there is no reason to do it now.


Mark Duffett
Posted on 17 Jun 2015 11:48 am (Report this comment)

Yes, countries around the world are "scrambling to
increase the amount of renewable energy in their systems", and it's making nowhere near enough difference to emissions. We need nuclear as well, Senator Milne, especially if you're not going to support dispatchable renewable options like hydro and biomass.