Giles Parkinson, RenewEconomy
Environment minister Greg Hunt this week has been on a mini-tour of Western Australia, with the head of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency – which he wants to de-fund – announcing the sort of grants for solar and battery storage installations that he wants to stop.
If there was any hint of irony in praising the work of ARENA and taking credit for the initiatives of an institution that the Coalition has spent much of the last three years trying to abolish, it was not immediately apparent.
‘The Turnbull government is providing $17 million funding for nine new R&D projects set to deliver renewable energy technologies and solutions suited to the 21st century,’ Hunt proudly announced in a press release, before enthusing at the opening about the potential for Australia to lead the world in battery storage.
‘I’m delighted to announce that in partnership with Synergy, the Australian government is contributing $3.3 million for a community household storing of – solar storage and energy facility,’ he told a gathering of media and dignitaries.
‘Behind us we have 1.1 million hours’ worth of storage. This is the real world, this is the future that is behind us in terms of storage, solar energy on the roofs in front of us, the storage behind us.’
And on it went. Indeed, Hunt’s speech was a compilation of everything that people find confusing and dumbfounding about this Turnbull government.
Australia will be among the first to formally sign the Paris climate deal, but it still hasn’t the domestic targets or the policies to get anywhere near its share of meeting that agreement; it professes support for wind and solar but has no new developments to show for it; it claims to have brought certainty to the renewable energy industry, when the only certainty in the last three years has been the lack of investment; it hails innovative solar and storage projects and then removes the funding mechanism that makes them possible; it applauds the work of a key agency it has tried to dismantle and finally strips it of funding; it wants to cease grants to clean energy projects ‘to protect taxpayers money’ but then uses grants to polluters as the basis of its emissions reduction fund.
The demotion of Tony Abbott and the departure Joe Hockey has meant the end of the anti-wind rhetoric. Even acting prime minister Barnaby Joyce (yes, really) has changed his tune on wind energy, welcoming huge projects in technologies he once compared to lemmings jumping off a cliff.
But this administration continues to confound, and frustrate. Turnbull and his energy minister continue to talk of the coal industry’s importance to the world, and those who hoped that Turnbull was simply biding his time until he could shake the stranglehold of the far right might be disappointed: The far right has inserted two former policy chiefs from the Institute of Public Affairs – James Patterson and Tim Wilson – into the Coalition, and the only ‘moderate’ on the Tasmania Senate list has been bumped from second position to No 5. These are but two examples.
It is not even clear that Turnbull’s policies will sing the same tune as his rhetoric. Apart from failing the Paris climate test, there is no vision of a clean energy future. His ministers continue to ridicule any ambition expressed by Labor or the Greens. Coal mines are still being encouraged (by both major parties, it should be noted), there is no policy to close, or even restrict coal-fired generators, there is no policy to encourage renewable energy beyond 2020; there aren’t even any policies to encourage cleaner transport or more efficient homes.
The sleight of hand around the key clean energy agencies highlights the frustration of those wanting Australia to finally shift, in the fact of soaring emissions, rising temperatures, declining pole ice, and the most devastating bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef.
Turnbull’s grand plan for clean energy investment is centred around the creation of his Clean Energy Innovation Fund. But this is just re-badging existing funds allocated to the CEFC, a creation of Labor and the Greens. The biggest change was the confirmation that the Coalition wanted to strip ARENA of $1.3 billion of unallocated funds.
Hunt has argued that the stripping of $1.3 billion of ARENA funds is ‘old news’, and was announced in the 2014 budget. In his mind, it probably is old news. But there is also the small matter of legislation that enshrines the ARENA budget in law (a move taken deliberately by the Labor-Greens coalition for just such as eventuality).
Here it is on the ARENA website, noting that the grant funding is indeed enshrined in the ARENA Act 2011, which currently provides the agency with more than $2.5 billion in funding to invest in supporting renewable energy projects until the year 2022.
Under Hunt’s plan, ARENA will continue to manage the $1 billion of projects it manages, hand out $100 million in promised funds for the large-scale solar tender that began six months ago, and then be relegated to a role of advising the CEFC on how to deploy the $1 billion CEFC must now set aside for the new innovation fund.
But as the ARENA site notes: ‘Any change to ARENA‘s funding is subject to the ARENA Act 2011 being amended by the Australian Parliament.’ That would not be possible under the current make-up of the Senate, and recent polling would suggest it is not guaranteed in the federal poll that must be held this year.
It’s probably just as well then, that Hunt has appointed a strong group of directors to make up the recently denuded board of ARENA. Headed by Baker & McKenzie lawyer Martijn Wilder, this board must wonder what it is – beyond the allocation of the solar grants – it will be required to do. Perhaps, though, it is a recognition that ARENA will continue to function under the guidance of its act for some time to come.
Giles Parkinson is the editor of RenewEconomy, where this article was first published.