Sunday, November 29, 2009

Rudd's policy not delivering renewables

Below are two articles I wrote for Green Left Weekly (the second written with Anna M) about the state of renewable energy construction and investment in Australia. We have a government that is happy to support small-scale home solar panel installation, which obviously plays to a soft-green sentiment in the electorate but does little to actually de-carbonise our economy. At the same time, large scale renewable energy projects are dying. Even a simple commercial incentive like an industrial-scale feed-in tarriff (which former workers at the closed Solar Systems factory call for) would make a difference. Imagine if the government support shown to the white-elephant desalination plant were to be given to renewable energy construction.

Rudd’s renewable policy not working

25 November 2009

Portland-based Keppel Prince Engineering, which makes about 40% of Australia’s wind turbine towers, has indicated it may need to lay off 150 staff because of lack of work.

Keppel Prince’s chief executive, Steve Garner, told Green Left Weekly a big problem is that the companies it has contracts with can’t access Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) to support their projects.

The government-issued RECs are supposed to give an incentive to the renewable energy industry. But under federal government legislation, RECs are also given to solar hot water and heat pump installations in households.

Rooftop solar panels are given five RECs for each actual unit of output as an incentive to householders, replacing the previous solar rebate scheme. Climate campaigners have dubbed the extra certificates “phantom RECs”.

Garner told GLW that “solar hot water is not adding any renewable energy” into the grid. He said climate change minister Penny Wong “stated that rooftop solar would use 5% of the RECs, [but] it actually looks like being 50% due to the phantom RECs”.

He said the government ought to “fix the legislation, to reflect the intent that it stated when it was passed, 20% renewable energy by 2020”.

The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union’s Rob Graaumanns organises crane drivers thaterect wind turbines.

He said he agreed with Garner. “There are 34 towers sitting in the yard at Keppel with turbines, blades all ready to go”, he told GLW. “The big wind companies have been hit hard by the global financial crisis. [Multinational wind power company] Suzlon are said to have over $1 billion in steel plate laying around in Europe with no cash to do anything with it.”

Graaumanns said businesses such as Keppel Prince are suffering because the big wind farm developers they contract to “are waiting for the government to dip in and give them some incentives”.

A large number of approved wind power projects are waiting to go ahead. Garner estimated about $28 billion worth of the projects are stalled.

Renewable energy expert and environmental campaigner Mark Diesendorf also blames the government’s REC system for the problems.

He told GLW: “The REC scheme is designed to exclude large scale renewable energy by taking up space with phantom RECs.”

He said the NSW government’s new feed-in tariff for rooftop solar panels would result in even more RECs taken up by household installations.

He doesn’t oppose the phantom RECs as an incentive to households, but he said they should be removed from the Renewable Energy Target (RET), along with solar hot water and heat pump installations.

This would benefit wind power he said, the cheapest of current renewable technologies, although solar thermal power stations still needed further incentives (such as an industrial scale feed-in tariff) to compete.

Other environmentalists are also highly critical.

The Australia Institute’s Richard Denniss told GLW he thinks the government “wants to send a signal to households that they are willing to support investment in renewable energy, but they have worked hard to conceal that increased generosity comes at substantial expense to industrial scale renewable energy projects”.

Denniss said the government’s “strategy is to appear to be doing something to tackle climate change and do it by spending as little money as possible”.

Philip Sutton, co-author of Climate Code Red and convenor of Victoria’s Climate Emergency Network, told GLW: “If you look at the pattern of inconsistent and fluctuating support [RECs are] destabilising the industry. It gives less support than the figures indicate on the face of it, whether through malice or stupidity.” Diesendorf was the most scathing. “It is highly unlikely these fundamental design flaws in the RET could have been created by incompetence alone", he said. "They were warned about this in submissions [before the legislation was passed].”

Rudd abandons Australia’s first solar power plant

(co-written by Anna M)
19 October 2009

More than 200 people rallied on October 11, supporting former employees of liquidating company Solar Systems and calling on the federal and state governments to rescue the company’s solar power plant project in Mildura. Solar Systems went into administration after failing to find enough investors to continue the project.

Former Solar Systems research engineer David Turner read a list of demands endorsed by the majority of former employees.

Turner asked all supporters to pressure their local MPs, and also their superannuation funds, to invest in the project. he said otherwise it was likely that Solar Systems would be bought by a company that would take its ideas and projects overseas.

Solar Systems is already operating small-scale solar plants in central Australia, using its CS500 concentrated solar photovoltaic dishes. These use a large concave dish of mirrors, which turns to follow the sun, while concentrating the reflected light on a smaller solar panel.

The main materials are the mirror and dish, which are relatively cheap. As a result, it saves on the cost of the photovoltaic cell, which can also be upgraded as more effective solar cells are developed. The company's website says the CS500 unit is both cheaper (per watt) than traditional solar panels, and produces up to 30% more electricity.

The government had already promised $125 million to support the Mildura project under the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund. But Turner said only $500,000 had been delivered.

He told Green Left Weekly that federal resources and energy minister Martin Ferguson had disingenuously claimed the company’s “funding milestones haven’t been met — but they are not until 2011, and we were on track!”

Carole Wilkinson from the local group Yarra Climate Action Now told the rally: “The government didn’t leave building our coal-fired electricity system to the private sector; if they had it would never have been built.

“We are facing a climate emergency and the need for an urgent transition to 100% renewable energy has never been greater. The government must lead in this transition, just as they led in the transition to coal-fired electricity a century ago.”

Melbourne Greens candidate Adam Bandt said the factory was in the seat of Melbourne, the only Labor/Greens marginal seat in the country, and called on the protesters to help tip it over for the Greens.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union state environment officer Colleen Gibbs demanded the government take measures to protect the entitlements of workers whose employers go into liquidation. Solar Systems directly employed about 160 people.

New production lines had just been installed to mass produce the components for their CS500 units when the company went into liquidation. Only 40 employees are left in the factory while the administrators search for a buyer, and all face losing their entitlements.

GetUp! national director Simon Sheik launched GetUp!’s ReEnergise Australia campaign at the rally. ReEnergise Australia aims to door-knock areas such as the Melbourne electorate. Sheik called for “an immediate commitment from the federal government to support the reinstatement of those workers who’ve already lost their jobs and funding to secure those still working on this important project”.

Rally organiser Chris Breen announced a further protest for October 30, the day the administration of the plant is due to wrap up, at 5.30pm on the steps of Victorian parliament. Visit for more details.

The following demands have been supported by a majority of the former Solar Systems employees:

1. Implement a gross national feed-in tariff for renewable energy.

This is the single most important legislative framework piece that can be provided to encourage private sector investment and the roll-out of renewable energy around Australia.

The Chinese government has recently announced it will introduce a preferential tariff. It will pay energy companies that use solar power. This directly resulted in agreements with several international companies to provide more than 3 gigawatt of new solar energy infrastructure
2. Commit the Mildura site to new solar technology.

The 154 megawatt Mildura project supported the development of new generations of utility-scale solar technology. It is imperative that the site not (only) be used to install a solar farm with current technology, but also develop new technology that will address the requirements for future large-scale renewable power generation.

3. Provide loan guarantees for the Mildura project.

The national infrastructure sector has recently recommended that governments provide guarantees or gap funding for large infrastructure projects. Victoria’s desalination plant is a prime example of critical infrastructure that would not be viable without government acting as a guarantor to the project. A public-private partnership needs to be urgently investigated for the Mildura project.

1 comment:

  1. Re "Rudd's renewable policy not working". Thanks Ben. This is an excellent article about how the fed's support quite ineffectual soft green measures such as residential PV at the expense of the utility scale renewable energy that is required to transition to a zero carbon stationary energy sector. I've also often wondered if the fed govt is supporting micro renewable energy in a deliberate effort to undermine macro renewable energy. They seem to be deliberately playing on a misguided belief that many ordinary people have; namely that the solution to our energy needs is a simplistic decentralised system of power generation in which solar panels on all our roofs will allow us to close down the coal-fired and gas-fired power plants! Don't get me wrong, residential PV and solar hot water and heat pumps are all crucial to the transition we need to make to mitigate global warming, but they are not the 'main game'. Main game = utility scale wind and solar thermal.


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