THIS is a story about thousands of jobs the Abbott government could be helping to create, but which may never come into being.
It is not a story about climate change, or any other issue which divides people along ideological lines, despite the divide between Australia and the the rest of the world becoming much clearer over the weekend.
Quite simply, it is about something we all believe in — Australia’s prosperity.
Let’s break this thing down into 25 quick, easily digestible points.
1. Two Aussie employers spoke exclusively this week to news.com.au about their extreme dissatisfaction with the Abbott government’s stance on renewable energy. They want to create jobs and wealth in the renewable energy industry. They say the government is making it virtually impossible for them.
2. First a little background. The renewable energy industry is by any measure is one of the world’s fastest-growing industries. Other countries understand this. For example, China this year for the first time installed more renewable energy capacity than fossil fuels.
3. But the Australian government is scaling back its commitment to renewable energy. Up until recently, Australia had a bipartisan agreement to a 20 per cent renewable energy target (RET) by the year 2020.
Seems we once understood that the holy trinity of jobs, investment and a cleaner environment was well worth chasing. But the Abbott government no longer buys this. It says we should be working towards a new target of 26,000 gigawatt hours of green power instead of the agreed 41,000. This massive reduction has created an environment of great uncertainty for investors. Many of these investors come from overseas and would sink money into Australian projects. But they are now worried the industry has no future here.
“My members are looking at the United Kingdom, Ireland, the United States, France and some South American countries as having more stable investment environments for low-carbon opportunities,” said Nathan Fabian, the head of an investor group on climate change.
4. According to a revealing graph in a major report from the Climate Council this week Annual large-scale renewable energy investment in Australia in 2014 is a fraction of 2013 levels and set to be the lowest in 12 years. We are going backwards, and fast.
5. But facts like that are always a little cold and meaningless on their own. So here are some humans to flesh things out.
6. For the small-scale version of how the climate of uncertainty around renewable energy is affecting Australians, meet Stacy Nichols.
Stacy runs a company on the Gold Coast called Infinite Lighting And Electrical which designs and installs solar systems.
“I’ve had to let three staff go in the last three months,” Stacy tells us. “Our turnover has been halved since the The RET (renewable energy target) review.
Even at mum and dad level, the government’s negative attitude towards renewables is making people think twice about solar panels.
“Customers are just not investing in solar at the moment because of the uncertainty the government has created. They feel the government is attacking solar so they don’t want to be involved with it.”
7. Now for the large scale example. Meet Andrew Want. He’s the CEO of a company called Vast Solar. Andrew is not a greenie, a scientist or an academic.
As he tells news.com.au: “I am a business guy. My heart is in business. My business has been developed to suit a market need.”
8. Andrew’s business is cutting edge stuff. He is into solar thermal energy, which is a nifty way of capturing the sun’s energy and storing it in batteries that can generate steam which powers turbines.
9. This is where the whole energy industry is heading. Poles and wires are still invaluable — for now. But in the future, energy generation will not only be cleaner, but modes of delivery will be much more efficient. As Andrew explains:
“We are undergoing an energy revolution no less significant than the move from horse and cart to automobiles, or from copper wire telephony to mobile telephony. What’s happening is we are going to have smaller clusters of electricity generation and storage which is closer to where the electricity is actually used.
“If you think about it, we’ve never had storage in our electricity system before. We relied on a system of instantaneous generation with things burning night and day. Now we can store energy for days and even weeks and use when it is most needed.”
10. Just so you know, storable energy is going to be terrific for your back pocket. That’s because the huge increases in energy bills in recent years can be largely attributed to network costs. All those poles and wires don’t come cheap.
11. The new types of energy Andrew is developing will also be bloody good for regional economies. Example. Andrew Want currently employs 42 people on what he calls a “pilot, small-scale project” near Forbes in the Central West region of NSW. During its construction phase alone, the project has created work for welders, electricians, plumbers and more.
“Regional towns get a massive uplift,” Andrew says. “This has been proven in Europe and the United States. Renewable energy is a great way for rural communities to diversify.
12. Andrew’s project near Forbes has a few thousand solar mirrors which rotate like flowers to capture the sun’s energy. But he wants to build a much bigger project with as many as 60,000 mirrors. Obviously that would mean more jobs and an even greater all-round economic boost.
As Andrew says: “these are the benefits from renewable energy that do not come from coal mining.”
13. But Andrew’s bold plan is clouded by the government’s downsized renewable energy target.
14. The government had planned to do away with institutions like the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) which help fund plants like the ones Andrew plans to build. For now, the government has shelved plans to dissolve these bodies, but the very threat was enough to make investors look elsewhere. It will take time for investor confidence to return.
15. The irony is that manufacturing is in decline in Australia. And Andrew Want believes the type of large-scale plants he’d like to build would be the ideal workplaces for people experienced in assembling components in the car manufacturing industry.
16. At this point you might be wondering why the government refuses to budge on its reduced renewable energy targets. We sure were, so we contacted the office of Environment Minister Greg Hunt. We are yet to receive responses to questions such as:
“Are you aware that many jobs could be created in the renewable energy industry that could employ people from industries like car manufacturing?”
“What can we tell investors in hard concrete terms about Australia’s commitment to renewable energy so that thousands of potential of Aussie jobs are (hopefully) not forced offshore?
17. Lost opportunities are something we should all be worried about here. People like Andrew Want could take their business to places like China or Europe or even that bastion of dirty power (we’re talking energy, not politics) — the Middle East.
18. By turning its back on renewable energy, the government also hurts smaller-scale businesspeople like Stacy Nichols on the Gold Coast, as well as the young tradies in her area.
“We get contracted all the time by people looking for apprenticeships,” Stacy says. “The government needs to be pushing people into these industries rather than pushing them back.”
19. Why? Why does the government so steadfastly refuse to support the renewable energy industry?
Well it just so happens Stacy Nichols met with her local member this very week. His name is Bert van Manen and he holds the Queensland seat of Forde for the Liberal Party.
“We don’t see why we should invest in solar because coal is a cheaper source of electricity,” Mr van Manen told Stacy Nichols.
20. And that, right there, is the government’s position on renewable energy in a nutshell. It is committed to the short term benefits and income from coal. It has minimal interest in investing in an industry which down the track could create tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs that do not depend on a dwindling, dirty resource.
21. This attitude really frustrates Andrew Want. He says he doesn’t want enemies in government, but he fervently believes that by putting all its energy eggs in the coal basket, the government is making an extremely poor business decision.
“If the federal cabinet is Australia’s board of directors, who is the risk management director?” he asks.
“There is a need for Australia to move on this stuff, not just for carbon mitigation but because we have an ancient system. Our coal fired power generation is like a 1968 Kingswood. It was great for its time and you can still keep it going but it’s getting harder and harder to find the leaded fuel to run it.”
22. Meanwhile, opposition leader Bill Shorten teed off last week in perhaps his feistiest media performance since his doorstop press conference in Canberra the morning after Joe Hockey’s first budget back in May.
Tony Abbott has “stabbed the renewable energy industry in the back with a broken promise” which provided “catastrophic uncertainty,” Mr Shorten said.
“He has undermined certainty, he has changed the rules, and billions of dollars of investment has come to a standstill and most importantly, cost of living pressure on Australians has gone upwards.”
23. Mr Shorten announced that Labor has given up trying to negotiate the renewable energy target with the government after the government would not budge an inch.
“This is devastating,” he said. “There are 21 thousand solar workers who don’t know if they’ve got a job at Christmas time. Tony Abbott did that when he broke his election promise and when he commissioned a bogus review.
“There has been no case made for change to the renewable energy market.”
24. Another thing Mr Shorten said today was that “Australians overwhelmingly believe in and want renewable energy. The government is completely out of touch on this issue.” It has often been reported that 80 per cent of Australians support more renewable energy. We invite your thoughts on this point in the comments below.
25. We’ll leave the last, rather troubling word to Vast Solar CEO Andrew Want.
“We have to start diversifying. Other countries are putting in programs for structural change and providing that stability for investors. Investors need that long term certainty and they are taking it where that certainty is.
“It’s certainly not Australia at the moment.”