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Budget 2017: government goes hard on gas and hydro in bid for energy security

Gas infrastructure and exploration attracted the lion’s share of new energy announcements in the 2017 federal budget. Sean Heatley/Shutterstock.com

Budget 2017: government goes hard on gas and hydro in bid for energy security

The budget contains several measures designed to boost energy security, including:

  • A$90 million to expand gas supplies, partly through increased unconventional gas exploration

  • a potential Commonwealth buyout of an expanded Snowy Hydro scheme

  • up to A$110 million for a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta

  • monitoring of gas and electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Below, our experts react to the measures.

Gas price problem far from solved

Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne

The budget contains a broad range of funding in energy-related areas, with a significant focus on gas resources, making A$78 million available for onshore unconventional gas exploration and reform in the gas markets, and A$7 million for studies into new gas pipelines to South Australia, from both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Interestingly, there is A$110 million in equity available (but not guaranteed) for a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta. And most notably, the government has proposed purchasing the Snowy Hydro Scheme from the New South Wales and Victorian governments, ensuring that the scheme stays in public hands.

The budget also includes A$13 million for CSIRO to improve energy forecasting tools, and A$8 million for the ACCC to investigate consumer energy pricing issues.

Overall, the budget highlights the government’s desire to do something about gas prices, but offers little to make a significant difference to a very difficult problem. Gas market reform and new pipelines are unlikely to reduce the exposure of the domestic market to price rises driven by international exports.

Importantly, there is little new funding in the budget directly relating to reducing carbon emissions and meeting the pledges made in the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% emission reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030). Also noteworthy is the fact that funding for the carbon capture and storage flagship ceases in 2018-19.

‘On energy this budget is small fry’

Tony Wood, Energy Program Director, Grattan Institute

The budget does little more on energy than endorse the government’s deal with Senator Nick Xenophon on corporate tax cuts, complemented by modest commitments to energy security, more gas and better regulation.

Government facilitation of gas development and beefing up the energy capability of the Australian Energy Regulator and the ACCC are simple logic, and the one- off payment to pensioners to help with electricity bills will be welcomed by them.

Major public funding for further feasibility studies is a little more questionable. If the gas crisis can’t galvanise support from pipeline companies and gas consumers for pipelines, why would governments reach a different conclusion?

And finally, one can only speculate as to why the federal government is contemplating buying out the NSW and Victorian governments’ share of Snowy Hydro. Presumably it is because the feds are concerned about securing support for the proposed expansion.

In summary, on energy this budget is small fry ahead of major policy decisions that rest on the forthcoming Finkel Review of the National Electricity Market next month, and the climate change policy review later in the year.

The Commonwealth will look at expanding the Snowy Hydro Scheme and buying it off the states. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

A step towards radical energy reform?

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

Few announcements in the budget speech are more emblematic of complete policy reversal than the announcement that the Commonwealth would buy the shareholdings in Snowy Hydro Limited of the governments of NSW (58%) and Victoria (29%), to add to the 13% currently owned by the Commonwealth. This comes almost exactly 11 years after Prime Minister John Howard, responding to vociferous public opposition, pulled the plug on plans by all three governments for a public float of their entire shareholdings. What is more, Treasurer Scott Morrison has now announced that, once owned by the Commonwealth, Snowy Hydro would remain in public ownership.

This announcement of course accompanies the government’s Snowy 2.0 proposal, for a fivefold increase in the Snowy scheme’s current 500 megawatt pumped storage capacity (at Talbingo). This was used, after commissioning in 1974, to allow inflexible coal fired power stations to operate with constant output levels day and night, but is now almost never used. This presumably reflects commercial decisions by Snowy Hydro, as it trades in the National Electricity Market.

The rationale for Snowy Hydro 2.0 is to facilitate operation of a grid with a high share of renewable generation, by smoothing out variations in wind and solar supply. Does this announcement mean that the government envisages moving away from a strictly commercial approach to using the assets of the Snowy scheme? Is this a first step towards radical restructuring, or even dismantling, of the National Electricity Market?

Stronger legislation needed

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

The detailed A$265 million energy package includes a number of useful measures to strengthen the weak regulatory culture of the energy sector that has allowed our energy crisis to evolve. But it is still limited: strong legislative reform and active support of emerging competitors will also be needed. It is a modest investment compared with recent multibillion-dollar energy cost increases. If it is successful, it will deliver vary large net benefits to the economy by limiting energy price increases. Unfortunately, past efforts to fix the energy situation have largely failed to deliver real outcomes: we need clear objectives for outcomes, and a mechanism to implement contingency strategies if they are not achieved.

In a context of increasing urgency for stronger action on climate, and the reality that the global “burnable carbon” budget is very limited, investment to encourage more gas development seems misplaced. More emphasis on energy efficiency, renewables and smart energy systems would make much more sense. Energy efficiency already saves billions on energy costs and could save much more, while renewable energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. They also help to achieve our climate targets. And fossil fuels are responsible for almost three-quarters of Australian emissions, so we need strong action to meet our international obligations.

The extension of the A$20,000 tax write-off for small business spending on equipment is a measure that, at least for small businesses, offsets a significant barrier to investment in energy efficiency. Firms will also be able to continue to claim the write-off to improve the economics of investments in on-site renewable energy and storage. Of course, the problem still remains for spending over A$20,000 by small businesses, and for larger businesses.

The energy security plan, which includes funding for ACCC to police energy industry behaviour is only a small step towards fixing the disastrous failures of energy policy and a transition to a 21st century energy policy framework. Much more will need to be done.