Not so long ago, Victoria was the poster child for renewable energy policy in Australia.
It had a Climate Change Act put in place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% between 2000 and 2020. It had a government-supported plan to get 5% of its power from the sun by 2020.
Victorian households were being paid 60 cents per kilowatt hour for solar power they pumped back into the grid. And wind farm proponents were queueing up to take advantage of the state’s excellent wind resources.
Then there was an election, and the wind changed in Victoria.
Could the wind power industry now turn to NSW for further development? Or will a Coalition-controlled NSW also prove to be hostile territory for wind power?
First, let’s consider the effects a change of government had in Victoria.
Ted Baillieu’s Coalition has backed away from its previous support for the Climate Change Act, describing its legislated targets – such as a 20% reduction in CO₂ – as “aspirational”.
The planning changes mean wind farms can’t be built within two kilometres of a home without the written consent of the home owner. The ban also applies within five kilometres of 21 regional cities. Scenic locations, such as the Great Ocean Road and Dandenong Ranges, are also off-limits.
Unless you have an entire community on-side, the new planning regulations don’t leave many places to build.
Last year, the National Health and Medical Research Council found no published scientific evidence to link wind turbines with adverse health effects. Yet the Victorian decision allows a single opponent to veto a wind farm development even if the rest of the community wants it.
Is this how planning decisions should work? What happened to weighing up community opinion and making a decision in the public interest? Residents have no such right of veto over coal-fired power stations, new roads or mansions that block their view.
So, will the wind power industry shift its focus to NSW for future developments? Not if NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell has his way.
O’Farrell recently expressed his personal preference for no more wind farms in NSW. While he later stressed his commitment to the NSW target of 20% renewable energy by 2020, investors would be worried.
Under the previous Labor government in NSW, most wind farm decisions were made by Minister for Planning, Tony Kelly, instead of local councils. This meant local concerns about wind farms could easily be overlooked.
The O'Farrell-led Coalition government is considering new planning guidelines for wind farms which are likely to give local communities more say in decisions regarding nearby wind farms. But there are indications the guidelines will be more flexible than those in Victoria.
Despite these indications, it is impossible to predict whether NSW will go down a similar path to Victoria, making renewable energy generation increasingly arduous. In fact, predicting future renewable energy policy anywhere in Australia is a challenge.
That is precisely the problem – renewable energy in Australia has been on a rollercoaster of boom and bust, driven by frequent policy changes.
Consider two examples.
In 2001, the Howard Government’s Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) led to a boom in wind power. The policy mandated that, by 2010, 2% of Australia’s electricity generation would be sourced by renewables.
When the target percentage was not increased in the years following the policy announcement, the wind power boom faded away. Wind companies that had set up manufacturing facilities in Australia pulled out, and have not returned since.
More recently, the NSW Government offered a generous premium tariff for households to install solar panels, only to slash the scheme when it became too popular.
Given these developments – and the policy decisions mentioned above – it’s a wonder that Australia has any renewable energy installed at all.
For investors and small businesses, the constant chopping and changing makes renewable energy a risky venture. The Gillard Government’s carbon price will deliver greater consistency for investors but it, too, is vulnerable to a change in government.
Australia has enough renewable energy resources to become a renewable energy superpower. To realise this potential, renewable energy needs consistent long-term policy to support its steady development as a response to climate change.
Unfortunately, climate change has become an ideological battle ground where consistency is hard to find.
Fortunately, we do have a consistent national mechanism to support renewable energy – Australia’s Renewable Energy Target, which requires 20% of our electricity to come from renewable energy by 2020.
Now we just need a consistent national planning approach to back it up.