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Thursday, 12 December 2002
Page: 10577

Mr SNOWDON (9:59 AM) —I thank the member for Lyons for allowing me precedence in this debate on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2002 because I have duty in the other chamber at 10.30. I am pleased to be able to speak to this legislation. The legislation aims to improve the position of renewable energy and electricity generation in this country, and that is a worthy cause. I do not need to remind members of this chamber of the need for Australia to reduce its greenhouse gases. It is certainly understood on this side of the House, but if it is understood by the government it has not been translated into much action on its behalf. The importance of renewable energy in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in this country should be obvious, and I am sure it is, to all members of the parliament. Its importance cannot be underestimated. This bill amends the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000. The intent of the bill is to finetune the act and attempt to make it more workable. Whilst most of the amendments that the bill makes are of a finetuning nature, two aspects are controversial. These are the windfall gain for hydro-electricity generators and the use of native forest waste as a renewable energy source. I am sure we will hear a lot more about that from my friend who will follow.

The opposition supports the bill in its present form but there are issues which must be dealt with following the review process which is currently under way. The aim of the original legislation was to accelerate the uptake of renewable energy and electricity generation in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It also aimed to provide an ongoing basis for the development of commercially competitive renewable energy and to contribute to the development of internationally competitive industries that can participate in the growing Asianenergy market.

The Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act established the mandatory renewable energy target. The target requires Australian electricity retailers and large buyers of electricity to collectively source 9,500 gigawatt hours per year of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2010. It establishes a system whereby renewable energy certificates are generated by accredited power stations that produce excess electricity from renewable sources on a 1997 baseline. One certificate is generated for every one megawatt hour of excess renewable energy—electricity. These certificates can be purchased and used by electricity retailers and large buyers of electricity to reduce the renewable energy shortfall charge that would otherwise have to be paid when sourcing non-renewable energy.

The aim of all this is to stimulate demand for renewable energy consistent with the provisions of the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000. In doing this and by boosting investment in renewable energy, greenhouse gas emissions will, it is estimated, be reduced by about seven million tonnes a year by 2010. I am sure that the benefits of reducing these emissions are clear to all. Regrettably, the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 is the only mandatory greenhouse measure that has been adopted by the Howard government. It often pulls out this sole piece of legislation establishing the mandatory target to demonstrate its supposed commitment to abating the greenhouse problem.

As most observers will know, this government has a deplorable record when it comes to the environment. It is one of the only governments in the world refusing to ratify the Kyoto protocol, and it played an obstructive role in the recent Johannesburg Earth Summit. It seems rather inconsistent having such domestic legislation encouraging renewable energy and electricity generation while at the same time opposing measures to address climate change at a global level.

The regime that the act sets up is a step in the right direction towards a cleaner, greener nation, but it is far too little. The government has done almost nothing to ensure the preservation of the environment for our children and our children's children. It has been prepared to play politics with the environment, hoping for some shortterm gain. This type of short-termism is one of the defining characteristics of the Howard government and history will not be kind to it if the government cannot see beyond the next poll.

I want to relay some information about renewable energy projects in the Northern Territory. There is no doubt that Australia has the potential to be one of the leaders in the field of renewable energy. It is doubtful, though, that we have the wit to take up that mantle. I say to the government that this is an opportunity that we should not miss. Certainly in my own electorate of Lingiari there is a fantastic opportunity to use and develop renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy and, to a lesser extent, wind power.

The government must do a lot more to promote the development and use of these technologies. The potential for the use of renewable energy in remote communities is enormous. Many communities in my electorate are leading the way in the successful use and development of renewable energy sources, and a couple of outstanding projects need to be mentioned. One of these, fortunately, does include work from the Commonwealth government. I just want to give some background here, though. When I first started living in the bush, in the late 1970s, in a very remote community—some 12 hours drive from Alice Springs in the north-west of South Australia—the only power source was a generator that used diesel. The communities in that region started to think, `Well, what we ought to be doing is looking at alternative modes of power delivery.' So there was an exercise that engaged a number of people looking at how they might get hybrid systems set up involving wind and solar energy. Over time some of these were experimented with. I might remind you, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I am talking about the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the very remotest parts of Australia. This exercise was driven by a desire to get away from diesel and to use renewable energy that could be provided through the resources of the sun and wind.

One project I want to highlight is Bushlight. It is a model for renewable energy programs, particularly in remote and Indigenous communities. I was privileged to attend the opening of this project in Alice Springs in May. This initiative will give 200 Indigenous communities across Australia the opportunity to benefit. The project will take nonpolluting, cost-efficient, reliable sources of energy to remote communities; furthermore, there is very important and strong emphasis on providing local training and employment opportunities for people who live in these communities. Bushlight is funded jointly by ATSIC, the federal government—through the Australian Greenhouse Office—and the relevant state and territory governments. Managed by the Centre for Appropriate Technology, CAT, and the Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Renewable Energy, the project aims to improve the efficiency of remote renewable energy services as well as to establish best practice for small renewable energy systems.

The energy problems in these Indigenous communities are considerable. Energy sources, typically diesel generators, are often too unreliable and too costly to provide for the energy needs of an entire community. They are also significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, as we well know. Luxuries that those of us who live outside of these communities take for granted, such as having a washing machine, are often not possible for people in such communities. The Australian Cooperative Research Centre for Renewable Energy estimates that currently around 108,000 Indigenous Australians live in approximately 1,200 discrete Indigenous communities across the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and South Australia. The centre's research shows that these communities consume over 40 million litres of diesel per year in order to generate electricity. Adding a simple four-kilowatt photovoltaic system to a typical outstation in one of these places can reduce diesel consumption and cut greenhouse gas emissions by between 10 and 13 tonnes of CO² per annum.

One of the important things about this project is that it has been developed in partnership with Indigenous people. CAT, one of Bushlight's joint managers, is a nonprofit organisation with an Indigenous board. It ensures that the project takes a capacity-building approach in the communities where it is providing energy services. The project's mobile service teams provide not only technical support to Indigenous communities but also training in the maintenance of the systems. The project is also establishing a network of regional offices, each employing an Indigenous liaison officer and a regional manager who will work with the local communities. The success of this Bushlight project is based on these community driven processes and should be used as a model for other renewable energy programs throughout rural Australia. The use of solar energy in these communities has been remarkably successful and also has a great deal of potential to deliver further benefits.

The Bushlight project is an example of how the CRC for renewable energy is helping remote and regional Australia and, at the same time, is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This project would never have seen the light of day had it not been for the funding from the renewable energy CRC. But astoundingly, as we heard on Tuesday, this CRC for renewable energy will be defunded. It is rather ironic and pretty sad that in the same week that we are debating this bill, which purports to encourage a renewable energy industry for government, the government announced the defunding of the CRC for renewable energy. What is this about? We do know that it reflects badly on the government and potentially badly on the Australian community generally. When the government announced that they were defunding the CRC they also announced that they will be giving $68 million of new moneys to the mining industry for renewable energy. In the end, as we know, this money will end up in the hands of multinational, multibillion dollar mining companies like Rio Tinto.

I think Rio Tinto have done a very good job over recent years in environmental management. I do not want to disparage Rio Tinto or the work that they are doing. But I want to highlight the contradictions and the absolute conflicts of interests. The chief scientist employed by Rio Tinto is giving that company access to these moneys. I would have thought that any reasonable person could adjudge that there might well be a conflict of interest. Why wouldn't you if you were an ordinary Australian living in the western suburbs of Sydney or in Alice Springs, Katherine or Darwin and you heard that the company for which the chief scientist, the chief adviser on these matters to the federal government, works is going to receive money for renewable energy research at the same time that the government is defunding the CRC?

We had a discussion about money for mates yesterday in the main chamber. It is appalling that in the week we are debating this legislation that this apparent and readily identifiable conflict of interest appears. But there is not even a blush from members of the government. The government said in the public domain that there was nothing wrong with this, that it is all above board. What would happen if you use the rules that the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs uses for ATSIC? They would not be getting the money, because one of the main advisers to the government on decision making in these areas is going to indirectly be a beneficiary of these moneys through the funding of his organisation, Rio Tinto. It is a bit whiffy.

It is very clear, based on this example alone, that the government has got the balance in this CRC funding dreadfully wrong. I have no problem with moneys going to these mining companies in some form or another, but the way in which this issue has been handled is abysmal. It says a lot about the way in which the government operates, what its intentions really are and its inability to come to terms with its obligation to fund appropriate energy research outside the corporate sector.

The government's decision to de-fund the renewable energy CRC is the latest in a long line of decisions which shows that the government has no commitment to the environment. The Energy Research and Development Corporation was shut down by the Howard government upon coming to office. The Australian Greenhouse Office has now exhausted its funds for supporting renewables. The Photovoltaic Rooftop Program will run out of funds in mid-2003 and Pacific Solar laid off its R&D team last week. What does that say about the government's commitment? In contrast, on Monday this week the Labor Party demonstrated its real commitment to the environment by announcing support for an increase in the mandatory renewable energy target. Labor believes it is vital to the development of the renewable energy industry and to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.

There are a few other Territory based projects that I want to mention. The first is Powercorp, which has developed a new wind turbine technology. Powercorp is a successful Northern Territory company which has recently patented new technology that will revolutionise how wind turbines deliver electricity and has the potential to earn millions of dollars. The name of the technology is `dynamic grid interface'. It smooths out the variation in the supply of electricity which until now has been the greatest hindrance to small-scale wind power generation. The new technology will mean an end to flickering lights, and ice cold water coming out of a hot tap. The founder of Powercorp, Alan Langworthy, a prominent Territorian, should be congratulated for his achievements in developing what is truly revolutionary technology. This piece of cutting edge technology has stunned the world scientific community, as well it should.

In basic terms, the DGI technology is a power equaliser tool that uses sophisticated electronic and computer software to regulate the supply of electricity. It allows variations in wind turbine power to be evenly distributed through diesel power grids. Without DGI, strong gusty winds blowing to a wind turbine diesel power grid would result in wild fluctuations in supply. The end result of all this is a perfectly stable electricity system. This is nothing short of a breakthrough for those people who live in remote communities and who have had to put up with flickering lights at dinner time.

I want to mention the Northern Territory's photovoltaic commercialisation project at Bulman-Watarrka. This is a prime example of the new Northern Territory Martin government's push to promote the use of renewable energy and to use it themselves in the supply of energy to communities in the Territory. The two-part project is worth about $4 million and will provide a total of 55 kilowatts of solar generated energy at Bulman and 225 kilowatts at Watarrka, or King's Canyon National Park, making it the biggest solar photovoltaic project in Australia. PowerWater, the NT electricity retailer/generator, owns and operates the Bulman Power Station and has been responsible for the overall implementation of the project. It is expected that savings in diesel costs over the 20-year life of the project will repay the system's installation costs.

These are very important initiatives, and in relation to the Bulman project it is worthwhile pointing out those people involved. The Northern Territory Centre for Energy Research played a key role in developing the project's concept and design and technical aspects of the project. Advanced Energy Systems provided detailed design, construction and commissioning for the project. Ecoenergy, an Alice Springs based organisation, was the main subcontractor to AES and completed much of the on-site installation. The Bulman community gave permission to use the land and has given enthusiastic support to the project, allowing it to proceed smoothly.

Finally, I want to mention the Alice Springs Cool House, located in Araluen in Alice Springs—a great example of adapting to the environment and a cooperative project between the Northern Territory government and the Arid Lands Environment Centre. It is using very innovative design to conserve energy and provide innovative designs for housing construction and the use of water and electricity. I commend this legislation.