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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 69

Senator BIRMINGHAM (6:17 PM) —At the outset of my very brief remarks on the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment (Feed-in-Tariff) Bill 2008 inquiry, I would like to echo Senator McEwen’s comments about Senator Milne, and to commend Senator Milne for the introduction of the bill. It has stimulated very worthy debate—debate that has flowed on in a very complementary manner from the inquiry that was undertaken by the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts into the Save our Solar bill. I have no doubt that it has built the knowledge of the senators, and hopefully the Senate—as well as more broadly—on the important issue of feed-in tariffs and the key role that they can play in how we address and encourage renewable energy into the future.

The coalition firmly believes that the growth of our renewable energy sector is critical to Australia’s future energy security and to the way in which we tackle climate change. However, we also believe that, along the way, it is important that we get every aspect of that right. Just as, in the development of their emissions trading scheme, we have urged the government to ensure that the details are correct and that it is does not unduly harm Australia’s interests or Australian industry, equally, in looking at options such as a feed-in tariff scheme, we wish to ensure that it is considered in the holistic manner of climate change policies and the encouragement of renewable energies. We wish to ensure that it is considered in terms of how it will interact with mandatory renewable energy targets and the MRET scheme, and to make sure that, should we pursue a feed-in tariff program, it is consistent with, and complimentary to, that MRET scheme that the government is increasing its targets for as well.

These are complex issues and they should not be oversimplified or rushed through with a consequent risk of getting them wrong. Equally, however, we recognise that there is a level of urgency about them. We have, in good faith, supported the government in acknowledging that the COAG process should be pursued to try to get a nationally consistent feed-in tariff regime in place. We note that states have taken various steps, from the ACT with a gross feed-in tariff regime to various other states with net systems, and I am very pleased to note the commitment of the new Western Australian Liberal government to the introduction of a feed-in tariff regime in Western Australia as part of their election commitments. We think that there is much benefit to be had in a system that has the flexibility, which I note that part of Senator Milne’s bill tried to achieve, of being able to deal with different renewable energy sources in different ways, in acknowledging, indeed, that potentially there needs to be different rates applied even in different jurisdictions and places. We think that can potentially be achieved through the COAG process, but I note that the recommendations of the inquiry report do not rule out the potential for this to be a nationally implemented scheme. We call for it to be nationally consistent. We leave it in the hands of the government, at this stage, as to whether it is nationally consistent across a state-by-state basis or, indeed, implemented at the national level.

The coalition has further encouraged the government to potentially look at engaging the Productivity Commission—in a very quick manner, we would hope—to look at some of the broader issues around the interrelationships between MRET, feed-in tariffs and the ETS. We need to look at just how we go about most effectively building the renewable energy sector in Australia and how we do so in a manner that is simultaneously the most environmentally and most economically responsible. We are disappointed that the COAG process has not proceeded as rapidly as we would have hoped. We note that the COAG communique from March 2008 indicated that COAG would consider options for a harmonised approach to renewable energy feed-in tariffs in October 2008, and note with disappointment that the October COAG meeting came and went without that consideration having taken place. We, of course, understand that there were other issues that came up onto the agenda for that meeting, but we would urge the government to move swiftly to provide security and certainty to the renewable energy sector. This is particularly needed in the solar PV sector. It has faced a great deal of uncertainty—as I have canvassed in this place many times before—in its treatment in relation to solar rebates. Indeed, it still faces a level of uncertainty as to how long that rebate program will remain in place for. That is why it is critical that the industry receives the type of certainty that potentially a feed-in tariff program and regime could deliver. I know that the industry is working hard to try to achieve this.

This morning I met with Andrea Gaffney, from the Clean Energy Council. She has been undertaking a great deal of work on how to encourage the development of solar PV in particular but potentially all renewable energy sources. This morning she presented some modelling by Access Economics on the potential implications of introducing feed-in tariff models. That will further add to the debate that will no doubt ensue subsequent to the tabling of this report.

In closing, I genuinely urge the government to make sure that they address this issue swiftly. As I said, we have in good faith supported the government in suggesting that at this stage the COAG process proceed. We urge the government to make sure that that is the case and that it is done rapidly.

Question agreed to.