Fulfilling our clean energy potential

Incoming head of the Clean Energy Council David Green on Australia's significant steps toward reaching its clean energy potential - and what more needs to be done to get there.

This is an edited transcript of the opening speech to Clean Energy Week delegates from new Clean Energy Council CEO David Green. The CEC is the peak industry body for the clean energy sector in Australia.

Clean Energy Week is Australia’s premier event for the clean energy industries. We regularly attract more than a thousand attendees and this year is no exception. It is a unique opportunity to build a shared vision.

Indeed, it is a truism to say Australia is blessed with some of the best renewable energy resources in the world and a proud record of achievement on energy efficiency.

Solar, hydro, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, and wave and tidal – Australia has them in huge abundance.

Australia is well placed to take advantage of the global economic shift towards a clean energy future which last year saw global clean energy investment on both the supply and demand sides rise to $260 billion  – despite the state of the world’s economy.

However, we do have a unique responsibility to not only use these resources efficiently, but to also ensure they are part of a progressive transition of Australia’s energy economy and not just a short-term boom for the few.

Governments across the world are mapping out how we achieve this.

It involves:

-- Using the market to deliver outcomes  and regulating it to achieve them; and

-- Ensuring that the cost of squeezing carbon out of the global economy does not disadvantage either vulnerable consumers or vulnerable businesses.

Practically this means setting mandatory targets for renewable energy and energy efficiency that are effective for the long-term, and then reinforcing the direction of travel by putting a price on carbon.

So, I wanted to use this opportunity to congratulate John Howard on the lead he took in creating Australia’s Renewable Energy Target. It has become a multi-partisan model for the rest of the world and the model on which the UK built its own Renewables Obligation.

I would also echo David Cameron’s congratulatory message to Julia Gillard on the introduction of the carbon price and her government’s significant commitments to a range of supporting measures designed to smooth the transition to a competitive carbon market.

However, a market mechanism such as emissions trading is a means to an end not, as some would have us believe, an end in itself. Any traded market has the capacity to be volatile and that’s why to achieve investment grade policy we need measures such as the Renewable Energy Target and decisive action on energy efficiency.

History teaches us that it is only with such a range of measures that we can achieve the transformation of the global economy to a less carbon intensive form of economic prosperity.

Achieving this will give Australia the opportunity to:

-- Protect itself against the volatile and rising costs of fossil fuels;

-- Secure billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of jobs; and

-- Meet its legally binding obligations to reducing carbon emissions without buying potentially costly overseas permits.

Australia has already gone a considerable way towards achieving its clean energy potential.

-- Over one million Australians live in homes powered by solar;

-- Another million shower in water heated by the sun; and

-- Energy consumption has for the first time in decades slowed even with strong underlying growth in the economy.

The increased uptake of renewables already seen under the Renewable Energy Target has stimulated over $10 billion of investment in the Australian economy and has the potential to generate more than $20 billion more by 2020.

The creation of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to support the development of new technologies at scale and the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation to get them to commercialisation are also both important parts of the policy jigsaw.

But we need to act smartly and strategically and maintain the commitment to the investment-grade policy that is central to enabling investors to commit the funds that will enable the industry to deliver.

In the immediate future all sides of politics really need to resist the temptation to tinker with the Renewable Energy Target in response to the special pleading of some technologies and other voices off.

I know from my experience in the UK, where this happened all too often, all it does is give short-term headlines but long-term costs.

The success of the Renewable Energy Target in delivering investor confidence should be celebrated. Companies and communities now need a stable framework in order to get on with the job of delivering of the 20 per cent target at least cost by 2020.

I congratulate Minister Combet for recognising these important issues when he recently provided direction to the Climate Change Authority on the review.

However, just as the companies in this room need the support of their investors to deliver market growth, so our elected leaders need the support of us as voters to deliver the firm and consistent policies we call for.

All of us here believing we are right is not enough – we need to show to consumers and communities across Australia that the transformative journey we are on is not a cost to be resented, but a new source of economic progress.

It’s not just about big companies and big dollars, it’s also about us and the communities in which we live and where we work.

It’s about freeing the Australian consumer from the tyranny of ever-increasing power prices.

It’s about getting control of your energy future.

And it’s about jobs and prosperity.

Imposing costs on us all largely for the sole purpose of meeting those 40 or so hours a year when energy growth is at its absolute highest should not be acceptable.

Nor should we should allow our economic prosperity to be at the mercy of volatile, globally traded energy commodities.

All of us should demand a better way forward.

A clean energy future can give us this.

To achieve this we need to improve the energy efficiency of Australian households and businesses, saving a potential $5 billion per annum by 2020.  

Despite its roll-out problems, the Federal Government’s pink batts program did deliver energy efficiency improvements and is one of the reasons for the reduced energy demand we are now seeing. Australia led the way on energy efficient product standards and now is the time to get over the preoccupation with past events and move forward.

We also need to enable ever more consumers and communities to generate and invest in their own energy through market-shifting distributed technologies such as solar.

Australians want to do this.

More than 90 per cent of Australian voters support renewable energy and this support has remained unwavering over the last decade. It simply makes sense to take advantage of something that is so abundant.

One of the reasons I wanted to work in Australia is that I believe Australia is a nation that thrives on change and innovation.

You are not a nation that is governed by inertia where unless change reinforces the status quo the first reaction is all too often to say ‘No’.

So, we need to:

-- Change the way the Australian energy market operates so that clean energy becomes the norm and not the tolerated afterthought;

-- Change the way the clean industry engages with consumers and the communities it serves; and

-- Change the nature of the public debate so you are the solution not the problem.

I know the Clean Energy Council is up for this and I look forward to working with you all – across whichever party is in power in whichever capital city – as we all get out and talk about what it is in it for our neighbours and our communities.