How clean energy played out in the Victorian election

It may not have been front and centre in the Victorian election, but voters' concern for climate change and cleaning up our energy supply played an important role in seeing the Coalition voted out after just one term, and could also cost Labor its prize seat of Melbourne.

UPDATED 3pm December 2 with additional information on issues related to local seat campaigns

The sun was setting on Victoria's renewable energy sector under the Coalition. With the election of the Daniel Andrews Labor government, and possibly Ellen Sandell of the Greens in Melbourne, Victoria can enter a new era for renewable energy.

Three years ago, then Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu introduced the world's toughest restrictions on wind farms. The restrictions included blanket bans on wind farms in the windiest parts of the state, and a right of veto allowing householders living 2km from proposed turbines to block projects. 

The Coalition's laws established an indefensible double standard on energy sources. Wind energy was more regulated than brown coal and unconventional gas. The double standard came to the fore earlier this year when the Hazelwood coal mine caught alight and burned for 45 days earlier in the year--resulting in immediate and long-term public health impacts. 

The conservative government's anti-wind farm laws cost Victoria 438 MW of clean renewable energy generation, enough to power almost a quarter of a million homes. Scrapped wind farm projects worth up to $864 million have cost 490 construction jobs and 64 ongoing jobs, $10.5 million in economic benefit to regional economies, and over $2.1 million of drought-proof income for farmers each year.

A strong grassroots campaign by Friends of the Earth in partnership with the Macedon Ranges Sustainability Group, Geelong Sustainability Group, and Surf Coast Energy Group, put renewable energy on the election agenda. 

The campaign provided space for the Labor party to prove its renewable energy credentials. Premier-elect Daniel Andrews announced his wind energy policy at Pacific Hydro's Challicum Hills wind farm. Wind farms emerged as the Labor party's only environment-related social media material.

The campaign shifted a number of Liberal MPs and candidates. One candidate, in the seat of Macedon, where a community wind project had been blocked by the Coalition's anti-wind laws, was forced to support the proposal after opposing wind energy for several years.

So what are the Andrews Labor government commitments?

Labor will remove the worst aspects of the Coalition’s anti-wind farm laws. It will remove the 2km right of veto that allows householders to block wind farms, which will be replaced by a 1km buffer zone (in line with New Zealand noise standards). Under a Labor government, the planning minister will return to the ‘responsible authority’ status, taking the burden of assessing planning applications from over-stretched local councils.

Labor’s Back to Work policy commits the party to “Establish a $200 million Future Industries Fund to drive the six high-growth sectors” including “new energy technologies.” The opposition also announced a $200 million Regional Jobs Fund that will support job-creating projects, including “companies investing in renewable energy.”

Labor will also direct the Essential Services Commission to inquire into the true value to the grid of distributed generation and “ensure that energy retailers cannot discriminate against rooftop solar customers by charging extra supply fees” (Lily D’Ambrosio).

The Labor government can quickly deliver its commitments on wind energy. The restrictions on wind farms were executive decisions and can be removed by the new planning minister.

The Andrews government will have to flesh out plans to grow the Victorian renewable energy sector once the barriers to wind energy are removed.

With the Abbott government failing the renewable energy sector, it is now up to Victorian politicians to stand up and show leadership. New jobs figures showing Melbourne's cleantech firms have cut one in ten jobs over the last year, the new government will have to act quickly to restore prevent the renewable energy sector from dying on the vine.

There's an emerging consensus that a Victorian Renewable Energy Target should be on the table to restore certainty for the state's renewable energy sector. RMIT University law academic, Anne Kallies, wrote in Climate Spectator last week that there's nothing stopping the state from adopting its own Renewable Energy Target and implementing mechanisms to encourage investment. 

While the Labor government has not clarified its position on a Victorian Renewable Energy Target, it's worth noting that Labor candidates in Buninyong and South Barwon, who publicly stated support for the measure, benefitted from a swing. 

Also, the Victorian Greens, who are quite close to gaining representation in the lower house for the first time, endorse the call for reintroducing a Victorian Renewable Energy Target. 

Looking beyond state politics for a moment, it's clear the historic election of the Labor government in Victoria has implications for federal politics. Renewable energy is under attack from the Abbott government who want to wind back (or axe) the national Renewable Energy Target. And only last week, crossbench senators secured another inquiry (more appropriately labelled a witch-hunt) into wind energy. 

Labor's historic win is a cautionary tale for politicians who want to throw barriers in front of renewables. The Victorian Coalition's anti-wind farm policies were an election liability. Governments, and indeed politicians, that attack renewable energy will not stand the test of time. 

Some key areas where renewable energy and climate change issues played out: 

MACEDON:

  • The Labor party has claimed the hotly-contested seat of Macedon. A strong community campaign in the seat put the Coalition's anti-wind farm laws on the agenda. The Coalition's large-scale blanket ban on wind farms which cuts across the electorate killed off several commercial wind farms as well as a community wind farm proposal near Woodend.

    Labor's Mary-Anne Thomas has thrown her weight behind reforming the wind energy planning laws to allow the community to realise its dream of a local wind farm. In her first post-election interview, Thomas reiterated her commitment to lifting restrictions on community wind farms in the region and noted a planned grant for community solar. Labor has also committed to a $100,000 grant for a community solar project at the Woodend timber yard. 

    Mary-Anne Thomas' win is significant for another reason: Thomas has kept Liberal Donna Petrovich from office. The former parliamentary secretary for environment, Petrovich is the supposed architect of the anti-farm-wind laws. One only has to look at Petrovich's parliamentary record to see she is a strong backer of fossil fuels, and no friend of the renewable energy sector. 
  • The biggest swing to The Greens outside of inner-metro areas occurred in the seat of Macedon. Labor's pro-renewable energy policies gave Greens voters a clear reason to preference the party. 

MELBOURNE: 

  • With one in ten renewable energy jobs lost in the seat of Melbourne, it's no wonder there was been a strong swing to the Greens with clear pro-renewables policies. Ellen Sandell, a former climate change policy advisor in Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet and national director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, is a strong backer of a Victorian Renewable Energy Target. Sandell supports the full repeal of the Coalition's anti-wind farm laws. At present the seat is still in doubt, but given how close Sandell is to taking the seat, it serves to warn Labor that the inner city is deeply concerned about climate change issues.

SOUTH BARWON:

  • A strong community campaign in the seat of South Barwon, which stretches from the suburbs of Geelong down to the Surf Coast, saw a notable swing to Labor's Andy Richards. Richards was well-known for his pro-renewable energy stance and personal support for a Victorian Renewable Energy Target. 
  • The effectiveness of community campaign can be seen in shifting the reelected Liberal MP Andrew Katos on wind energy. Mr Katos publicly supports reforming the anti-wind farm laws. 

BUNINYONG:

  • The Labor party was one the newly established seat of Buninyong near Ballarat. Labor's Geoff Howard, who is another supporter of the Victorian Renewable Energy Target, was elected.

GEELONG:

  • Labor's Christine Couzens was elected in the seat of Geelong. Couzens personally supports closing the polluting Anglesea coal power plant which is a big environmental issue in the region. Couzens identified the renewable energy and clean technology sectors as future industries that can help reinvigorate Geelong's manufacturing sector.  

SOUTH WEST VICTORIA:

  • The results of the upper house seat for Western Victoria is currently being rechecked. The final seat will be claimed by Moyne Shire Councillor James Purcell or Lloyd Davies of The Greens--both are friends of renewable energy. 
  • Hundreds of renewable energy job losses in Victoria's south-west buoyed Cr James Purcell's chances under the Vote 1 Local Jobs banner and as a supporter of a Victorian RET. As Premier, Denis Napthine did little to protect renewable energy jobs lost at Portland-based wind turbine maker Keppel Prince and electrical contractor R&M Menzel.
  • Upper house candidate for The Greens Lloyd Davies also has a track record of supporting the renewable energy sector in the state's west and backs a Victorian RET. The legacy of Davies' hardworking campaign will be introducing The Greens as an ally for farmers and regional communities concerned about unconventional gas extraction.  

REGIONAL VICTORIA: 

  • The community campaign against new coal and gas was a sleeper issue across the entire south of the state. Some 44 communities have declared themselves gasfield free over the last two years. There can be little doubt that disillusionment with the Nationals' position on unconventional gas has contributed to the party's declining stocks.