The legislation of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation next year is looming as a test of how genuinely Tony Abbott and the Coalition support renewable energy.
Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, recently promised to promised to tear down the CEFC should the Coalition win government, and shadow finance spokesperson, Andrew Robb, launched an extraordinary attack on the renewables industry, describing it as being made up of "vested interests" and "white shoe salesmen."
But support for ambitious renewable energy policies can sit comfortably within a framework of conservative values, as conservative governments in Britain and German have shown.
It is even something that appeals to the climate deniers within the Coalition. Senator Ian McDonald told the Senate last month that “the coalition is a great supporter… of renewable energies," pointing out that it was John Howard who introduced the Renewable Energy Target. In 2009 the Coalition was instrumental in negotiating the RET’s expansion and Tony Abbott recently reiterated the Coalition’s support for it. The Coalition also supported the creation of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), negotiated by the government, Greens and Independents.
If the CEFC is done properly (and there are still crucial decisions yet to be made) it could start to deliver the new renewable investment the Australian public tells us in poll after poll it wants to see. The big solar plants that are proven and commercially available in the US and Europe could become a reality in the sunniest continent on earth, Australia.
It could bring to an end the years of ineffective grant programs that have seen only 18c in every dollar of promised investment in renewables being delivered. Creating the CEFC as an independent body in the style of the Reserve Bank also promises a way out of the seemingly endless government policy vacillations that have plagued the industry for so long.
The strong financial credentials of the newly appointed head of the CEFC, Jillian Broadbent, should serve as reassurance that it will be designed to avoid the flaws of some of the government’s recent green programs.
A similar program run by the US Department of Energy has succeeded in generating investment of $US35.9 billion to deliver 64,000 jobs. It currently supports the construction of over a dozen solar power plants, including the 392MW Ivanpah solar thermal plant in California. The largest solar installation at construction phase in Australia is currently 10MW.
The CEFC should make just as good policy sense for the opposition as for the government.
The concept of a government-funded body to leverage private investment shouldn’t present an ideological challenge, as it has been embraced successfully by both federal and state Coalition governments in the form of the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation and Public Private Partnerships.
So why the Opposition’s animus towards the CEFC? The answer is more likely to lie in politics than policy.
Tony Abbott has hit a rich vein with the “big spending government” meme, and we can expect he’ll mine it all the way to the next election, painting government spending on the CEFC as wasteful and trying to score political points on cost-of-living issues.
By contrast, a responsible Opposition should be emphasising the role that wind and solar play in keeping wholesale electricity prices down by providing electricity free of fuel costs. They should also be highlighting the significant potential for jobs in their own rural and regional seats.
The 100% Renewable campaign will be calling on the Coalition to acknowledge the uncertainty they are causing with their stance on the CEFC and to become a more constructive voice in the debate.
We met last week with Greg Hunt to argue that, rather than simply block the passage of the CEFC, they work in parliament to ensure the CEFC is well designed, with strong independent oversight.
We also questioned him publically at a recent gathering of solar industry professionals about how he can credibly claim to care about energy prices, when his party's current policy risks locking in expensive coal and gas investments. If the Coalition truly wants to manage rising energy prices, they have to get serious about renewable energy – the only source of power that gets cheaper the more we install.
We will continue to pursue the Coalition to take a more constructive approach.
Further delay in renewable energy investment in Australia is too high a price for the Australian public to pay to allow the Coalition a handful of political points.
Andrew Bray is an organiser for 100% Renewable Energy, a campaign comprising more than 100 community groups nationally