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Australia’s renewable energy revolution challenge: not tech, but trust

Comment from Geoff Crittenden, CEO, Weld Australia: While in Canberra for the 2023 National Manufacturing Summit, Jim Sanford, Charlie Joyce, Adam Hersh, and I met with representatives of several Federal Government departments.

Comment from Geoff Crittenden, CEO, Weld Australia: While in Canberra for the 2023 National Manufacturing Summit, Jim Sanford, Charlie Joyce (both from the Centre for Future Work), Adam Hersh (senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and our keynote speaker), and I met with representatives of several Federal Government departments.

During these meetings, I was surprised at how often Adam referred to the time, effort and money the Biden Government invested to bring the various interested parties onside prior to ratifying the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Adam made it clear that progress would have been impossible without the buy-in of all stakeholders from conservations and farmers, through to unions and planning departments.

Initially, I thought this approach was a reflection of the divided and somewhat acrimonious political environment in the United States. I was convinced that meeting our climate goals was an issue of investment, partnering with the global supply chain and establishing a sovereign manufacturing capability—somewhat typical of ‘engineer thinking’.

By the time the Summit concluded, I had made a complete about-face. Unless we achieve a social license—and quickly—Australia will fail to meet its renewable energy and net zero targets by 2050.

There is nothing difficult about achieving these targets from an engineering or manufacturing perspective, given the right incentives and investments. The challenge we must overcome is achieving a social license from the key interest groups of conservationists, farmers, unions, and planning departments. But, as we’ll explore below, the challenge is not insurmountable.

Conservationists

Our continent is teeming with rare and unique flora and fauna. Since European settlement over 100 species have become extinct. As the planet warms it is envisaged that this number will increase and the rate of extinction accelerate. We therefore face the challenge of how to save the planet without destroying it. There is no question it can be done but, like so many parts to this puzzle, it requires us to radically change the way we think.

The 400MW Willatook wind farm, north of Port Fairy in Victoria, exemplifies this challenge. Conceived in 2010, plans for the $1 billion Willatook wind farm encompass up to 59 turbines (with a maximum height of 250m), up to three 170m-high wind monitoring masts, a substation, battery storage, maintenance buildings, underground cables and above-ground transmission lines.

The site for Willatook wind farm is principally used for sheep grazing and lies within a zone designated by the Victorian Government as suitable for renewable energy, with easy access to an existing 500kV transmission line.

The problem is, the site is also home to the nesting ground of the brolga, a threatened indigenous crane famed for its dancing rituals, and the 55mm-long, cave-dwelling southern bent-wing bat. It is worth noting that environmental reports state that just one pair of brolgas has regularly nested at the site between 2010 and 2021.

After a decade of development work, including the two year environmental impact approval process, the planning conditions imposed to protect these species have effectively killed the Willatook project. The strict conditions cut the number of turbines that can be installed by two thirds and imposed a five month ban on construction work at the site every year.

Similarly, in Queensland, the Pioneer Pumped Hydro scheme, regarded as essential for achieving net zero emissions in the state, is already receiving severe criticism from the Mackay Conservation Group. According to the Conservation Group, all of the water in the Pioneer catchment is already fully allocated for farmers, drinking water, and environmental flows. There simply is no available unallocated water to operate a pumped hydro scheme. The Group is also concerned about the impacts on the Eungella National Park. Furthermore, the project is being politized by right wing parties whose alternative proposal is the introduction of modular nuclear power generation; a technology that does not yet exist.

It is doubtful that there is a renewable energy project in Australia not being delayed by some form of environmental issue. So, we must implement a multifaceted approach to win the support of conservationists for major renewable energy projects like wind farms. This approach must reflect the delicate balance between promoting renewable energy development and addressing environmental concerns, and comprise adaptive management, mitigation strategies and collaborative partnerships.

Farmers

Farmers were one of the first interest groups to be addressed by the US Federal Government in the drafting of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Understandably, they are a powerful lobby group who will be significantly impacted by the construction of renewable energy infrastructure.  The Biden Administration brought the farming lobby onside by agreeing a compensation plan and a set of guidelines for a construction approval process.

In Willatook, the tough planning restrictions are supported by some local farmers who dispute the results of the environmental impact statement which assert that only one pair of brolga has been regularly nesting in the wetland area out of an estimated breeding community of 200 Australia wide.   Whilst it would be wrong to question the sincerity of their support for the brolga, it is interesting to note this quote from one local farmer.

“There’s a massive build-up in our area, they are just trying to put them (wind towers)  everywhere, all on top of everybody down here,” he said, pointing to the drawcard for developers of the 500 kilovolt transmission line that crosses the region. “There are a lot of people not too happy about it.”

Water allocation is a national hot spot that has been a running sore for nearly 20 years and did so again in September 2023 when the Murray Darling water plan again proved to be failing expectations. Clearly any pumped hydro project in affecting water will be a hot issue for local farmers which really should have been resolved before an announcement was made.

Getting farmers onboard with the construction of renewable energy projects like wind farms on their land must encompass a combination of economic incentives, education, and addressing concerns specific to the agricultural community. We can look to the US where measures such as tax incentives and lease payments that provide farmers with an additional source of income have been implemented with success.

Unions

A social contract with unions that paves the way for the transfer of jobs from the carbon economy to one based on renewable energy is essential. In discussing this issue with Senator Doug Cameron, just prior to his retirement in 2019, he suggested that this would need to be one of the first steps on the pathway to a renewable future. He emphasised that the crucial support required from regional communities reliant on coal mining and coal fired power generation would not be forthcoming unless some guarantees were put in place that offered a pathway to new and comparable jobs.

The Queensland Government has recognised this, incorporating a Job Security Guarantee into its Energy and Jobs Plan. It states that: every energy industry worker is guaranteed a job within the Government owned energy sector as it transforms; and every energy industry worker will be offered agreed financial support and options to support transition to their new career.

It is critical to note that the Queensland Government owns their state energy assets. As such, the government has a substantial financial and moral obligation to find jobs for its employees, as well as the obvious practical consideration of managing a pool of highly skilled labour in a critical shortage.  While the Queensland Government has not yet resolved issues with the mining and transport sectors, the Job Security Guarantee is a promising start that should provide a model for other states and the Commonwealth.

Planning

During the 2023 National Manufacturing Summit, I was surprised that how often planning constraints were cited as one of the biggest hindrance to progress and investment. While it seems incredible that the bureaucracy and self-interest of one arm of government can confound another, it is clearly the case. In respect of the planning constraints placed on Willatook, Nic Aberle, policy director at the Clean Energy Council, noted:

“If these are the types of restrictive conditions we are going to see on wind farms then there is no way we will meet the government’s targets for renewable energy or greenhouse gas emissions. This is a project that has had essentially two-thirds of the turbines cut out, and the consequence of that is we just keep burning more coal for longer.”

Moyne Shire Council, which includes the wind farm site, has called for the Victorian Government to cease issuing planning permits for wind farms in the Shire until strategic land use planning in the state’s designated South West Renewable Energy Zone is completed in consultation with affected councils and communities.

Danny Nielsen, vice president and Australian head of Vestas, one of the world’s biggest providers of wind turbines, described the slow progress towards achieving the 2030 renewables target as “a cause for significant worry” and said the issue of development approvals stretched beyond Victoria, with no approvals in New South Wales for about two years.

It is hard to describe the chaos in which our planning system finds itself. Unless this problem is quickly and sensibly rectified, Australia will not achieve its climate goals and will be relegated to even more of a ‘dig and ship’ economy.

The current planning system not only stymies local development, but eradicates confidence in international investors. In the case of the Willatook wind farm, the site had already been designated by the Victorian Government as suitable for renewable energy. If investors cannot rely on this type of classification, they will simply choose to invest elsewhere.

We need to solve this problem by drastically revising our environmental planning laws. We need to completely remove decision making from the political process, which is too easily influenced by our short term election cycle. We need to set time constraints and provide guidelines that reflect the situation in which we find ourselves rather than the one of just a few years ago. Decisions need to be made quickly and objectively by environmental and climate experts rather than lawyers and judges.

The wishful thinkers

One group that cannot be overlooked in our analysis is the ‘Wishful Thinkers’.  This group is identified by their promotion of rapid adoption of new (untried) technology to solve all our climate problems. Far be it from me to gainsay some of the wonderful and innovative technology currently being developed around the world—but let’s be realistic.

Carbon capture technology has enjoyed some limited success in Norway and other gas fields. However, I can find no example of it being used successfully on a coal fired power station. This technology also relies upon suitable geotechnical conditions for CO2 storage. Despite some modest investment by the Federal Government, there is no industrial precedent in Australia.

There are only two Small Scale Modular Nuclear Reactors (SMR) currently in operation in the world: one in Russia, and one in China. This technology is still a very (very) long way from being commercially available. It is also worth keeping in mind that this technology is costly to build and maintain, slow to decommission and carry a range of safety concerns.

Full Scale Nuclear Reactors are even more unsuitable. Australia has none of the expertise to design, build or operate a fission reactor; and we don’t just need one! Plus, if it takes 12 years only for planning permission to be denied for a wind farm such as a Willatook, how long would it take for a reactor?

Commercial scale hydrogen technology is still 20 years away. For all the many advantages of hydrogen fuel cells, there are still a disadvantages and challenges to address, from regulatory issues and the huge investment required, through to complex storage and transportation. We need to focus on renewable energy sources that are available and achievable now—not in 20 years’ time.

The way forward

We are now at the stage where even the most obtuse observer must realise that global warming is real and is coming at us much faster than we imagined it could. Last year, Australia experienced record floods, with countless people losing their homes. This year, we’re expecting a record bushfire season, with the Northern Hemisphere already experiencing some of its hottest temperatures on record. The climate crisis makes the renewable energy revolution an imperative.

To make the renewable energy revolution a reality, Australia must:

  • Stick with the plan—wind, solar and hydro are our immediate solution.
  • Achieve a social license. All stakeholders must be brought onside with the plan, no matter the cost. It will be negligible in terms of the cost of doing nothing.
  • Resolve the bureaucracy, planning and legal constraints now—make the process efficient, simple and fast.
  • Partner with industry leaders and invest in manufacturing in Australia. There is no alternative. Global supply chains are already effectively empty.
  • Invest $200 billion into our own improved version of the Inflation Reduction Act.
  • Do all of the above yesterday. Tomorrow will be too late.
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