Politics force renewable energy manufacturer to look overseas

The right level of support for the renewable energy sector is a topic that will be debated well into the future.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s announcement this week of a 50 per cent 2030 Renewable Energy Target was either bad news for electricity prices (assuming a change of government), according to some, or a courageous and much-needed show of support for clean technology, according to others.

The latter group includes the beleaguered renewable energy industry.

Those involved in wind power, in particular, have received plenty bad news in recent months, with descriptions of installations as "ugly" coming from the highest office in the land.

There has also been an admission by the PM that he'd like to reduce growth in wind power, a senate inquiry into the claimed health effects of turbines, and the announcement of a wind farm commissioner

“The mood’s – I’d probably use the word flat,” Michael LeMessurier, Principal Commercial Manager at Renewable Energy Solutions Australia (RESA), told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“The reason why it’s flat is there has been so much uncertainty in terms of policy, the future direction, and this has so much impact on our sector.” 

LeMessurier’s business’s flagship product, the 30-blade, “virtually silent” Eco Whisper Turbine, got off to a promising start, with a half-dozen installations in Australia. The first was completed in 2011 at Geelong, on the same year RESA qualified as a finalist in the Australian Clean Technologies Competition.

Business has, however, been challenging in the last couple of years. The 2km restrictions (from an installation to a dwelling) in Victoria under the previous Baillieu government and the federal government’s well-known hostility towards wind energy haven’t helped.

“From a legislative point of view – as you can see in the current government, and also what happened in Victoria a couple of years ago, [it’s been difficult]” said LeMessurier.

“It’s just been constant battles to get the products across the line.”

The Eco Whisper, made in 20kW and 5kW versions, is 100 per cent exported, with the manufacturing of the 30-blade turbines to soon head to China or Taiwan. R&D and innovation will remain in Australia, where the company employs 5 (this number had previously been as high as 13).

Business is generally described as difficult in the renewables sector. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance review released in April, there were no new renewable ventures in the last quarter of 2014, and only one in the first quarter of the year. Investment has fallen by 90 per cent in the year to March.

However, a lower 2020 RET finally being resolved last month is a positive. Almost immediately after the new target was announced, contracts were signed by a consortium including GE and Downer for a $450 million wind farm in Ararat.

State-based renewable energy targets are also positives for the industry, for example South Australia’s 50 per cent 2025 goal.

LeMessurier’s business, however, is looking overseas, and also to its secondary product, developed two years after the Eco Whisper and which has earned it a semi-finalist’s place in this year’s Australian Technologies Competition.

“For us, commercially, we see much bigger and wider commercial opportunities for VoltLogic and therefore resources from that small business have been put a lot of effort into it. The Eco Whisper Turbine has I guess fallen down the pecking order, if you like,” said LeMessurier.

The VoltLogic unit gained national certification last year and caters to issues around there being more and bigger solar photovoltaic systems. It is a multi-purpose power inverter/charger and correction device.

“We call Australia a bit of a test market, if you like, for R&D,” said LeMessurier.

“Now we’re expanding commercially outside of Australia into markets that are very supportive of clean technology: both from a legislative and funding point of view.”

According to RESA, there is a greater level of support in these areas in various Asian and North American markets.

The debate about what subsidies are appropriate for renewable (and fossil fuel forms of) energy will continue. It is, however, easy to find examples of developed and developing nations that apparently see the positives in expanding the role of renewables in their energy mix.

Deutsche Bank, for example, released research this week that predicted investment in solar energy in India – driven by an ambitious capacity target by its prime minister – would be greater than in coal energy by 2019.

There is, of course, assistance for clean technology manufacturers here – RESA has received two Commercialisation Australia grants, for example. But what’s missing, said LeMessurier, is adequate encouragement for the private sector to get involved.

“When we’ve gone to market to look at further investment from private investors; they’ve said ‘you want to get cleantech in this country! There’s no chance at all!’” he recalled.

“Which is really disappointing. There are companies out there that are highly innovative and would grow jobs etcetera but the investment piece is missing.”

The winners of the Australian Technologies Competition, now in its fifth year and sponsored by Autodesk, will be announced on October 20.


Images: supplied, expect for bottom image (from livemint.com)

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