I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute on the Renewable Energy (Jobs and Investment) Bill 2017 today.
In the 1980s Shepparton thought it was a pretty amazing place because it decided to call itself the solar city.
I think probably it turns out we might have been 40 years before our time and did not really act on it in any significant ways.
Not a lot of investment went into solar at that time, but it was very much the image of our city that we had more sunlight than probably anywhere else in the world and that we would be an amazing place and would have the capacity to produce large amounts of solar.
So it was always on the radar, and it is only now in more recent years that we have had the opportunity to see, just in recent weeks, the opportunity for a solar farm to be built just north of Numurkah at Wunghnu. That will supply about 38 megawatts to apparently power trams in Melbourne, but it will actually have a capacity of 100 megawatts, so presumably the rest will be going into the grid. Similarly, local government in the Greater Shepparton region is looking at potential options for further solar farms within the region, and there are a number of proposals across northern Victoria that no doubt will look to take advantage of the sorts of opportunities that legislation like this might offer.
Before I got elected to Parliament we went solar in our legal office. It was a small regional legal firm, but we decided to take up the options that were there for us about five or six years ago and put solar energy across the whole office. It was very pleasing not to get bills anymore, so it was a good investment from a business perspective for us to do that. We were the sort of business that could actually achieve results by doing it, but there are many other businesses that are now significantly under threat because of the cost of energy in our region and indeed across the state and across the country.
From my point of view I see it as a major failure over the last 10 years of both parties at a federal and state level not to have been able to hit on a policy that creates certainty for our energy markets and for the businesses that work in this area. It seems to me in some ways that the states have actually been compelled to take some steps. There has been no leadership at the federal level, so we have got states now setting their own renewable energy targets. It could be argued that they perhaps are taking a leadership role and that when the federal government finally does set on a policy that is understandable, that is clear, that gives really strong signals to everyone, the states will perhaps join in more to hopefully see a much more concerted and conforming policy across the whole of the country.
It seems to me that renewables will definitely be a part of the mix. They are already a part of the mix, and it is really disappointing to see the high level of politicisation of the argument around all of this. I was watching Q&A briefly on Monday night — last night — and noticed the absolute endeavour that the parties engage in to mudsling at each other and to blame each other for the position that we find each other in and very often the significant lack of clarity around what we ought to be doing. So when a proposition is put forward that seeks to address some of the issues, you really want to look at it hard and see whether it is going to benefit us.
Renewable energy — like, for instance, wind and solar — is only valuable when the sun shines and the wind blows, so a really significant part of the mix, particularly in renewables, is that there are some renewables that are being funded which will provide stability into the system and will be able to meet demand when that demand is called upon. Businesses need to be able to access energy when they need it just like they need their employees to come to work when they are needed, so for businesses to run they have to have certainty around their ability to access energy at particular times. So hydro-electricity, battery storage, biomass — these all need to be put into the mix and funded so that we get a sufficiently weighted system. There can be no doubt that coal and gas are still very much a part of what we will need to provide for our state’s needs in the near future.
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) says billions of dollars of investment is needed to ensure stability in the grid. AEMO is responsible for operating Australia’s largest gas and electricity market and power systems, and it recognises that we are now going through unprecedented transformational times. It is not just happening to us here; it is happening all across the world. The challenges are immense, and we have to face up to them if we are going to survive as a country, if our businesses are going to survive and if we are going to actually maintain employment let alone increase it.
One of the things AEMO has identified in recent reports is the need for interconnectivity between the states — interconnectivity of the grid so that there can be much more sharing of power in times of need. I think this bill will see investment particularly in more wind and solar, and that is a concern I have. I have said I think we have got to be very careful that we make sure other renewables are invested in which do provide that stability that we very clearly need. To some extent I am satisfied that the government is thinking about this. I looked at the second-reading speech by the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change, and in it she said:
Energy security will also be a key feature of actions to meet the targets in this bill, and weighting will be provided to projects and new technologies that add to overall security.
Weighting is a really important feature of what we need to consider in this so that the various sources of energy that are coming together are sufficient to provide for the needs of our community.
In my region just earlier this year we had federal Senator Canavan visiting a number of businesses in our area. He visited Gouge drycleaners, a company that employs about 150 people in regional Victoria, providing cleaning services for linen across a range of hospitals and other institutions. They have been faced with an increase of $300 000 in their energy bill just for this year. For a business of that size that is indeed very challenging.
A lot of the reasons that have been put down to that relate to gas supply. The federal government has criticised Victoria for its refusal to engage in sufficient gas exploration and development. I recall that not long ago we all voted on the anti-fracking bill here. While I am happy to have supported that bill, I do question the point in time at which we now need to look at reviewing access to onshore gas supplies for conventional gas exploration and development.
There is no doubt we are in a position now where we are exporting our gas in huge quantities and it is cheaper for us to buy back our own gas from another country. It is absolutely extraordinary that we, a country so energy rich in so many ways, find ourselves in a position where we are fixing up the ports to allow in ships that will bring back gas that we have exported somewhere else at a lower price. In my opinion it is incomprehensible that we could find ourselves in such a situation. I think we will find ourselves in situations in the forthcoming summer where we will have blackouts across the state. That sort of thing will not be forgotten in November 2018 when we all face elections. It is something that will make people very angry.
I reflect on the fact that just recently during the hurricane in America over eight elderly people died in nursing homes because the power went out and there was no-one there to care for them. It is quite frightening to think of the possible consequences in our community of the long-term loss of power. That is extreme, but just the cost of power is now becoming very burdensome and difficult for vulnerable people in our community. So at this stage I await further discussion on the bill.