Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015

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Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (13:15): The Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015 seeks to amend the 2000 act and the 2001 regulations, as well as making consequential amendments to the Climate Change Authority Act 2011. The majority of amendments reflect an agreement between the government and the opposition in order to provide certainty to an industry and to allow for investment in the sector to resume. The bill firstly reduces the large-scale renewable energy target to 33,000 gigawatt hours by 2020; it allows for the extension of full exemptions for emissions-intensive trade-exposed activities; it repeals the requirement for periodic reviews of the RET and it amends the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Regulations to reinstate native wood waste as an eligible renewable energy resource. In contributing to this debate I would like to deal with the details of the bill and the context of the debate that brings us to this point, and then to discuss some local feedback I have received on these matters.

We as a nation are particularly well placed to develop a significant renewable energy sector as we have abundant solar, wind and wave resources available to us. The opportunity to maximise these is supported by our world-class skills and the expertise that has been developed here. The previous member spoke of some of his own experiences from the Newcastle university activities, and I have to reflect on the fact that Wollongong university has also been very active in this space. These factors, which were supported by a Labor government at the time, made Australia a world leader in renewable energy. Labor has a longstanding record of support for the renewable energy sector. The record of Labor in government confirms this, with growth in homes with rooftop solar technology increasing from around 7,000 to more than 1.2 million. Wind power in Australia has tripled and the jobs in the renewable sector have also tripled. More than $18 billion was invested in wind and solar farms, hydro plants and renewable energy technology development.

The investment and jobs were a significant contribution to the national economy—as a sector it employs more than 21,000 people and attracts billions in investment. In addition to this, it was a significant contributor to reducing the carbon pollution produced by the electricity sector. Between June 2012 and June 2013 emissions from this sector fell by more than seven per cent. Internationally we are seeing nations around the world increasing their own commitments to renewable energy sources. The worldwide shift has seen an increase of 16 per cent in investments in renewable energy in 2014; in China alone, investment in renewables massively increased by 33 per cent. In 2013 Australia was ranked in the top four most attractive places to invest in renewable energy, alongside powerhouse countries such as Germany, China and the US. Sadly, we have now plummeted to 10th on that list.

For all of these reasons Labor's clean energy package had a significant emphasis on renewables, and this is why we have fought so hard against the attacks that this government has launched against this important sector since being elected. It is inconceivable that the government would actively undermine a sector that delivers jobs, attracts investment, helps households to reduce energy costs and provides a new manufacturing base to support the transition of manufacturing sectors that have been under transitional pressure. On top of all of this, it reduces Australia's carbon pollution. In the Illawarra we are at the forefront of these pressures, and across New South Wales there are 4,410 jobs in the sector—such as wind, solar, PV, solar hot water, sales and service-related jobs.

I would like to share a local story of global achievement from my backyard of Wollongong. In August 2013 a team of students from the University of Wollongong and TAFE Illawarra, named Team UOW, won first place in the solar decathlon competition in China. China was the most recent addition to the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, an award-winning program that challenges collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy efficient and attractive. The resulting homes demonstrate to students, the public and industry that solar-powered houses are fully functional, comfortable and sustainable living spaces. The solar decathlon aims to promote collaboration in the solar industry and to facilitate innovation and adoption of solar energy and energy efficiency technologies. Solar Decathlon China was hosted by the National Energy Administration of China and the US Department of Energy, co-hosted by the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, supported by the All-China Students' Federation secretariat and organised by Peking University.

The Wollongong team, I am very pleased to report again to this House, beat 19 other teams from around the world. They were the first team from Australia to successfully gain entry into a solar decathlon—indeed, they were offered places at both the China and US events. They were the first team ever in any of the competitions to demonstrate how to retrofit an existing home, and they achieved the highest ever overall score in any solar decathlon competition, scoring 957.6 of a possible 1,000 points. The team was supported and mentored by Paul Cooper from the University of Wollongong and Marty Burgess from TAFE Illawarra, and many staff, whom I acknowledge, were involved as well. The student team was led by Lloyd Niccol, who was the project manager, and the team worked under the auspices of the Wollongong University's Sustainable Buildings Research Centre, which is headed by Paul Cooper. This is a facility at the university's innovation campus that the former federal Labor government contributed $25.1 million towards. Its task is to help Australia move towards a low carbon future by making buildings more energy efficient. It will support the growth of new jobs and new skills in the broad range of careers in the building design and construction industries—innovations that can form the basis of new businesses, new industries and export opportunities. It is a strong indicator of the opportunities that a low-carbon economy can provide, and these fantastic students and their teachers, through their world-beating achievement, have proven Australians have what it takes to lead the world. It just needs a federal government with the vision and determination to make Australia a leader in this international effort.

Given the strength of the positive story of this sector, it is very reasonable to ask why we are debating a bill to reduce the renewable energy target, which underpinned the success of the renewable energy sector. In a very short time after the 2013 election, the Prime Minister broke a pre-election commitment to retain the RET at 41,000 gigawatts by 2020. This was despite the fact that the RET had enjoyed bipartisan support for a decade in this country. The initial RET legislation was introduced under the Howard government in 2001 and Labor in government expanded it in 2009 and 2010—indeed, the Prime Minister had voted in support of all those bills. Yet it quickly became apparent after the election that this was about to change, as the Prime Minister began to make statements claiming that the RET was contributing to increasing household power prices. Then, in the 2014 budget, there were direct cuts to programs such as the $600 million bucket available for solar roofs, towns and schools, which was cut to just $2 million. Added to this, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, ARENA, had its funding cut in the 2013 MYEFO, and then in the 2014 budget it was listed for abolition.

The Prime Minister's RET review, however, injected significant uncertainty into the market and resulted in an almost complete stop to investment. The Prime Minister had claimed that renewable energy had contributed to an increase in power prices, yet even this RET review found that the existing RET of 41,000 gigawatts would actually put downward pressure on household power prices in the medium to long term, was driving investment in the sector and was also reducing Australia's carbon pollution and creating jobs. Despite these findings, the panel, hand-picked by the Prime Minister, recommended either abolishing the RET altogether or cutting it significantly, and so we saw the Prime Minister opt to try to cut the RET by more than 40 per cent.

The bipartisanship that had supported the renewable energy sector for more than a decade was shattered. Labor understood that action needed to be taken to give the industry the certainty it needed to attract investors in major projects, but we were not willing to do a deal that would see the industry ruined. Labor has been guided in this process by advice directly from the industry on what would be best for them. The result is an agreement with the government that will see around 25 per cent of Australia's energy generation produced from renewable energy sources by 2020. The Clean Energy Council predicts the revised target of 33,000 gigawatts will drive around $40.4 billion in investment and create more than 15,000 jobs. Labor's negotiation principles have contributed to some very important outcomes: firstly, no change to the small-scale solar scheme, which includes rooftop solar and solar panels for small businesses such as nursing homes; secondly, full exemption for emissions intensive trade industries, which relieves some pressure on those industries that are enduring downturns and job cuts; and, thirdly, the removal of two-yearly reviews to provide some of the long-term certainty that the industry so desperately needs in order to survive and thrive.

The issue of support for solar has been raised with me by a local constituent. Indeed, the national director of the organisation Solar Citizens, Claire O'Rourke, lives in my electorate and she came to speak to me about these very issues just last month. Claire briefed me on their campaign 'Stand up for solar'. She made the point that rooftop solar is a very important issue to an increasing number of Australian families and households. In 2007 there were around 8,000 solar photovoltaic systems installed on homes, but now there are more than 1.3 million Australian homes powered by solar. It is clear to me that the importance of solar energy to many local householders in my area is a very real issue for them, and I believe that Labor's role in this process of reaching an agreement to preserve the renewable energy sector is an important one in contributing to a strong future for technologies such as household solar photovoltaic systems. Indeed, renewable energy has a strong future under Labor. We have made it clear that, if we are elected at the next federal election, we will use the 33,000-gigawatt target as a floor to build upon and we will consult with the industry and finance sectors to develop an ambitious renewable energy policy beyond 2020. Labor know that renewable energy is the way of the future and we understand that Australia needs to transition to a clean energy economy—we have both the will and the ambition to see this happen.

There is one aspect of the bill that we do not support, and that is the inclusion of the native wood waste biomass in the RET. We do not believe that burning native forests for energy is either clean or renewable and we simply do not see a case for its inclusion in the RET. For those reasons, I support the shadow minister's proposed amendments when this bill is considered in detail.

It is clear across all our communities that the issue of the renewable energy future for Australia is one that plays out at the family and household level—indeed, my own parents have had a solar system on the house for as long as I can remember—and many, many households are looking for ways to find a more sustainable way to provide energy into their homes, particularly as they increasingly want to find more environmentally friendly options. I think that is a reflection of why we have seen across, I am sure, all of our electorates such a significant uptake of the solar systems, both hot-water systems and photovoltaic systems, that provide energy into the household. More than that, it is a good opportunity for places like our schools, community centres and nursing homes to put their own budgets on a more sustainable footing by having these smaller scale systems in place for them as well. Then it plays out, of course, from so many of our communities into our industry sectors. For an area like the Illawarra, as we see significant transition going on, the opportunity to build on the research and development being done at places like our university and TAFE and to build new industries, new employers and new jobs is significantly important.

For all those reasons, across all of our communities we have seen a very strong and determined support for the renewable energy sector, and people would expect us to be ensuring that the policy settings are in place to make that continue into the future. Of course, also there is increasingly an important responsibility on us for future generations to find a more renewable based economy so that we can do our bit in reducing carbon pollution in the world's circumstances.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour, and the honourable member will have leave, if she wishes, to continue her remarks at a later hour. Are there any statements from honourable members?