Despite incohesive national policy leadership, Australian industry has delivered more clean energy and energy efficiency upgrades over the past 20 years than projected. EcoGeneration founding editor Jessica Lynch looks back at the progress achieved in almost a generation.

Let us briefly travel back to the year 2000. I invite you to recall what organisation you were working with and on what project: perhaps you worked on the world’s largest solar powered village at Sydney Olympic Park, for the first sustainably focused “green” Olympics? Maybe at home you had a solar PV system quote for $15,000 on your wish list? You possibly shredded a Y2K computer failure crisis plan. If you were at university, your HECs fees were going up, on average around 40%, and some leading Australian institutions had signed the Talloires Declaration to support and even embed sustainability education across courses.

A year prior, the Dow Jones Sustainability Index was launched. The index is now a world leader in analysis of climate change mitigation impacts on asset values. Companies that have made the cut generally outperform the industrial average.

It was brave new era, with the introduction of the Renewable Energy Bill in 2000 acting as a catalyst for the launch of EcoGeneration magazine. Our decision to combine “eco” with “generation”, to signify the production of sustainable power, risked being seen as alternative.

Sugarcane cogeneration far outweighed solar as a potential solution to the transition to renewables in 2000.

From January 1, 2001, under then prime minister John Howard, energy retailers were required to purchase a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources to meet a Renewable Energy Target of 9,500GWh by 2010. Energy types predicted to achieve the target were sugar cane cogeneration, wind, hydro and bagasse. That target was achieved with pre-existing hydro and wind the dominant energy types.

After taking power in 2007, Kevin Rudd promised a bigger RET target to 2020. Reforms in 2015 under Rudd saw a major target increase and split in to the large-scale (LRET) and small-scale (SRES) programs. The LRET target was to grow to 41,000GWh by 2020 and the SRES target was left uncapped, to be set annually. The change was to better incentivise large renewable projects. Later in 2015, then prime minister Tony Abbott passed legislation to reduce the target to 33,000GWh by 2020: a combination of lack of party enthusiasm for renewables and a decline in overall electricity consumption.

The LRET target was reached a year early in 2019, with a major surge from 2017. For 2019, new large-scale renewable projects totalled 2.2GW and rooftop solar exceeded 2GW.

Fast forward to 2020 and the RET has turned 20. It will continue to 2030, with an oversupply of certificates and their value, some say, likely to reduce to zero by the mid-2020s. Various states have RETs that add to that required by the federal target. Over the past 20 years the target has increased sevenfold and delivered significant technology transformation. For example, the price of solar panels has dropped tenfold.

The first edition of EcoGeneration, in August 2000.

Demand side management

Australia has eyed California for more than 20 years for solutions to peak supply crises. In the December 200 edition of EcoGeneration, a piece on the Californian Public Utilities Commission described a crisis in the state “due to a combination of hot weather, ageing power plant and transmission infrastructure, and dysfunctional bidding behaviour in the wholesale power market”.

The article went on to state: “Electricity industry reform has a way to go in Australia, with impediments for demand-side management and embedded generation still to be addressed. Concerted government action in this area is a high priority as it will also deliver the lowest cost greenhouse gas abatement.”

We still have a way to go and the states have filled the vacuum through a range of energy savings schemes.

The October 2000 edition boosts the biomass sector.

Pivotal themes

Over the past 20 years federal leaders have either championed or slayed the opportunity to make Australia a renewables and energy productivity superpower. At the same time, many visionary industry leaders, economists and academics have inspired us to carry on. We can spotlight some pivotal themes.

There was bipartisan support in 2007 for an emissions trading scheme, launched in 2012 and repealed in 2014 during the Rudd/Gillard/Abbott years. In 2008 a climate change review led by Professor Ross Garnaut forewarned the 2020 bushfires as one of the many conditions that would worsen with more greenhouse pollution. Under Malcolm Turnbull, in 2016 a National Energy Productivity Plan was launched. In 2017, another review lead by Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel proposed a Clean Energy Target to succeed the RET. In 2020, with covid-19 as the catalyst, a national cabinet was formed and, in May, it was announced that COAG will be abolished.

Time will tell if that change will cut through the former COAG Energy Council’s slow machinations to deliver National Electricity Market reforms, including overseeing the new Energy Security Board plans for a two-sided market design post 2025. Finkel has lauded energy efficiency as unexploited. This may yet open the way for a National Energy Savings Scheme as recommended by the Climate Change Authority for years.

We can take heart in the work of the NSW government, with its commitment to a sizeable world-first certificate-based peak demand reduction scheme with targets likely to be launched from 2021 to 2030. It will harness the benefits of energy efficiency, battery storage and other peak demand reducing or shifting upgrades that are demand-response enabled. Various state energy efficiency targets are delivering an annual average reduction of 4% of total electricity consumption and most will continue until at least 2030. As more activities become eligible under those schemes, much greater targets are possible. NSW has committed to 13% energy savings by 2030.

The next 10 years

Australia’s Emissions Reduction Target remains too weak to reduce emissions to 26-28% on 2005 levels by 2030. Aspirational zero emissions targets committed to by all states by 2050 are encouraging, but mandated targets are needed sooner to deliver the significant reductions needed to avoid temperature increases of more than 1.5°C.

As was the case 20 years ago, when then president of the Australian EcoGeneration Association Andrew Stock wrote in his lead article in the first edition of EcoGeneration, “if Australia is to avoid emissions embarrassment in the eyes of the international community, further initiatives are needed.”


Jessica Lynch is executive officer of the Energy Savings Industry Association. She has worked in energy and sustainability over 25 years in strategic advisory roles, including for the Australian Cogeneration Association, Australian EcoGeneration Association and with corporates and SMEs.