Despite some bumps in the road, Australia is making giant strides in its renewable energy progress, writes Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton.
Tuning in to the news in recent times reminds me of the history of clean energy and the naysayers who always said, “It can’t be done.”
They said it couldn’t be done when John Howard set the original 10 per cent Renewable Energy Target (RET) at the turn of the century. They said the 20 per cent RET couldn’t be achieved by 2020, yet we smashed that. They said one million rooftop solar systems would shut down the grid. Today, there are more than 3.5 million of them on Australian roofs.
There have always been naysayers, but clean energy progress in Australia and worldwide continues regardless.
Emissions reductions of 43 per cent, and 82 per cent renewable energy, by 2030 are ambitious targets. But they set up Australia to become a global clean energy superpower, fundamentally modernising our economy and energy system.
At the Clean Energy Council, we recently commissioned a report from Green Energy Markets, which reveals that achieving the 82 per cent target will require a 240 per cent expansion in annual new generation from 2026 to 2030.
For that to happen, Australia must double down on its abundance of natural, renewable resources and not be distracted by debates about extending the life of fossil fuels, or a role for nuclear energy, as is currently popular. These are distractions.
Fossil fuels are finished – Victoria’s decision to ban gas connection in new homes from January 2024 is a good example – and nuclear is far too costly, time-intensive and untested.
At the Australian Clean Energy Summit, in July 2023, we were blessed with a fantastic line up of speakers from government, industry leaders, analysts and experts. We were pleased to find there is widespread enthusiasm for extending Australia’s RET, something we have long called for.
Australia’s previous RET was met in 2020 and it is phasing out. No single policy has propelled forward the industry as much. The benefits of an extension would be enormous. While state governments have stepped into the breaches, we still need a national policy mechanism to help us reach the 82 per cent target.
Consumer uptake of rooftop solar in Australia has been built off the back of the successful Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme (SRES) program. Not only has SRES helped reduce upfront costs associated with the purchase of rooftop solar, it has built strong compliance requirements.
At the Clean Energy Council, we are proud of the role we have played in building robust installer and product accreditation programs, and running the New Energy Technology Code of Conduct (NETCC), which was replaced by the Solar Code of Conduct in early 2023. These schemes are a critical part of the regulatory framework that helps drive better behaviour from the industry and ensures customers are treated fairly and honestly.
The Clean Energy Regulator is currently undergoing a tender process for the installer accreditation program. The Clean Energy Council has not applied to continue in this role, assuming there is another body that can perform this important, but arduous, task.
However, our strong support for installers continues. This takes the form of the myCEC program, a subscription service providing technical support, learning resources, business benefits and much more. This service provides critical support to installers in understanding and navigating growing complexity and demands as they install systems. We need more installers, and myCEC is designed to encourage and support them in the industry.
The Clean Energy Regulator’s latest small-scale technology certificates report shows that rooftop solar capacity installed in Q1 2023 was 21 per cent higher than in Q1 2022. The rooftop solar industry in Australia is world leading, and evidence suggests it will continue to drive the country’s clean energy transition.
The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) and the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) are currently undertaking several policy reviews that are exploring ways to unlock value in making energy generated from rooftop solar more flexible and valuable by creating markets and providing incentives for consumers to move their energy to different parts of the day when the system has spare capacity. These reforms are important to unlocking new revenue streams and incentivising households to take up solar.
Consumer confidence in any industry is essential. The rooftop solar industry in Australia has built significant social licence with communities by delivering power bill savings. These benefits are there for all to see – clean energy is the best way to reduce energy bills in the short-term and long-term.
The Clean Energy Council is carefully considering how we can leverage an expanded SRES program to better support customers in the future. The focus needs to be on how to encourage more orchestration of rooftop solar and storage. However, that needs to be driven by consumers who make informed choices and have trust in the installation process and the quality of products.
At a time when the large-scale clean energy sector is wrestling with how best to engage and work with communities on bigger projects – although large-scale projects are a more difficult sell, have longer lead times and fewer immediately visible benefits – rooftop solar continues to bring crucial generation to the grid.
Embracing the challenge
It’s no secret commitments to large-scale clean energy projects slowed in early 2023. Just 0.4GW of large-scale projects were committed in the first half of 2023, which is a long way short of the 5GW per annum we need.
But we must not forget we have the best combination of wind, solar and water resources anywhere in the world. For the first time in our history, we have wall-to-wall governments supporting clean energy. Australia has built a strong, vibrant industry, led by remarkable progress in the rooftop solar and storage sector.
This is the time to embrace the challenge and prove the naysayers wrong again.
Kane Thornton has more than a decade of experience in energy policy and leadership in the development of the renewable energy industry. His column is a regular feature in EcoGeneration, where he analyses industry trends and explains the impacts of federal and state renewable policies on the energy sector.