Rob Stokes on clean energy in New South Wales

New South Wales Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Rob Stokes.

New South Wales Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Rob Stokes.

The New South Wales Government recently released a draft of its Renewable Energy Action Plan, which outlines 28 actions to help the state achieve its target of 20 per cent clean energy by 2020. New South Wales Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy Rob Stokes spoke with EcoGeneration’s Melanie Ryan about the development of the plan, its implementation and general activities for attracting clean energy investment to the state.

What are the main aims and objectives of the New South Wales Government’s Renewable Energy Action Plan?

The main message that we want the industry to take away from this plan is that the New South Wales Government is keen to attract renewable energy investment in the state. Where other states may have a range of different views on this, we as a state see the opportunities of jobs and investment in clean energy – particularly in regional and rural communities.

We see the assistance that renewable energy can provide in combating rising electricity bills, and we can also see that renewables are the future, so we’re keen to be a leader in the area. We came into government on the mandate of making New South Wales ‘number one’ once again, and a big part of that must be taking a lead in relation to our state’s attributes for renewable energy investment.

Why was it important to consult with clean energy industry stakeholders in developing the draft?

There was a clear and uniform message from the clean energy industry and renewables players that there is need for regulatory predictability as far as is possible, particularly when technology is changing quickly, electricity demand is changing quickly and costs are changing quickly. Industries want to know that their framework will be predictable, so that they can make investment decisions based on what the government is likely to do.

We took our time developing the plan, and we did that because there are a number of issues that we really wanted to be clear on and make sure that they were right. There have been a number of renewable energy documents developed by different states that were great glossy documents at the time they were introduced, but things changed and their plans were changed. That undermined their objective of providing a predictable framework to investors.

The New South Wales Government didn’t want to do that; we wanted to make sure we did it properly and got it right, so we consulted widely and carefully while producing the plan. We’re pretty confident that we’re on the right path. We accepted subsequent industry feedback until the end of October 2012, but really, we want to bring the plan into practice as quickly as possible so we wanted to get it right from the start. We’re confident we’ve got it right – if there are better ideas out there we’re certainly keen to listen to them, but we don’t want this process to drag out for too long.

When do you anticipate the final version of the plan will be implemented, and how is it expected to drive investment in clean energy in New South Wales?

The decision on when the final plan is released will be made soon by the New South Wales Government. We want to get it out as quickly as possible after we’ve had a reasonable time to consider the feedback that came in. As a member of government, I am keen to start work on increasing renewables.

What are some of the key mechanisms the Government will introduce to drive investment in the state?

The main mechanism is the idea of establishing a Renewable Energy Advocate within the public service: a position that will work with investors and proponents to identify resources that the state has, and a number of actions relating to resource mapping, to network connections and planning processes – this will all be within the role of the Renewable Energy Advocate.

There are regulatory barriers that are specifically identified within the draft plan that we want to work to removing. We also understand that there are regulatory barriers that we don’t even know are regulatory barriers yet. Because we’re sometimes dealing with new technologies that have new applications, there will be new barriers that emerge. When they emerge, we want to have the capacity in government to not only identify them but also manage and resolve them. You really need someone in government to do that; that’s what the Renewable Energy Advocate is there to do.

Renewable energy straddles so many different areas in government; proponents may be dealing with a distribution business in relation to a network connection or the grid operator, a local council or a planning department. There are many bodies that a proponent could potentially go to; the idea of the Advocate is to help proponents wind their way through government and make the process as easy as possible to ensure New South Wales attracts as much investment as it can.

The Advocate would be one person working with a team of specialists within New South Wales Industry and Investment. We’re already looking at how the Advocate would be appointed, and a team established.

What sort of funding will the Government allocate to implement greater uptake of renewables in the state, if any?

We’ve taken the view that there’s plenty of money out there; the Federal Government has provided a lot, in terms of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). We don’t see our role as duplicating that money or providing other pots of money, but instead helping investors and proponents in advocating before the CEFC or ARENA to try and unlock as much of that money as possible for New South Wales.

There are plenty of investors who are keen to invest in this area; I speak to them on a weekly basis. There’s not a need for the state to develop new funds or tariff schemes to drive investment; we’re conscious that monies for these sorts of projects come from electricity consumers. We don’t believe there’s extra capacity for electricity consumers to have further pressure on their bills.

What sort of renewables projects is the Government hoping to attract to the state? Will residential solar be encouraged with any support in the final plan?

In New South Wales, we’ve had plenty of experience with well-intentioned but poorly-designed clean energy support schemes, so we’re not keen to go down the route of having ad-hoc schemes to promote different technologies. We are ‘technology agnostic’, and our plan does not seek to ‘pick winners’.

We want to attract all types of investment. We’ll leave it to the market to determine what the best proposals are, and we’ll work with those proponents to help them navigate the process.

I see big gains being made in mid-scale or utility-scale solar; that could well be a game-changer. That’s where the costs are changing all the time, and faster than most people anticipated. Wind has always been identified as the cheapest in a large-scale sense, but the cost reductions in the levelised cost of electricity for wind are not as great as in solar, particularly utility-scale solar.

Then there are other technologies that have great potential but still have a way to go, such as geothermal and wave energy. The South Australian Government’s clean energy strategy did seek to pick a winner, and for obvious resource reasons chose wind. New South Wales’ resource base is large – we’ve got lots of everything. We’re not seeking to promote any one technology over another.

Will the final plan propose any solutions for wind project planning laws or regulations to help address the future needs of project developers?

There is definitely capacity to look at amending planning laws to accommodate investment in wind or even utility-scale solar. We’re currently re-writing our state planning laws, and there’s enormous capacity to look at changing laws for our energy projects right across the board and addressing regulatory barriers.

All energy projects generate a lot of community attention, from fossil fuel projects to renewables projects. The answer is not to remove the community from the process. Under our old planning laws in New South Wales, the previous government thought the best idea to get around community concerns was to remove the community from the planning process. That just makes the problems worse. You have to include them genuinely, listen to what they say, and give them real rights in the process.

At the same time, you have to ensure the community is actively armed with information about not just the challenges but the benefits of energy projects. If there is a void of information, it will be filled with misinformation – that’s why the work of the Renewable Energy Co-ordinators in New South Wales is so important, so that we can be upfront and clear with communities on challenges and benefits of clean energy, and not seek to evade consultation.

The Australian Capital Territory Government has unveiled a target for 90 per cent renewable energy by 2020; why is the New South Wales Government’s target 20 per cent by 2020? Is the 20 per cent figure aimed at maintaining consistency with the Federal Government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET)?

Our target is the national target; we accept that we’re part of Australia and part of the National Electricity Market. Our plan is directed towards what opportunities we can promote within the RET.

It’s sensible to turn our minds to what will happen after 2020. We work within the investment framework set up by the Federal Government, and we look forward to seeing what comes out of the Climate Change Authority’s RET Review. I’ll reiterate the message that I’ve received from the industry, which is they want certainty, not constant change. Let’s determine what the future of Australian clean energy is going to be, and then let our thinking be about how we’ll reach that future.

Dr Rob Stokes is the Member for Pittwater and the New South Wales Parliamentary Secretary for Renewable Energy, a role he has held since May 2011. Previously, Dr Stokes served as the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Planning, and as a Member of the Parliamentary Committee on the Independent Commission Against Corruption. He was first elected to the New South Wales Parliament in 2007. Prior to his election, Rob was a practicing solicitor with city and suburban legal practices and was also a senior lecturer in law at Macquarie Law School. Dr Stokes was involved with the International Bar Association and the New South Wales Law Society. He holds a PhD and Masters in law.

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