Second Reading Debate: Renewable Energy (Jobs and Investment) Bill 2017

I rise to speak on this bill, which will establish renewable energy targets for Victoria and support schemes to achieve these targets. From the outset I want to make it clear: I have nothing against wind energy or renewables. If I did, I would have objected to the Woolsthorpe wind farm, which will sit right on the boundary of my property. I would have objected again when the proposed height change went before the panel, which will mean I will be looking right out my window at wind farms.

Renewables form an important part of the energy generation mix. Whilst it may be true that more supply will eventually decrease energy prices, businesses and households in my electorate cannot wait for new wind projects to come online. They are feeling the pinch right now from rising energy bills. This bill will do nothing to alleviate the energy price rises we are now seeing. There is nothing immediate about this. It is all well and good to say increased supply lowers prices, but when will we see the increased supply? It will not be within weeks or months; it will be years.

I will not be supporting this bill. I am sure that the Twitter will be lighting up with Friends of the Earth tweeting that I do not care about jobs in my electorate. That could not be further from the truth. I do want this government to support jobs in my electorate, but not just the new positions this bill may create. I want them to support the thousands of people already employed in my electorate that rely on affordable and reliable energy to keep their businesses operating and people in jobs. At places like Portland Aluminium, which already needs a steady load of baseload power at affordable costs to keep 600 people directly employed and supporting a further 2000 jobs in the wider south-west region, we have seen what happens when there is a lack of reliable energy supply at the smelter. We have been on a knife’s edge as we waited to see if the plant would reopen. We do not want this again.

But it will not just be large employers that need reliable energy supply. Every dairy farm in South-West Coast and every wool producer needs a reliable energy supply to make sure they can milk their cows, cool their milk, shear their sheep and press bales of wool. Many of these farms are not just owner-operated; they have staff. That means jobs. The restaurants, cafes and hospitality places, which also employ large numbers of people and need to be able to keep the lights on to run their businesses — rising power costs for them risks their businesses closing, people being out of work and damaging the tourism industry. A hospital in my electorate has seen a $266 000 increase on its annual power bill. That is an 80 per cent power price rise. If there is no extra funding from the department to help cover these costs, they will be looking at cutting services. As the CEO put it, if we are talking about $266 000, then potentially that is wages — that is at least three nursing positions that would have to go.

I just want to reiterate that I have nothing against renewable energy but at the moment it simply cannot provide the baseload power we need to be able to keep the lights on, and this bill does nothing to address the immediate concerns of lack of energy supply. In my electorate we had the biggest wind farm in the southern hemisphere at Macarthur, owned by AGL. It is a 140-turbine wind farm over 5500 hectares with a name-plate capacity of 420 megawatts. While the wind farm may be the biggest in the country, in the last 12 months it has been the worst performing of any wind farm in the state and among the worst in the country.

According to an article in RenewEconomy published in August, when the wind farm was first announced in 2010:

… it was tipped to deliver a capacity factor of around 35 per cent.

Not of the state’s needs, not of the region’s needs, but 35 per cent of the 420 megawatt capacity that it is designed to produce.

It opened in early 2013, but in 2016–17, it delivered a capacity factor of just 23 per cent.

AGL’s explanation for this is very interesting. In response to RenewEconomy‘s queries, a spokesman said:

The performance of the Macarthur wind farm in the financial year 2017 was primarily affected by planned outages and poor wind conditions …

Poor wind conditions — confirming that when the wind does not blow there is no energy being produced, proving that we are not able to rely solely on renewable energy as a baseload power source yet. Baseload being the energy needed to satisfy minimum power demand on the energy grid: that is, having power whenever we want it, not when the wind blows or when the sun shines.

Renewables alone are not able to provide the baseload power we need to be able to keep the lights on, businesses operating and people in jobs. We need to continue to ensure we have enough of that baseload power to account for the percentage of time that wind farms are not generating. Surely the aim of having windfarm projects is to reduce emissions, but how is that going to be achieved when we are keeping existing coal and gas-fired power stations open? The reality is it will not. While renewables are worthy sources of generation, the fact remains we have to have a coal or gas-fired power station to provide that baseload power. There is no other way yet.

How many turbines will need to be constructed to provide the energy comparable to a coal or gas-fired power station? And what will our landscape look like in the process? In my electorate, and more specifically in my home community, there are three wind farms proposed. The real issue with this came when it became clear that, while there were three separate developments, they almost link up and create one long line of wind farms. Many properties that were only going to have turbines on one side of their property, as new developments are proposed, will now have them on three sides of their homes. In Hawkesdale there will be turbines 180 metres tall just a kilometre from the edge of the town.

Last time I spoke on this matter in the chamber, I spoke about people being offered trees to help screen the giant turbines from their homes. How do you block the view of something that is towering above a single-storey home the size of a skyscraper in a wide open paddock? The community is feeling let down by the planning process and that is something I think we need to look at very closely. A holistic approach needs to be taken when approving wind farms, and permits need to be looked at in relation to the landscape, proximity to other wind turbines and the ability to contribute to the energy balance needs.

If we approve them on a one-by-one basis, we will end up with a situation where the lush green landscape is saturated with concrete and metal structures that are as tall as city skyscrapers. The reason South-West Coast is being saturated with wind projects is not because we have plenty of wind alone; it is because we have easy access to the grid via the high voltage lines. I am told there are landscapes further north of my electorate which are perfect for wind farm developments, but because there is no access to basic energy infrastructure — namely poles and wires — they are immediately ruled out. I know it sounds like I am anti-wind farms, but I truly am not. But I do support a process to ensure that wind farm applications are well considered and properly planned.

Getting back to the energy generation mix, the three wind farms being proposed near my home — Ryan Corner, Woolsthorpe and Hawkesdale — will have a combined total of 102 turbines with a combined capacity somewhere around 240 megawatts. But as we have seen with Macarthur, the actual amount produced is likely to be considerably lower.

By comparison, Loy Yang A and B have a combined nameplate capacity of 3300 megawatts, so if we were to replace that with renewables, how many wind towers would we need?

After the announcement of this plan there was plenty of media coverage lamenting the go-it-alone nature of this policy and highlighting that the government spin failed to take into account several factors. In the Australian Financial Review of 28 August, energy program director at the Grattan Institute Tony Wood pointed out that while the government is claiming this will cut costs for consumers, the government’s calculations do not include payments the government will make to generators, the additional costs to grid connections and the cost associated with the intermittency of wind and solar generation.

Right now in Victoria we have 18 major wind farms operating, with a total of 676 turbines with a maximum power output of 1489 megawatts. There are wind farms under construction, with a total of 77 wind turbines being added, adding a maximum of 132 megawatts to the grid. Then of course there are the approved but not operational wind farms that will add another 956 turbines with a maximum of 2659 megawatts. Add them all together and you have 1700 turbines and 4280 megawatts — a very long way off the 3 million megawatts needed to reach targets. I reiterate: even then the power can only produce a percentage of what is needed. I understand there are differing forms of renewable energy, but there are not any significant ones with the wind power comparable to base or anywhere need significant to help.

The concern of my community is that the wide-open spaces they now enjoy will soon be saturated. While wind farms are an important part of the energy generation mix, going it alone with ambitious targets like these are nothing but attempts to politically pointscore in electorates where Labor is facing an uphill battle to defeat the Greens. The science of getting it right has not been considered. The minister has indicated in this house that people can expect their energy bills to go down by 2035, but that comment, like this bill, provides absolutely no relief for businesses and households. While I am anything but anti-wind farm or renewable energy, I cannot support this bill on the basis that it is doing nothing to help now.