Australia: NSW state election could see green power surge

After having the official launch of their election campaign at the Balmain Town Hall on Sunday March 13, the Greens outlined plans for a new policy that would see three base-load solar thermal power plants built in the state’s west.

This news comes on top of the proposed policy already announced to tax coal-fired power stations to pay for more generous incentives for solar electricity, which would raise the feed-in tariff (FIT) for domestic solar power systems to 35 cents of kilowatt-hour, from the present 20 cents. This would allow more families benefit from rooftop solar power with the new tax paying for the cost.

The policies are being taken very seriously in the Australian media as well as by opposition Parties at the moment, as the upcoming State Election is expected to see the end of 16 years of Labor rule and a large amount of votes from the disillusioned electorate for parties like the Greens, leaving them with a potential balance of power in the Lower House.

This means that the policies of the smaller party are being given greater credence than they might normally be and the use of PV technology is being placed firmly on the agenda.

A report into a statewide transition into renewable energy by Newcastle University in Australia also expected the manufacturing of 20 percent of PV equipment to happen in Australia, while the rest would be sourced from overseas, which would mean a spike in interest from overseas suppliers in the Australian market.

Greens MP and lead Upper House candidate David Shoebridge outlined the Greens’ plan for the election at the official launch: "The Greens will work in the next parliament to deliver three solar base-load thermal power stations with heat storage to be built in the state’s Central West, funded by Green Infrastructure Bonds.

"This will drive the shift to renewable energy and create thousands of green jobs that will tackle climate change, stimulate the NSW economy and grow regional jobs."

The plan’s particulars

According to the official launch document supplied by the Greens in Australia, the aim is to provide zero-emissions base-load electricity twenty-four hours a day using heat storage and PV technologies. The plan is to build three 200 megawatt (MW) utility-scale grid connected, base-load solar thermal power stations.

On current technology prices, the first plant would cost approximately AUD$2.1 billion to build, paid for by issuing AUD$525 million of Green Bonds for each of the four years of construction. The second and third plants are expected to cost substantially less (AUD$1.8 billion and AUD$1.06 billion) as the technology matures and local experience is accumulated in the PV and solar thermal sectors.

The Greens’ plan would see construction commence on the first plant by March 2012, with a scheduled completion date of March 2015; and commence construction of next two plants in March 2013 and March 2014. NSW uses 268,300 MW hours for a standard 24-hour period. Solar thermal collectors totaling just 0.0115 percent of the state’s land mass would generate this.

Solar flagships debate

Australia has been split in its decisions with regards to feed-in tariffs. Some states in the continent are all for solar power and have gone ahead with their own policies, while others are still reviewing their strategies.

Recently, solar energy issues in the country were suddenly propelled into the news. Global attention was caught, unfortunately, by the tragic series of floods that hit the country in the beginning of this year.

What caught the headlines was Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s office’s statement saying that the funds for the flood rebuilding will come from the removal of the green industry assistance. The cuts totaling AUD$495 million to offset flood reconstruction budget spending were to come from: solar flagships; carbon capture and storage flagships; cap funding for the renewable energy bonus scheme; solar hot water rebate and solar communities plan; as well as the discontinuing of the second round of the green start scheme.

The Greens, environmental organizations and the renewable energy industry, publicly expressed their disapproval citing that the very cause of the floods was climate change and thus the cuts ought to be made perhaps in the subsidies for coal mining instead to aid fund recovery. The Deputy Leader for the Australian Greens, Christine Milne, was quoted on the Greens website: "It beggars belief that the government would choose to cut climate change programs like solar flagships, energy efficiency and the solar hot water rebate to fund disaster relief when such disasters will be made worse by climate change."

Meanwhile, Australian Solar Energy Society Chief Executive Officer (CEO) John Grimes stated: "We thought that we had seen it all, but once again the industry is shocked to learn of (…) the cuts to solar programs." Of course, the Greens, like everyone else, are all for reconstruction of the flood affected areas. The question is: is it alright for the solar sector to bite the bullet?

As of January this year, the Renewable Energy Target Scheme was divided into two: small-scale generators such as rooftop systems and commercial, large scale systems. This was mainly due to the strong uptake on the residential solar side of things. The state governments also announced a solar tariff scheme cap once connected capacity hits 300 MW.

However, despite all the murmurs that were heard at the beginning of the year on the potential collapse of the Australian solar program, the Greens bounced back. The Greens website announced in February, "Greens Leader Bob Brown, Deputy Leader Christine Milne and MP Adam Bandt took their concerns directly to the government and negotiated a good outcome that will release funding for flood recovery and protect key programs".

In other words, it was set that "AUD$100 million will be returned to the solar flagships program in the forward estimates and that a proper consultation process will be undertaken to develop long term policy for large-scale solar power". The ‘problem’ that was addressed by the Greens in Australia was the fact that the solar industry was not properly consulted in the first place on the design of the solar flagship programs. Thus, leading to the pendulum-like solar politics.

Despite the initial victory by the Greens to prevent the throwing of solar programs completely under the bus, in early March, the pressure came on again from states to cut back the subsidies for rooftop solar schemes. This was a result of the predictions that the increasing costs from the federal renewable energy scheme will lead to higher power bills.

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh has been quoted as urging the Prime Minister to reconsider the subsidy for rooftop solar schemes, worth 6,200 Australian dollars in most cities, to relieve the burden on household budgets from rising power prices.

Local newspapers reported, that in Tasmania, Premier Lara Giddings said that her government was "a strong supporter of policies that directly assist in the development of renewable energy, however we are concerned about the costs to Tasmanian consumers as a result of the design of the RET scheme and solar policies of other states".

Watch out for the April edition of pv magazine, which addresses this issue in more detail.