Australia: New renewable energy agency announced at Canberra solar roundtable

All of Australia’s national renewable energy programs, including Solar Flagships and the Australian Solar Institute, as well as geothermal and biofuel energy programs, will be rolled into a new Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

It is hoped that the agency will streamline the development of projects and help to drive the progress of renewable energy in the country.

The agency will be managed by an independent board of investment, business and energy experts appointed by cabinet. It will therefore take away the responsibility for AUD$3.2 billion (€2.4 billion) of renewable energy funding from the department of the Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, which supporters of the move say will mean less political red tape and more action.

Greens deputy leader Christine Milne said she was excited about its creation when she made the announcement at the roundtable after news of it had leaked to the press.

"By bringing all this funding under an independent authority we can finally deliver the consistent, systemic support the industry needs in order to challenge coal, energise everyone working in the field, bring home many of our world leaders in renewable energy and create tens of thousands of jobs in this exciting sunrise industry," she told journalists in Canberra.

Detail of the structure and funding of the new agency has been promised on Sunday, as the nation anxiously awaits the announcement from Prime Minister Julia Gillard about the details of the new carbon tax.

It is understood ARENA could also include money generated by a second body – a multibillion-dollar clean energy financing corporation – backed by a mix of carbon tax revenue and private capital.

Independent MP Rob Oakeshott also showed support for ARENA, saying that it provides an opportunity for solar to develop into a reliable base-load option in Australia.

"Geothermal, solar and hydro are all proving themselves up as real option for peak loads and increasingly for base-load. A finance scheme the size of ARENA will help Australia transition in a competitive way in regard our renewable strategy," he told the media.

Clean Energy Council Director of Strategy Kane Thornton welcomed the ARENA announcement, saying in a statement that it would help deliver technologies from the lab to the electricity grid much faster.

"This is a reform the Clean Energy Council and its members have been calling for, to ensure targeted funding for early stage renewable energy technology. The establishment of this new independent body will also protect that funding from political interference, providing investors with greater certainty," he said in the statement.

The agency’s immediate role

ARENA will consolidate arrangements for funding renewable energy research, development and commercialization, and have initial responsibility for AUD$1.5 billion (€1.12 billion) of committed funding and AUD$1.7 billion (€1.27 billion) of uncommitted funding. It will have until 2019-2020 to use the unallocated funds.

Ten programs will be rolled into the new entity across a broad spectrum of renewable projects, which pundits say will provide renewed focus for this type of work.

The news of this new agency comes shortly after announcements in the state of New South Wales that a Solar and Renewable Energy Action Plan would be established to monitor the industry in the country’s most populous state.

The impact of these decisions seems likely to take Solar from being a mismanaged and misunderstood technology in the country, to a more mature and organized one.

The roundtable

The solar roundtable saw over 200 members of the solar industry come together to discuss how best to take the industry forward.

Discussions where held on a variety of issues that the industry feels the government has let them down on, with pricing a particularly important one. Many government projections are based on pricing that the industry sees as unfair and way over the international best-practice predictions on costs per megawatt hour, in some instances being using pricing that is 700 percent out.

One of the other key challenges that attendees noted was the cost of financing the development of solar.

A background paper prepared by the Department of Energy for the roundtable did mention that prices for building and running large-scale solar facilities were falling, but were still higher than coal and gas powered stations.

The paper also said that the economic viability of large solar projects could be reduced through advances in storage technologies such as batteries.

The meeting included a talk by Tony Wood from the Clinton Climate Initiative on the development of solar power.