Australian energy "white paper" neglects PV potential

The Australian Federal Government has released a draft energy "white paper" in an attempt to develop a clearer energy policy direction for the nation. While "accelerating cleaner energy outcomes" is identified as one of the policy priorities, it appears that a major role for photovoltaics has been eschewed in favor of alternative "cleaner" energy technologies, such as carbon capture and storage – for coal-fired power plants, nuclear and geothermal power.

The draft white paper is the result of a number of factors at play in the Australian energy market. Firstly, there has been a lack of a national policy direction, in terms of energy, in the past, with an earlier white paper being put on hold due to political wrangling. Secondly, Australia has seen major increases in residential electricity prices, due to a lack of energy infrastructure investment in the past and also state governments winding back their electricity subsidies.

The Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, when delivering the draft white paper, spelt out he scale of these increases: "The community has experienced a period of rising energy prices – for instance 40 percent in the case of residential electricity over the last three years."

Ferguson continued, setting out the vast scale of the energy investment required. In the next 20 years, the Minister stated: "Australia will need investment of around AUD240 million in electricity and gas generation and transmission infrastructure."

While the government has committed AUD17 billion to support clean-energy technologies in an attempt to drive down their costs, photovoltaics do not feature strongly in the draft report.

"Expensive" PV

Ferguson labeled all clean technologies as expensive and requiring subsidies, however the figures in the white paper, concerning photovoltaics, are more than 12 months old and do not reflect the rapidly falling cost of photovoltaics.

The report also makes reference to an Australian Productivity Commission report that was highly critical of photovoltaics, saying that it was the costliest technology in terms of the carbon it displaces. This report has been blasted by the Australian photovoltaic and sustainable energy industry for its outdated cost data.

Energy costs

In light of the rising cost of electricity around the country, the government’s draft white paper was critical of some clean energy support schemes for driving up electricity cost for all consumers. This point seems to squarely take aim at the state-based feed-in tariff (FIT) schemes and Ferguson said that one of the aims of the new energy policy was to bring all state schemes under one framework.

Many of the state FIT schemes have been drastically reduced or ended, including those in the Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia and New South Wales (NSW). Attempts by the NSW Government to retrospectively cut its FIT rate were met with a major backlash.

Renewable response

Australia’s Sustainable Energy Association (SEA) responded to the draft white paper, saying that while a focus on energy efficiency and reduced consumption is good, expectations of renewable energy are overly conservative.

"While the draft Energy White Paper frequently mentions renewable energy, it is hardly bullish on the expected share of renewable energy in the longer term," said the SEA’s Ray Wills, "yet there is already strong data suggesting significant moves for electricity generation from renewable sources in Australia has started."

Wills added that existing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry needs to be addressed also. "Electricity price reform is needed – reform that eliminates subsidies for the use of fossil fuel in the generation of energy, and delivers cost reflective pricing that has perversely inhibited the improvement of energy efficiency, and take up of renewable energy in Australia."

Submissions to the review of the draft document are due by March 16, ahead of the release of the final energy white paper by mid-2012.