ENERGY LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (PUBLICATION OF RETAIL OFFERS) BILL 2015

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — I rise to say that the Greens will support the Energy Legislation Amendment (Publication of Retail Offers) Bill 2015. It increases the accessibility and transparency of information to energy consumers about feed-in tariff terms and conditions, and gas tariffs, which of course is welcome; the Greens always support greater transparency. 

Energy companies are already required to publish their terms and conditions, but the bill streamlines the way that information is made available to the public on the internet. We have heard in this debate contributions from members on both sides of the house about renewable energy and the cost of energy, but we need to acknowledge that the amendments in the bill are quite small changes. To be honest, they do not even scratch the surface of what needs to happen to fix the regulations in our energy market, support renewable energy and deal with energy pricing. I want to touch on some of those issues today.

Currently we have a system that penalises solar power owners when they should be rewarded and incentivised. The core issue is that we need a fair price for solar power that people feed into the grid. At the moment Victorians pay between 15 cents and 30 cents per kilowatt hour for energy they buy from the grid, but they only get 6.2 cents per kilowatt hour for solar energy that they feed into the grid. People with solar panels do a great service to the state. They reduce our state’s greenhouse gas emissions, help meet Victoria’s energy needs and bring down the peak price of energy for everybody by reducing peak demand from coal and gas-fired power plants. They do not push up power prices, as some may suggest. Many studies have shown that they actually bring down wholesale energy prices due to the fact that solar panels are at their greatest capacity during peak periods. People with solar panels should be fairly rewarded for this by earning a guaranteed minimum price equivalent to the price they pay for energy. This type of policy is how Germany became a renewable energy leader: even cloudy Germany is doing better than Australia on renewable energy. Germany’s renewable energy policies have meant great things for its energy system and for addressing climate change, and we should be following the lead of a country like Germany when it comes to renewable energy policies.

Also the bill does not address regulatory barriers which hold back communities that want to build renewables projects. I love the Hepburn Wind project. It is a wonderful initiative, and I have met with those involved numerous times. I commend the government for its support of the Newstead project as well; it is a great start, but overall we need to fix the system. Currently we have a system that allows solar owners to be penalised by power companies which are desperate to maintain the fossil fuel status quo. If the government is serious about supporting renewable energy in Victoria, it really needs to address this head-on, instead of just tinkering around the edges with bills like this — even though this is a necessary bill. The Greens believe the right to go solar and connect to renewable energy should be enshrined in law. No energy company should be able to prevent Victorians from switching to renewable energy just to protect its fossil fuel profits. We also need to overhaul regulations for grid connection, because they are often complex and they discourage many solar projects, particularly community-owned solar and renewables projects. These projects currently face overwhelming and extreme regulations, which treat these enterprises essentially the same as large coal-fired generators. Exempting community-owned solar and renewables projects from these excessive regulations would be a fairly easy change that the government could make right here and now, and I will be urging it to do so. I have met with many community-owned solar organisations in my electorate and throughout Victoria which really want this change to happen as quickly as possible so they can start getting solar panels on roofs that are collectively owned by the community. They then sell that energy to local, willing businesses. This is a great model and something that should be very much supported.

Latest surveys show that four in five Victorians support renewable energy, which is more than support any one political party, so support for renewable energy is something that really should be occurring across the whole spectrum of political ideologies. Particularly with gas prices set to rise dramatically, it is all well and good that on a website you can now look up your gas tariff, but if it is rising all the time we need to do something about that. That is where investment in renewable energy comes in. We saw the member for Caulfield get up and say he is pleased that Labor and the Liberals have reached an agreement on the renewable energy target, but in fact that is a cut to the renewable energy target from 41 000 gigawatt hours to 33 000 gigawatt hours. I am struggling to see why the Liberals would get up and support cutting investment and cutting jobs here in Victoria. It is a disgrace. On the other side of the coin, we have the Liberal government saying it supports a Victorian renewable energy target, which is wonderful. It is a policy that the Greens took to the election; ours was the only party to take that policy to the election. However, we are going to see a vote in the federal Senate tonight on the federal renewable energy target, including on a Greens amendment which seeks to remove section 7C. If we remove section 7C, it would let states set their own renewable energy target. It is looking as if not only Tony Abbott and his Liberal mates but also the Labor Party at a federal level will vote against removing section 7C. So even the Victorian Labor Party’s colleagues in the federal Labor Party do not want Victoria to be able to set its own renewable energy target. That really beggars belief. I cannot understand why the Labor Party would try to block states setting their own renewable energy targets. However, if that outcome does eventuate, I am hoping the Victorian Labor government will set its own renewable energy target through another mechanism, such as the way the ACT has done it. It is very possible, and that is what the Greens have been calling for all along. I actually think it is a more efficient and better policy, because contracts for different state policy are less able to be repealed by future governments. They can be of equal or lower cost to governments, and this model creates more certainty for the industry. I have spoken to many people in the industry about this, and I urge the Andrews government to set a Victorian renewable energy target through a mechanism that does not rely on federal Labor and federal Liberals removing section 7C, because it does not look like they will do so.

I also need to touch on the issue of coal licences. If we are talking about transforming our energy system, the recent decision by the Labor government to approve four new coal exploration licences and one coal retention licence is completely at odds with decarbonising our energy system and moving to renewable energy. If we want to protect ourselves from climate change, the clock is ticking; time is absolutely running out. If we want to protect our way of life, our industries, our environment, our water supplies and our agriculture from climate change, we cannot have more coal expiration licences. I know there are voices across Victoria, particularly in regional areas where those coal expiration licences have been issued, that are crying out and saying, ‘This is absolutely the wrong way to go’. I hope the Labor Party heeds those calls.

Lastly, I wish to touch on the issue of the cost of living. Many members in this house have talked about how important the cost of living is, so we need to look at the cost of energy, which is increasing all the time and has a huge impact on residents of low socio-economic residents, including many people in my electorate, some of whom are of the lowest socio-economic status in Victoria. If we want to get serious about the cost of living, we need to get serious about the real cause of the rise in energy prices. Many reports, including a recent one by the Australia Institute, have said that the real reason that energy prices have been increasing is bad planning of the system, marketing efficiency and in particular overinvestment in poles and wires by network companies. These companies have overestimated energy demand. They have not done this just because they have made a mistake. In some cases maybe they have, but in many cases they were incentivised to overestimate demand, because for every dollar they spent on poles and wires or new energy infrastructure they received a guaranteed 10 per cent return. In many cases, 50 per cent of the new infrastructure that was built in the energy system was unnecessary. We have unused substations — New South Wales has this particularly badly. There are substations in places like Newcastle that are not even connected to the grid, because they were not needed. Demand has been overestimated, which has meant that all the cost of infrastructure has come onto our energy bills, and the network companies have made windfall profits because of that. We have seen these incredible rorts and market inefficiencies in the system because of the privatisation of the energy system. Privatisation of the system has made it a lot more difficult for governments to intervene to move towards renewable energy. At the moment we are seeing the consequences of some very poor energy market decisions that were made in the last few decades. If we are really serious about addressing the cost of living, that is great: let us put our energy tariffs on a website so those costs are more transparent — I absolutely support that — but let us also address the fundamental issues as to why our energy prices are rising and how we can increase renewable energy in this state. I look forward to working with the government to make both of these goals a reality, and I reaffirm that the Greens support this bill.

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