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Energy Legislation Amendment (Consumer Protection) Bill 2015

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
17 September 2015

Ms SANDELL (Melbourne) — It will probably be no surprise to anyone that the Greens will support this bill. We believe action to stop consumers being held hostage by power companies is long overdue, and we support any effort to improve the oversight of energy companies. I commend the government for bringing this bill to the house.

As has already been mentioned, the bill strengthens compliance and enforcement mechanisms and creates stronger reporting requirements for energy companies. Consumer protection is especially important in the delivery of essential services, but it is even more important when those essential services have been privatised. When they have been privatised it is more important than ever that the government be vigilant in monitoring their delivery that it sets high standards for companies that benefit from the community's dependence on the services that they provide.

It is good news that we will be subjecting these companies to greater scrutiny, increasing the costs to the companies for disconnecting customers and also restricting the ability of those companies to change their tariffs and charge exit fees. Hopefully this will force energy companies in Victoria to lift their game and stop ripping off Victorian consumers.

The part of the bill I particularly want to highlight is, of course, the part that deals with solar energy. The Greens have repeatedly called for an end to punishing people who have solar, so I am pleased to see that the bill removes the power of energy companies to inflict additional so-called penalty charges on solar households. It is being done by energy companies in a desperate bid to maintain their fossil fuel-powered status quo and discourage people from going solar to safeguard their stranglehold on the energy market. Energy retailers have been slapping higher chargers on solar owners for the privilege of accessing the grid, which is not fair.

The opposition shamefully defended this practice when it was in government. I listened carefully to the contribution from the member for Morwell. When he was Minister for Energy and Resources he grossly misjudged community feelings about solar power when he tried to say that solar customers were a burden on the electricity grid. Instead of standing up for Victorians powering their homes by sun, he sided with multinational corporation GDF Suez — incidentally the owner of Australia's dirtiest power station at Hazelwood — when it slapped a 14 cents-per-day levy on solar households. To single out solar customers as a burden on our poles and wires is a ridiculous furphy. It is only promulgated by politicians who are wedded to the old coal-powered economy, not those who have a vision for the future.

Solar owners and solar supporters have said enough is enough. I am pleased that so many people with solar power or who support solar power have stood up and said that they are prepared to vote for it. The polls say it. Campaigns to save solar and renewables have been run by organisations like the Australian Solar Council, Yes2Renewables and Solar Citizens, forcing Labor and Liberal governments in every jurisdiction to make genuine commitments to supporting solar power. I say well done to those organisations, and also well done to the Andrews government for listening to the repeated calls of the community, the renewable energy sector and the Greens to end the penalty tariffs for solar owners. I am pleased to see it is part of the bill. The bill requires energy companies to offer renewable energy customers the same deals as non-renewable energy customers, but it does not stop them from making special deals available to renewable energy customers in addition to the deals available to everyone else, which is good. I hope forward thinking energy companies will use this as a way to encourage their customers to convert to solar, rather than punishing them for doing so.

In the context of this bill, I also want to make some brief remarks about the bigger picture. The bill is finally aiming to even up the playing field a little bit, but we cannot stop there. The government should be actively trying to accelerate solar power and renewables in the state to position Victoria at the forefront of the energy transformation we are seeing throughout the world. Victoria has taken some encouraging steps, which is good to see, but we are still being left behind. Other jurisdictions are doing more. The ACT has a renewable energy target of 100 per cent by 2025. It is using that target to even build wind farms here in Victoria, and Victoria is missing out on that opportunity while the ACT is taking it up. We have seen South Australia provide grants for battery storage, which is being rolled out in Adelaide at the moment. We have seen Queensland pledge to double the amount of rooftop solar it installs. Even Western Australia, with its conservative government, is talking about closing down its fossil fuel power stations, replacing them with solar programs, which is an encouraging step.

The provision in the bill to abolish the unfair treatment of solar owners is a good start, but we should be working out what else we can do. We are still waiting for the federal government to set an ambitious renewable energy target, and I hope it does so after its consultations on the renewable energy road map have finished. I am sure the stakeholders consulted through that process will all be pushing for an ambitious target. It should be much more than the 20 per cent baseline set by the government. The Greens say it should be no less than 90 per cent by 2030, and we are quickly shifting our sights to 100 per cent. Many studies have shown the technology is available today, so let us take it up.

We also need a proactive plan not just to support renewables but to take out some of our fossil fuel-powered supply. We know there is an oversupply in the grid at the moment, and it is going to be very difficult for renewables to break into the grid if we do not take out some of that dirty fossil fuel power, especially at Hazelwood. I have spoken in this house many times about the need to replace Hazelwood, which is Australia's dirtiest power station and one of the dirtiest in the entire world, with renewable energy. We need a proactive transition plan for the workers and communities in that area so that they have some certainty for the future. The Greens have been calling for that over the last 10 months.

The Greens have a few other ideas, which we hope the government will take up. They are good ideas backed by industry and the community, and they include things like the Victorian solar bank, which could be an innovative finance mechanism to complement the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. I have also called in this place for the government to partner with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to build large-scale solar programs in Victoria. Recently ARENA announced a large solar program and it is looking for partners. Here in Victoria we could use that as a great opportunity to get some federal money into our solar programs.

It is great to see the government's inquiry into a fair price for solar, but I am also calling on the Minister for Energy and Resources to immediately reverse the cuts to the recently announced solar feed-in tariffs, which is now down to 5 cents a kilowatt hour. A lot of my constituents and other people across Victoria, particularly in the outer suburbs and regional Victoria, are upset about that price; they feel like it is a bit of a betrayal by the government. That price could be immediately reversed while we look into a fair price for solar. Households investing in solar energy are making an investment in the future of this state. They are making an investment in a safe climate — not just for us but for future generations. These kinds of actions by Victorians should be applauded. They should be rewarded, not punished. It is good to see that the bill goes some way towards doing that.

In addition to the provisions in this bill, I will list a few other things the government could be doing to build renewable energy in Victoria. We could be seeing financial support for battery storage. This is one of the innovative technologies and disruptions happening in the energy space; it is very exciting. I am sure all Victorians would love to see grants or subsidies, or some other encouragement, not only for producing their own energy but also for being able to store it on site. It could also be a great way to boost investment and create jobs in industry in the Latrobe Valley, and many people in the Latrobe Valley have mentioned this to me as a good idea.

We could have three-way contracts between suppliers, consumers and the government to help with the cost of installing solar panels, the innovative finance ideas I have mentioned and we could put solar panels on the roof of every Victorian school, which is a program I was working on almost 10 years ago in the Department of Premier and Cabinet. That project was canned, but it seems like a really good idea and one that could be resurrected. We could have solar panels on public housing. We could have solar panels on every Victorian government building. We could power our trams and trains with renewable energy. We need to address the complex regulatory barriers that are holding back community renewables projects, and there are many around my area who have come to see me about these barriers. They need to be removed.

Lastly I want to mention briefly energy efficiency. We cannot ignore the fact that energy efficiency is a really vital part of any response to climate change and energy policy. We could take some small steps, or we could have some vision and do some really big things that improve not only our response to climate change but the livability of our housing stock, save people money and save the government money as well — things like significant upgrades to public housing rather than just a few upgrades. At the moment I think at the rate at which we are upgrading public housing it will take 40 years to update the energy efficiency of the stock, and that is just too long. We could have minimum standards for existing houses. The One Million Homes Alliance is calling for a target of an average of five stars for all Victorian homes by 2025. It is an ambitious target, but that is the kind of thing we need to be looking at rather than just a piecemeal or step-by-step approach.

The policy of all Victorian homes having an average 5-star rating is something the previous Labor government announced in 2010, so there is a precedent for this policy, and I look forward to the government reannouncing that policy. It has not made any noises about it yet, but it is a really good, ambitious energy efficiency policy that social groups, consumer groups, environment groups, climate groups and the Greens support. We will be watching to make sure that these energy efficiency announcements are sufficiently ambitious. There are some really exciting things we can do in this space, to not only help improve our energy policy in response to climate change but to save the government and consumers money. These are core Labor values. Labor talks about these values all the time, and I hope it puts them into practice in energy efficiency policy.

In conclusion, the bill makes a good start, and the Greens are happy to support it, but let us take this opportunity to affirm a much larger, bolder vision for energy in this state. Now really is the time to be ambitious; we do not have any more time to wait if we are going to deal with the impacts of climate change. I do not want this state to be one that just does the minimum. I do not want this government to be one that is just slightly better than the opposition, which set a very low bar. I would really like it to leave a strong legacy of energy policy in the state, and I will support the government if it does.

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Ellen Sandell
State MP for Melbourne
17 September 2015




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