On June 23, Australia's parliament voted to reduce the Renewable Energy Target for 2020 from 41 to 33 terawatt hours of renewable electricity, following a long struggle by the government to win support from minor party Senators for the cuts.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he “would frankly have liked to reduce the number a lot more”.
The deal he cut in the Senate will see the potential for “wood waste” from logging of native forests to be burned to generate “renewable electricity” as part of the target.
A “wind farms commissioner” is to be created, one of the gestures to win the support of anti-wind farm Senators such as John Madigan, Bob Day and David Leyohhjelm who have been running a Senate inquiry into wind farms.
Labor provisionally supported the reduction to 33 terawatt hours, on the basis that settling on a firm target would end the uncertainty for investors and allow planned projects to get finance to proceed.
Shadow Minister for the Environment Mark Butler suggested the deal would be displeasing to Abbott, since “those wind farms he finds so utterly offensive can start being built again”.
Friends of the Earth campaigner Leigh Ewbank told Green Left Weekly that the big picture of the cuts was still negative.
“While some projects will be built as a result of this compromise deal, there are thousands of megawatts of wind farms that won't be built because Tony Abbott has cut the target by 20%,” Ewbank said.
The Yes2Renewables campaign that Ewbank co-ordinates has followed the Senate Inquiry set up by independent Senator John Madigan closely.
“It's clear that Madigan's wind energy witch hunt has aimed to demonise wind energy technology,” Ewbank said. “I think most Australians would agree with me that Senator Bob Day's suggestion that the sensations people are attributing to wind farms are akin to the impact of exposure to asbestos is laughable.”
Ewbank thinks the role of a Wind Farms Commissioner can only be negative. “Given the track record of opposition to wind energy from the Senators behind the inquiry, it's difficult to conclude that the role will be impartial. It seems likely the role is intended to create more uncertainty for the sector.”
The full-scale attack on the wind farm industry has, predictably, been met with carefully timed attacks in mainstream media columns.
Former Institute of Public Affairs director Alan Moran wrote in the Australian Financial Review that wind farms “need three times the price at which Australian coal generators can supply electricity”.
Melbourne University researcher Dylan McConnell debunked the spin at The Conversation, pointing out that Moran had compared the short-run (fuel) cost of coal to the long-run cost of wind energy.
While wind energy has zero short-run cost, at long run costs, new wind farms now cost as much as coal and possibly less. In fact, McConnell points out, wind farms are expected to save money for electricity consumers.
The Australian Forests and Climate Alliance (AFCA) condemned the decision to include so-called “wood waste” in the target.
“We are going back to using dirty medieval technology that pretends to be sustainable and clean,” said spokesperson Jill Redwood in a media release. “In reality it will undermine real renewables like solar and wind. It will produce more emissions than burning coal and cause immense loss of ecosystems, wildlife and our greatest carbon stores.”
AFCA's Lorraine Bower has explained that up to 90% of a forest that is logged can be defined as waste. “‘Waste’ can be defined as any log that does not have a higher commercial purpose”, she wrote at RenewEconomy.
“In this way a pulplog (for paper production) is of lower value than a sawlog (for sawn timber), so the pulplog is considered ‘waste’, even when pulplogs comprise 90% of the timber extracted from a forest.”
Ewbank is optimistic that new wood-waste burners will not get built despite provision for them in the deal. “What this decision has done has united pro-renewable energy advocates and the battle hardened forest protection movement.
Groups such as Friends of the Earth and The Wilderness Society will be paying close attention to any plans to generate electricity from native forests,” he said.
Yes2Renewables is looking to state and territory governments, including Labor governments in South Australia, Victoria, Queensland and the ACT, to pick up the slack in building new renewable energy.
“We are encouraged by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' commitment to reinstate a Victorian Renewable Energy Target,” Ewbank said.
“We will work in a constructive way to ensure the Victorian government implements policies that grow renewable energy and create jobs. The Labor government in the ACT has shown a feasible way for governments to introduce their own renewable energy targets, and we urge Victoria's Energy Minister Lily D'Ambrosio to look closely at how the ACT will generate 90% of its electricity needs from renewables by the decade's end.”
“We'd like to see the government encourage the deployment of any renewable technologies that are commercially viable and ready to go. But with 2000 megawatts of wind energy projects already approved across the state, the priority ought to be to build those wind farms.
“By building that pipeline of wind energy projects we will see more demand for Australian made steel products, and the employment of hundreds of people manufacturing turbine towers in south-west Victoria.”