Australia's renewable energy industry grinds to a halt

Australia’s investment in renewable energy all but dried up in the first half of 2014 amid uncertainty fuelled by the government’s latest review of the mandatory target, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

In the six months to June, just $40 million was invested in large-scale renewable energy, such as wind farms, the lowest level since the first half of 2001, according to Kobad Bhavnagri, head of BNEF's Australian unit.

Shadow looms over large-scale renewables in Australia.
Shadow looms over large-scale renewables in Australia. Photo: Graham Tidy

The investment tally compared with $2.691 billion in 2013, the second largest annual inflow of funds to the clean energy sector behind the peak year of 2010.

In February, the government appointed a panel to review the aim of generating 41,000 gigawatt-hours of renewable energy by 2020.

The panel’s make-up, including the choice of climate-change sceptic and former Caltex chairman Dick Warburton, fanned industry fears that the group will recommend reductions in the Renewable Energy Target (RET). That would potentially affect the viability of even existing investments.

“Clean Energy investment in Australia fell sharply in the lead-up to the federal election and then fell further again after the Coalition took government with its promise to conduct a review of the RET,” Mr Bhavnagri told Fairfax Media.


“The investment environment for clean energy in Australia is currently very poor.”

Australia’s virtual halt to new investments in large-scale renewable energy plants comes as the Senate prepares to vote on Wednesday to scrap another part of Australia’s climate change policy, the price on carbon.

Barring some last-minute surprise, Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party, is expected to give the Abbott government the votes it needs to eliminate the two-year fixed price on carbon emissions.

Global surge

Kane Thornton, deputy chief executive of industry group Clean Energy Council, said "the industry's basically at a standstill right now" in Australia.

Mr Thornton said speculation about the RET panel's report - due in the next month or so - meant that companies' boards, their banks and investors are "really just keeping their hands in their pockets" and holding off almost all new spending in the sector.

The projects that were proceeding had the support of the Clean Energy Finance Corp, and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, he said. 

Both the CEFC and ARENA were earmarked for the axe by the Abbott government until crossbench PUP senators and Victorian senator Ricky Muir joined Labor and the Greens to block the move.

The Clean Energy Council is holding its annual conference in Sydney next week with the theme, Energy at the Crossroads, aimed at highlighting the challenges posed in tapping Australia's potential to be a renewable energy super power given the nation's world-class sun, wind and wave energy resources.

Australia’s slowdown in large-scale investments in renewable comes as much of the rest of the world is reporting a surge of new money into the sector.

According to BNEF, global investment in clean energy – both large- and small-scale - soared by a third in the second quarter of 2014 to $US63.6 billion (A$68 billion), the largest quarterly inflow in two years.

China, the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, is now clearly the largest investor in clean energy. The country poured a record $US19.3 billion into renewables in the June quarter, almost double the amount in the first quarter of the year, BNEF said.

Both the US and Europe also, lifted investment in the sector in the June quarter. The US investment of
$US10.6 billion was up by about a third from the previous three months, while Europe’s investments in the sector rose by about a quarter to $US14 billion.

Palmer role

The Abbott government may face some resistance in the Senate to any plan to weaken the RET.

Mr Palmer has said any change would be a broken promise by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, and his party will block any RET move this side of the next election.

While the clean energy industry has welcomed Mr Palmer’s comments, investments in large-scale generation are likely to remain minimal until the panel’s recommendations are clear, Mr Bhavnagri said.

“Even if the Palmer United Party blocks any changes to the RET, if the government's intention is to change or remove the target, investment will be affected,” he said.

“Investors are likely to hold off on making new investments until it is clear who will be in government next, and what their clean energy policy is,” Mr Bhavnagri said.


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