Renewables industry fearful of further cuts: Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
The Abbott government appears intent on abandoning all major support for clean energy in Australia if plans to axe the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) are confirmed in Tuesday’s budget, senior officials and industry groups said.
Chairman Greg Bourne warned the government would be “clearing the decks” if ARENA’s remaining unallocated funds of about $1 billion were returned to consolidated revenue, adding to moves to scrap the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation and its apparent intention to weaken or delay the Renewable Energy Target.
John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian Solar Council, said the industry was “outraged” by ARENA’s likely demise: “There is clearly an ideological agenda on behalf of the government to close down any climate- or renewable energy-related policy or support.”
The council, which spent more than $350,000 in the WA Senate re-election, would now seek to raise triple that to target Coalition members in marginal seats at the next elections, Mr Grimes said.
“People love solar, and more than 80 per cent want to see more solar,” he said. “For us this needs to become a political issue if we’re to turn this ship around.”
Mr Grimes predicted the government’s last substantive policy to support renewable energy – the $500 million, 10-year Million Solar Roofs program – will also be cut in Tuesday's budget. That would make a trifecta of broken pre-election promises, along with support for the RET and ARENA, he said.
Eliminating ARENA and its funding would go beyond the recommendation of the National Commission of Audit, which suggested consolidation into the Department of Industry "to provide opportunities and synergies".
Fairfax Media sought comment from the Abbott government about the proposed cuts.
Mark Diesendorf, a renewables energy expert at the University of NSW, said Australia "would be left behind" by the dismantling of Australia's clean energy industry and many jobs would go.
"There is a concerted attack on renewable energy and a serious attempt to stop its growth dead," Professor Diesendorf said.
"My view is that they cannot stop the growth of solar PV at the residential and commercial levels, but they can stop wind farms and large solar power plants," he said.
Labor and the Greens blasted plans to end ARENA but want to see the details before deciding whether to try to block the move in the Senate.
“If reports the government is scrapping ARENA are true, this is even more evidence Tony Abbott’s opposition to renewable energy knows no bounds,” said Mark Butler, the Opposition’s spokesman on climate change.
"ARENA uses taxpayer dollars to provide certainty to renewable energy projects," Greens leader Christine Milne said. "It would be disastrously counter-productive if this money was funnelled into the farcical Direct Action policy and used to pay polluters instead."
ARENA’s chief executive Ivor Frischknecht rejected criticism the agency duplicated other government programs, as claimed in the Commission of Audit report.
“No other agency supports projects along the commercialisation pathway from basic laboratory research to large-scale pre-commercial activities,” Mr Frischknecht said.
For every dollar invested by ARENA, the private sector was chipping in $1.80. Already some $7.7 billion in 190 projects were in the pipeline. The agency is considering ventures worth a further $7.7 billion, he said.