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Clean energy optimism after historic election result

Australia’s federal election result was a resounding endorsement of a clean energy future, but much needs to be done to realise this goal, writes Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton.

Hope and optimism have been in short supply in the politics of clean energy and climate change during the past two decades. However, the result of the recent federal election likely brought these feelings flooding back along with an overwhelming sense of relief that the destructive climate wars might finally be over.

The result on election night, on 21 May, 2022, more than made up for an underwhelming campaign, with voters sending a resounding message to our politicians about the importance of climate change and clean energy. Not only did this result in a historic change of government, but the election of a significant bloc of climate-focused independents may have permanently shifted the Australian political landscape.

However, the Albanese Government has quickly been brought back to earth as it attempts to deal with a dysfunctional energy market while facing pressure to increase its climate ambitions. How the new government deals with these competing challenges will be important to its success and to Australia’s clean energy future.

Familiar story: Climate and clean energy absent from election campaign

For those hoping for a thoughtful and mature debate around clean energy and climate change, the 2022 election campaign was a disappointment. While scare campaigns thankfully didn’t gain the same traction as they did in 2019 (despite the best efforts of former Minister for Energy Angus Taylor) meaningful discussion about the key role renewable energy would play in Australia achieving its bipartisan net-zero emissions target was depressingly absent.

While this was partly due to the attention sucked up by the various cost-of-living bombshells that dropped during the campaign – including increases in inflation, interest rates and wholesale electricity prices – it was also a deliberate strategy by both major parties.

The electorate’s changing attitude to climate change was a significant weakness for the Coalition, whose stable of climate sceptics and years of inaction gave it very little credibility on the issue. The Australian Labor Party announced a strong package of climate and energy policies, but was careful to avoid the traps of the past and generally focused its campaigning elsewhere.

As a result, the campaign had minimal focus on climate and energy, which was ironic given it was identified by several polls as the most important issue to voters in the lead up to election day.

Clean energy a key factor in climate election

On election night, it quickly became clear the Greens had amply filled this policy gap, along with the Teal independents, whose strong focus on climate change and clean energy was embraced by voters. The election of a majority Labor Government and the “greenslide” of new Greens and Teal independents sent a clear message that Australians want their government to take meaningful action on climate change and are supportive of clean energy.

But why was this election so different when climate change and clean energy had barely shifted the dial at previous elections?

The spate of natural disasters that have affected large parts of Australia in recent years were crucial, transforming the esoteric warnings of the impacts of climate change into reality for millions of Australians.

However, the role of initiatives such as the Clean Energy Council’s “Renewable Energy is Here Now” campaign can’t be underestimated. By reassuring voters that a clean energy future will provide benefits to all Australians as well as the planet, the campaign removed a significant barrier for traditionally cautious voters to change their long-held voting habits.

This was evident in the stunning result of the Teal independents, whose success was built on traditionally Liberal voters’ frustration with the Coalition Government’s barely concealed hostility to increased climate action and clean energy. In the past, suspicion of renewable energy and concern about the economic impacts of climate change stopped people from changing their vote, but “Renewable Energy is Here Now” and the positive experience that more than three million Australians have had with renewable energy via rooftop solar was clearly enough to convince them to vote for climate-focused candidates.

Strong mandate for clean energy transition

With the election won, the Albanese Government now has the unenviable task of fixing a broken energy market that has suffered years of neglect. The difficulty of this task became apparent just two weeks into the new government’s term, with the energy market descending into chaos as coal outages and sky-high gas prices brought the system to its knees.

While policies such as “Rewiring the Nation” and the 43 per cent emissions reduction commitment show the government understands the problems it is facing, the depth of the market’s dysfunction means it will need to work closely with regulators and state governments to reform the market and redesign it for a renewable energy future.

Another challenge for the Federal Government is criticism of its 43 per cent emissions reduction commitment, which many people now consider to be out of step with the latest emerging science. The election outcome will clearly create pressure for higher ambition, but the government will be at pains to avoid overreach as it considers just how much needs to be done to recover from a decade of relative inaction.

However, nothing is stopping Australia from exceeding its 43 per cent target. As the clean energy industry showed when meeting the “Large-scale Renewable Energy Target”, a supportive government and favourable policy settings can build enormous momentum. With billions of dollars of pent-up clean energy investment waiting in the wings, the renewed certainty coming out of the election could open the floodgates to a clean energy boom that goes a long way towards Australia meeting and even surpassing its climate commitments.

There are also still enormous growth opportunities in the rooftop solar sector, with the Australian Energy Market Operator’s 2022 Integrated System Plan predicting the number of homes with rooftop solar will grow to almost two-thirds of all households by 2050. This growth can be accelerated now by offering additional support to low-income households, renters and people living in government housing to install rooftop solar, and by introducing programs to increase the uptake of household batteries.

With strong support from the Australian public, and a passionate crossbench pushing the government to increase its climate ambitions, it is hoped the Australian clean energy industry will finally be able to realise its full potential by unlocking the enormous amount of new renewable energy generation and storage required to make Australia a clean energy superpower.

Kane Thornton has more than a decade’s experience in energy policy and leadership in the development of the renewable energy industry. His column is a regular feature in EcoGeneration, where he analyses industry trends and explains the impacts of federal and state renewable policies on the energy sector.

This article was originally published on Ecogeneration on 27 July 2022.