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Kane Thornton opening address to the Australian Clean Energy Summit

Clean Energy Council Chief Executive, Kane Thornton addressed the industry on Tuesday at the Australian Clean Energy Summit at the International Convention Centre, Sydney.

His speech was as follows:

I acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea, and community. I pay our respect to their Elders past and present and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

They said it couldn't be done when John Howard set the original 10 per cent Renewable Energy Target at the turn of the century.

They said the 20 per cent renewable energy target couldn't be achieved by 2020. We smashed that.

They said a million rooftop solar systems would shut down the grid. Today there are 3.5 million.

They said we couldn't run the grid on more than 20 per cent wind and solar. Then they said 30 per cent would be impossible.

Now we are charging toward 50 per cent and aiming for 82 per cent by 2030.

They say it can't be done. The usual suspects – the cynics, vested interests, the fossils and the fools – leap forward the moment the going gets tough.

It's too ambitious. It would cost too much. There are better solutions, they say.

Nuclear power is the latest, but it won't be the last. A technology that has proven only to have enormous environmental impacts when it goes wrong, has no social license or community acceptance and is demonstrated to be many times more expensive than renewable energy and storage. Building it would take decades and require uncapped government underwriting and taxpayer subsidies.

Next-generation nuclear has not yet been invented or demonstrated and must be seen for what it is in Australia – another distraction promoted by bad-faith actors with no genuine interest in emissions reductions, energy security or lowering power prices.

If we had listened to them, we wouldn't have built the hydro schemes, a bridge over Sydney's harbour, or the overland telegraph that first connected us to the world. We wouldn't have Wifi. These are acts of courage and foresight that now define our nation.

Emission reductions of 43 per cent and renewable energy of 82 per cent by 2030 are ambitious for sure. But they set Australia up to become a global clean energy superpower, fundamentally modernising our economy and energy system to confront and leverage a new world order. They would create a new national identity and set us up as an economic powerhouse for centuries.

Granted, it won't be easy.

First and foremost, it's made all the more ambitious by the lost decade. A decade we should have spent planning and preparing was instead blown in denial, political bickering and an aversion to anything that looked like sensible, consistent energy policy and forward planning.

The impacts of this lost decade have been amplified by one of the most significant energy shocks in history. Unparalleled threats to energy security in the form of the Russian war in Ukraine and the subsequent sanctions saw energy supply and prices thrown into chaos around the world. Smart countries captured a share of the windfall gains and directed them toward clean energy. Australia missed our chance.

Meanwhile, climate change forecasts are becoming a reality, decades ahead of expectations. Ocean temperatures, sea ice cover and earth temperatures are all breaking records. Scientists long-feared tipping points and runaway change, and the current evidence suggests this is now upon us.

In any case, much of the world is being hammered by fires, floods, extreme weather conditions and severe drought, all contributing to crop failures, food shortages and infrastructure destruction. Loss of human life, environmental destruction and inevitably massive economic costs and inflation are becoming endemic.

The global response to these joint challenges of inflation, energy security threats and climate change has seen dramatic increases in targets for renewable energy deployment. It's the right approach to a dire set of problems.

It has created a global clean energy arms race, led by the United States in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act, which commits to a scale and level of incentives for clean energy that is eye-watering.

This is great for the global decarbonisation agenda, the global response to climate change, and scaling and developing clean energy technology.

This creates some big opportunities for Australia. Most obviously, Australia's critical and rare mineral resources are now in hot demand. We are yet again the lucky country, but it won't be enough to set us up for a prosperous long turn future.

The broader ramifications for Australia are profound. The United States has become an enormous magnet for clean energy capital, workers, technology, researchers. All of it.

We are now in a global clean energy investment race – and are losing. While we can and should manufacture more clean energy equipment in Australia, for now we are dependent on global supply chains.

And to add to our woes, Europe and many other countries are following suit. If they can't beat them, they are joining them.

To become a clean energy superpower, we will need to do more than dig and ship our mineral resources. More importantly, we will only become a clean energy superpower if we decarbonise our own energy system. Fast.

Credit to the Australian Government, who quickly came to terms with the implications of the US Inflation Reduction Act and the scale and nature of the support for clean energy and green hydrogen. The Hydrogen Headstart program announced as part of the May budget was a down payment on that response and recognition that this government is listening and prepared to act.

But we still aren't building renewable energy quickly enough to replace failing coal and expensive gas, ensuring reliability and driving down power prices.

Over recent years we have been averaging around 3 GW of rooftop solar and 3 GW of large-scale renewables per year. That needs to double to put us on track to 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

At a time when we should be doubling investment, the headwinds have seen the rate of new commitments slow in 2023. Just 0.4 GW of new large-scale renewable energy projects have been committed in the first half of 2023. That's a long way short of the 5 GW per annum we need.

That's fuel for the naysayers. Let's forget it then? No way.

We have the best combination of wind, solar and water resources anywhere in the world. Coal is closing, gas is way too expensive, and renewables and storage are ready to do the heavy lifting.

For the first time in our history, we have wall-to-wall governments supporting clean energy.

A decisive and supportive Federal Government has delivered strong climate change targets, clear legislation, accelerated investment in transmission and demonstrated a genuine commitment to managing the energy transition. They are working collaboratively with state governments on market reform and have a clear focus on unlocking workforce constraints through education reforms, funding for VET sector and overhauling skilled migration and processing.

Australia has built a strong and vibrant industry that has scale, innovation and demonstrated our potential through a doubling of renewable energy in just the last five years.

A whopping 5 GW of wind projects are currently under construction. That's the equivalent capacity of Eraring and Liddell combined.

In 2022, six large-scale wind projects reached Financial Close, equating to 2.21 GW of new capacity and $4.46 billion of investment. Eight large-scale solar projects reached Financial Close, equating to 1.35 GW of installed capacity worth $1.77 billion of investment. There is an enormous pipeline of projects at the ready.

In the past six months, investors have committed to 1.5 GW of new large-scale batteries, meeting head on the need for more storage in the system. Australians have responded to higher power prices with strong demand for rooftop solar (bouncing back to pre-COVID levels) and record demand for solar amongst businesses.

The transmission grid is being augmented and built out. The best time to plant a tree was 15 years ago, the second best is today, and the same goes for planning and building our transmission system. We should have started a decade ago, but we finally have our skates on.

Ten thousand kilometres of new transmission lines in less than a decade is a mammoth task. But the bigger challenge rests in how it's done.

Communities and landholders deserve respect. We need to pay a lot more attention to the community, our engagement practices and community participation in clean energy projects and the network.

First Nations communities have an enormous role in Australia's clean energy future, and the renewable energy sector must continue to build understanding, respectful and effective practices and models for genuine partnership.

There is clearly room for improvement in the planning policies and regimes around the country to ensure they are fit for purpose.

While state governments have stepped into the breaches, we still need a national policy mechanism to deliver our 82 per cent ambition and underpin new investment in a difficult and complex energy market.

Australia's previous Renewable Energy Target was met in 2020 and is now phasing out. No policy has delivered as much abatement, given as much certainty and unlocked as much investment as the RET.

Extending it beyond 2030 would be simple and fast, and the benefits to energy prices and the Australian economy will outweigh the costs associated with this extension.

These are the actions and leadership we now need to turn ambition into reality and ensure we are set up to achieve 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

We are race ready, we are fit, and our potential is limitless. We now need courage and leadership to become a global clean energy superpower. Oh, and to ignore anyone who tells you it can't be done.


For more information or to arrange an interview, contact:

Jane Aubrey
Clean Energy Council Public Affairs Manager
[email protected]
+61 409 470 683