By Kane Thornton, Chief Executive, Clean Energy Council
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant upheaval in the lives of all Australians. Whether it’s through relatively minor disruptions to everyday life or the pandemic’s more devastating effects, such as the loss of a loved one or job, COVID-19 has had a collective nationwide impact the likes of which we haven’t experienced for upwards of 70 years. As with every facet of Australian life, the pandemic has deeply affected the renewable energy industry. Whether it is the standing down of staff, reassessing the viability of projects or the complete shutdown of the Victorian rooftop solar industry, no business in the Australian renewable energy industry has been untouched by the crisis.
However, despite the profound impact of the pandemic, most of the critical issues that were facing the Australian energy industry before the pandemic haven’t changed.
And while some of these issues may now be a lower priority for governments and regulators, many will become even more important as we look to jumpstart the economy and replace the jobs lost as a result of COVID-19.
Short-term recovery efforts clear the path for a clean energy future
As federal and state governments look to restart the economy in the aftermath of the COVID-19 health emergency, there is a significant opportunity for renewable energy and energy storage to be at the forefront of Australia’s economic recovery.
With the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) finding that 30-47GW of new generation will be required by 2040 to replace retiring coal-fired power stations, a recovery plan that facilitates increased investment in renewable energy will serve the dual purpose of supporting the industry through this challenging period while giving Australia a clear pathway for the clean energy transition.
A Clean Recovery is the Clean Energy Council’s plan for Australia to utilise its extraordinary renewable energy and energy storage potential to jumpstart the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan calls on the Federal Government to introduce a series of measures to unblock massive pent-up private investment and further realise the significant economic benefits of the clean energy transition.
These measures include investing to bring our energy infrastructure into the 21st century, facilitating continued investment in large-scale renewable projects, encouraging greater uptake of rooftop solar and household batteries, and establishing a renewable hydrogen industry to make Australia a clean energy superpower.
The benefits created by A Clean Recovery are substantial, both in the short and long term. In the next few years, a plan that focuses on increasing the penetration of renewable energy in Australia could inject over $50 billion worth of investment into the Australian economy and create tens of thousands of new direct jobs.
In addition to these immediate economic benefits, A Clean Recovery would add more than 30,000MW of new clean energy capacity.
This would have the effect of further reducing wholesale electricity prices, easing the financial burden on households and businesses, and helping to revitalise Australia’s manufacturing sector.
However, opting for A Clean Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic also gives us a unique opportunity to initiate the long-term structural changes required to make the transition to a renewables-based electricity system.
By upgrading the transmission network, leveraging distributed energy resources (DER) and increasing investment in large-scale energy storage now, we can create a modern, smart and more resilient energy system that will allow Australia to export its substantial renewable energy resources to the world while putting us on the path to achieving net-zero emissions.
Clean energy job potential poised and ready
Of all the benefits created by A Clean Recovery, perhaps the most important is the prospect of significant job creation.
A report recently released by the Clean Energy Council, titled Clean Energy at Work, makes a compelling case for the renewable energy industry to replace many of the jobs lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Clean Energy at Work was based on research conducted by the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, and is the largest study of current and projected employment in the Australian renewable energy industry.
The study involved an industry-wide survey, measuring current employment and then applying employment factors to the scenarios in AEMO’s draft 2020 Integrated System Plan to estimate future job creation.
The study revealed that more than 25,000 people were employed in the Australian renewable energy industry in 2019, with almost 10,000 of those jobs in small-scale rooftop solar.
In total, solar (small-scale, large-scale and solar water heating) accounted for 56 per cent of total renewable energy jobs, followed by wind at 28 per cent, hydro at ten per cent and batteries at six per cent.
More importantly for Australia’s post-COVID-19 recovery, the research found that the renewable energy sector could employ as many as 44,000 people by 2025 if AEMO’s Step Change Scenario is adopted, and even more if more ambitious policy settings are implemented.
The creation of almost 20,000 jobs in renewable energy over the next five years is ideally timed to help the many Australians who have been directly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and by those who will feel the effects of the subsequent recession.
However, policies must be put in place now that create a stable investment environment to bring forward the enormous pipeline of wind and solar projects across Australia.
If we fail to do this, the once-in-a-generation opportunity presented by COVID-19 to transition our electricity system to one based on clean energy won’t be the only thing that’s lost.
In one of the Clean Energy at Work report’s more alarming findings, it is predicted that if we continue on our current trajectory – what AEMO deems its Central Scenario, whereby no additional state or federal policies are put in place – the industry could lose upwards of 11,000 jobs in the next three years.
The unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in considerable hardship for many Australians.
But as the Clean Energy at Work report shows, the renewable energy industry has the potential to get thousands of Australians back to work in rewarding jobs that create a better future and provide the regional and rural economy with a much-needed financial boost.
If we can introduce policy settings that allow the renewable energy industry to thrive, renewable energy can rescue rural Australia from the profound impacts of COVID-19, and Australia can join the hundreds of countries around the world that are using renewable energy to jumpstart their economies.
Current decisions, future consequences
As we’ve seen during previous economic downturns, any number of industries will be arguing their case for government assistance to lead the economic rebuild.
This includes the coal industry, which will see the current crisis as a lifeline to extend the life of existing assets.
As a result, this could be a watershed moment for the Australian energy industry. Get it right, and we can accelerate the transition to a renewables-led electricity system, create tens of thousands of new jobs and open up significant export opportunities in the form of hydrogen and inter-regional interconnection.
However, get it wrong, and we could face another decade of energy policy inaction, political distraction and painfully slow progress.