It has taken nearly three years, but the federal government finally has something to show for the climate and clean energy platform it took to the electorate in 2007.

The passage of amendments to the Renewable Energy Target after a series of last gasp negotiations with the opposition and the Greens (a sign of things to come, perhaps), means that billions of dollars of wind farm and other renewable investments should – in theory at least – now get the green light. It also means that Australia can now join the rest of the world and declare it has a renewable energy industry to call its own. It’s been a long time coming.

Having cut and run from an emissions trading scheme and blundered its way through the home insulation disaster, that would be a welcome development for the government, and paves the way for a host of photo opportunities for government ministers and wind turbines, solar panels and sugar mills.

But not so fast – one of the consequences of the government’s poorly conceived first attempt at the RET is that the market remains flooded by certificates issued firstly to solar hot water systems and then to rooftop solar panels.

The price of RECs remains below $40, way below the value necessary to support most wind farm developments, and some predict the market may remain flooded till 2014, because energy retailers have been stocking up while the price is cheap.

That means that power purchase agreements needed to finance big projects will be hard to come by, in the short time at least, and some developments will have to bide their time. Others, though, such as AGL’s $800 million Macarthur wind farm and up to $2 billion of other wind farm projects in coming years, will not be delayed, because AGL can use the RECS to satisfy its own obligations.

One of the great ironies of this piece of legislation is that it should make its way through parliament while the emissions trading scheme failed. After all, it prices saved emissions, at least on paper, at up to $65 a tonne, three times more than an ETS.

It’s the sort of maths that drives some companies, such as aspiring coal seam gas developers Origin and Santos, to the point of distraction. Both argue that they need a carbon price to make baseload power stations economically viable. There’s another $20 billion to $30 billion of investments in that pipeline.

And it seems that for every winner in a renewable energy scheme, there is a loser. Now it is the turn of the solar industry to lament the agreements that effectively restrain the growth of the industry. Austalia’s reliance on a single mechanism means its impossible to find the right balance.

But that won’t stop the scare campaigns, which reached a new level of absurdity yesterday when Tony Concannon, the executive director of International Power Australia, the owner of the Hazelwood Power Station, told a CEDA conference in Canberra that the RET would jack up the cost of electricity more than 25-fold

“In simple terms it means the cost of this renewable generation equates to a wholesale electricity price of $1,073 per (megawatt hour) – you all currently pay about $40 per MWh,” he told a group of industry leaders.

Concannon arrived at this number by adding up the cost of the wind farms, cost of grid upgrades and the cost of gas fired peaking stations to “firm up” the intermittent supply of wind.

It was all too much the renewable energy companies, who noted that Concannon might be good at addition, but had clearly forgotten how to subtract, and to divide.

They noted Concannon’s sums ignored the interstate transmission connections and peaking power plants that would be built anyway, and the baseload installations that would no longer be needed. Worse than that, he had added 20 years of capital costs and divided it by a single year of output.

The suggestion was that either “Tony was misquoted” or got his decimal places wrong. “We can’t have that sort of rot out there,” said AGL corporate affairs chief Paul Simshauser.

Peter Fray

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