Tom Dreyfus writes: Recently a series of reforms seriously diminished Victoria’s capacity to protect its natural environment and respond to the transitional challenge of cleaner energy production. As each one was announced, the signal to investors and manufacturers strengthened: Victoria will no longer support the renewable energy sector.
So while the state’s major newspapers were steadfastly focussed on the federal Labor government’s program of self-immolation, Victoria’s wind farm, solar energy and firewood collection policies were drastically altered, with barely a peep from mainstream media sources. And all of this under a government led by a man described by most as level-headed and a small ‘l’ liberal.
What happened, you ask?
First, the Baillieu government passed Amendment VC82, which prohibits a wind turbine from being constructed in Victoria within two kilometres of an existing dwelling without the consent of the owner. The Amendment also prohibits wind farms in National or State parks as well as “locations that feature a high degree of amenity [or] environmental value”.
In conjunction with this year’s earlier Amendment VC78 (which removed the Minister’s decision making powers regarding wind farms), local councils will now be able to reject wind farm proposals which they believe will adversely affect their constituents. This revision to planning policy effectively carves out vast swathes of the state as no-wind-farm zones, affecting any new application to construct a wind farm.
In response to the decision, Clean Energy Council chief executive Matthew Warren warned that approximately $3 billion in investment could be lost to Victoria. Equally damaging was the assessment of Pacific Hydro general manager Australia Lane Crockett, who said that Pacific Hydro did “not envisage pursuing any new project development in Victoria” under the new guidelines.
Next, in a move which has angered environmentalists and farmers alike, the Baillieu government abolished permits for collecting firewood on public land. The 53-year-old firewood permit scheme was scrapped so that, according to Environment Minister Ryan Smith, firewood would be available to Victorians for heating during winter. Under the new policy, it will no longer be necessary to pay the $28 per cubic meter charge on firewood collected in Victorian state parks.
The unusual alliance that the decision has fostered between industry and environmental activists is illuminating. The farm forestry industry has criticized the policy for putting their businesses at risk by encouraging people to collect their own firewood. Meanwhile a scientific review conducted by the Department of Environment and Sustainability, which highlighted the importance of fallen trees and branches to native wildlife and ecosystems, failed to get a mention in the policy announcement.
And finally, in the same week, the Baillieu government significantly reduced an incentive paid to households and businesses with solar panels. Under the previous Labor government, electricity companies were required to pay households and businesses with solar panels 60 cents for every kilowatt of power that they fed into the grid. The scheme enabled hundreds of people to invest in solar technology in the knowledge that their initial outlay would soon be offset by the feed-in tariff.
The announcement by Energy Minister Michael O’Brien to cut the feed-in tariff to 25 cents per kilowatt pending the results of a review by the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission is likely to have a material effect on the number of solar panels installed in Victoria in the near future, as well as manufacturing jobs in the renewable energy sector.
Individually these decisions might be unremarkable, but collectively they signal the Baillieu government’s intention to dismantle Victoria’s environmental protection laws and slash its support for the renewable energy sector. It is a clear message from a government that has decided that the policy challenge of ensuring the protection of our natural environment whilst maintaining a commitment to the production of clean energy is just too hard.
Instead, the government has curtailed wind farm development by bowing to pressure from anti-wind farm lobbyists, and removed a permit that has protected our State’s forests for over half a century. Perhaps most ominously, the government has ignored advice from those within the industries that these reforms will affect. At a time when the manufacturing sector is struggling, support for the renewable energy industry has never been more important.
The loss of billions of dollars of investment is something that should concern all Victorians. It seems clear that the Baillieu government’s retrogressive wind farm and solar energy policies are putting Victorian jobs at risk. The implementation of these reforms reflects a missed opportunity for all Victorians to capitalise on the transition to clean energy production.
Tom is an Arts/Law student at the University of Melbourne, currently conducting research into Australian environmental policy and regulation.