May 30, 2017











SUBJECTS: Committee on the Environment and Energy inquiry into modernising the power grid.

JENNY MARCHANT:  The House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Environment and Energy is holding a public hearing into modernising Australia’s electricity grid and the local member for Shortland, Pat Conroy is the Deputy Chair. Good morning Pat.


MARCHANT: Good thank you. This roundtable really kicks off the inquiry. What are you hoping to get out of today?

CONROY: Today is about information gathering. We’ve assembled a great group of experts from things like the energy regulator, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and CSIRO, and it’s really about educating the committee and the public about what they see are the challenges to our electricity grid. There are many and we need to try to find some bipartisan solutions where we can.

MARCHANT:  The Hunter region of course is heavily invested in power generation and transmission from our coal mines to our power stations and all the industries that support them. Will having a local MP as the Deputy Chair of this committee go anyway to benefit us locally as we look towards a transition?

CONROY: Well absolutely, I think I can bring some local insight. The Hunter is home to a third of Australia’s coal-fired power generation. I’m also the Shadow Assistant Minister for Climate Change and Energy so I think I bring a couple of perspectives that can help the committee and also focus on the challenges that our region faces in particular.

MARCHANT: It’s all about modernising the electricity grid, can you give us a bit of an idea of what that might involve. What are you thinking of when you think of the term modernisation? 

CONROY: Well the grid was designed in the 60s and 70s around an arteries and veins model where you’ve got very large, typically coal-fired power stations built next to coal mines. You’ve then built massive transmission lines to feed it into population centres like Newcastle, Sydney, Brisbane and so forth. That style is coming to an end, most of our coal-fired power stations are due to close in the next 15 to 20 years. We’ve got renewable power that’s becoming very affordable and quite cheap compared to coal and that’s a different sort of system; usually they’re smaller, they’re often on people’s roofs and that means we need a different sort of grid to handle the challenges that brings.

MARCHANT: I know there’s been talk of a decentralised sort of system where you might see smaller power generating stations or batteries at a neighbourhood level or street level is that something you might consider?

CONROY: Absolutely. In changing the way the rules work so that, for example, on very hot days we can have a system where people’s solar PV rooftop cells, typically connected to batteries can feed into the grid and actually feed power properly throughout the system to stabilise the system. The million solar roofs on the East coast saved an enormous amount of power during that heatwave we had and that was a crucial factor to avoid blackouts but people don’t get paid very well for that power and often there are technical issues about how that power is fed in. So, those are really important issues if we modernise the grid; recognising that we’ve got to reduce our carbon emissions which means much more renewable power and changing the rules to allow that to flow properly.

MARCHANT: It hasn’t been long now since those solar rebates really dropped down a lot really. A lot of people think now ‘well, why would I bother?’ that seems to be at odds with the type of aims that your committee might be looking towards.

CONROY: Well, we’ve got to look at making sure people get fair pricing for the power they produce and often that’s the way the rules are constructed in other countries. There’s a thing called supply aggregation where if it is a really hot day and we’re getting close to too much demand people can agree to turn off their pool pumps, turn off their air conditioning for a bit and they get paid for that. In our rules, in our system, that’s very hard to do so changing the rules to allow those sorts of things is really important and it’s a way of avoiding building brand new power stations if we can avoid people pulling power off the grid. So we need to modernise the rules and modernise the physical structure of the grid if we’re going to survive into the 21st century as first world nation.

MARCHANT: Do you support more renewables coming into the mix here?

CONROY: Yeah, our goal is to have 50 per cent renewable power by 2030 and we’ll achieve it and we’ll achieve it through what’s called an Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS) which will unlock billions of dollars of investment and actually save money on people’s power bills. The fact is we’ve got four power stations that are coal-fired in our region. One is due to close in 2022, next one’s around 2030, then 2034 and 2035. So we need to be building new power stations. So the argument is, how do we build them? what is the cheapest way of doing that and what’s the best way of reducing our carbon emissions at the same time? I firmly believe that renewables is the way to go with that, and that’s basic economics; it’s now cheaper to build wind power, it’s cheaper to build industrial sized solar then it is to build a new coal-fired power station or even a gas-fired power station. But that poses challenges for our region that was built on coal but, we’ve got to be fair dinkum about the changes coming.

MARCHANT: You speak with such certainty that by 2030 we will have 50 per cent renewable power supply, you talk about the EIS with such certainty that it might surprise a lot of people because it doesn’t, to a lot of people, feel that there is that strength of will towards that goal coming out of Canberra.

CONROY: It’s really dispiriting the political argy-bargy down here and it can be easily avoided. The EIS, which is our policy, is backed by all major energy companies like AGL and Origin. It’s backed by BHP, it’s backed by the Business Council, the Australian Industry Group, the ACTU, the CSIRO, the Chief Scientist, it’s really only the Government that’s opposed to it and that’s a pity because this was actually Malcolm Turnbull’s policy in 2009. And we could actually help solve the energy crisis if he agreed to that and it would get through Parliament very quickly but unfortunately it’s become a political football and that’s a real pity because it’s really a case of Canberra standing in the way of something the rest of the country is really supporting.

MARCHANT: So when you make statements like ‘we will have 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030,’ you can’t be sure of that.

CONROY:  Well all the best available modelling says we will. We’ve got a renewable energy target that both sides of politics have supported and that means we’ll get to 23.5 per cent renewable energy by 2020. And the fact is, there’s about 5,000 megawatts of renewable energy that’s going to be built this year, wind power and half of it will be solar as well so there are huge amounts of renewable power coming in and even in the absence of Government policy, renewable power is cheaper than new coal-fired power. So the basic economics are unarguable; renewable power will become a bigger and bigger feature of our power system and certainly Labor will put in place policies that make sure we get to 50 per cent.   

MARCHANT: There’s a lot of concern locally about the transition away from coal-fired power, is that something that will factor into this committee’s scope?

CONROY: To some extent, we need to look at that and I’m very serious about it and I have many regular conversations with coal miners and energy workers about what the future holds. And one of the key challenges is to make sure that workers and communities that depend upon those jobs are not left carrying the can. And, that’s very, very important so one of the things that was achieved out of the Hazelwood closure was the Victorian Government negotiated for some of the workers to transfer to other power stations in the region and that’s Labor’s federal policy. That if a power station does close down, we work with the companies and the unions to make sure no one is forced to take a redundancy. Because we’ve seen mass closures in the past and if governments aren’t active then it’s ultimately the workers, their families and the communities that bear the brunt and that’s unacceptable.



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