Energy Opinion

We all need to be part of the renewable plan to power Australia

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How and where Australia generates, stores and transports electricity will be crucial in the transition toward a renewable energy future (Image via Pexels | Pixabay)

As our nation transitions toward a renewable energy future, it is critical that all Australians, not just the energy market, play a central role in planning and delivering the country's future electricity system.

We must ensure that the needs, rights and opportunities for communities, industries and consumers are not being compromised to satisfy least-cost outcomes.

Many actors in the energy market recognised the (AEMO) Australian Energy Market Operator’s integrated system plan (ISP) as the blueprint for our energy future.

When meeting the national energy objectives (NEO), the ISP appears to represent an appropriate business model for the National Energy Market (NEM). However, the ISP and regulatory investment test for transmission (RIT–T) frameworks are clearly not fit for purpose as they do not consider matters beyond the NEO.

The ISP and RIT–T do not evaluate state-level economic development, emerging industries, job creation, land use, emissions targets, or environmental and social considerations. For these reasons, many stakeholders are realising the current framework is unsuitable.

While the ISP may one day serve a purpose, it is critical to first prioritise the needs and roadmaps of each state to ensure costs to its people are minimised, development opportunities maximised, transitioning workforces are supported and state governments are meeting their objectives and not carrying unnecessary financial burdens imposed upon them for the broader benefit of the NEM.

Navigating the transition

This once-in-a-lifetime transition away from fossil fuels represents an opportunity to develop best practice policies alongside the framework and enable legislation that integrates land use considerations, environment, emissions, economic opportunities and community into the planning process.

Increased policy certainty is in the interest of stakeholders across all sectors of the economy as moving towards a net-zero economy by 2050 will generate substantial economic and employment opportunities.

It is critical to ensure we transition to renewables in the most orderly and strategic way that delivers the best outcomes for Australians and provides more certainty to investors, industry, business, the transitioning workforce and local communities.

The transmission-planning framework should be more strategic, transparent, timely and well-coordinated, with meaningful community involvement. Planning and investment settings must build confidence among industry and communities to ensure we maximise the benefits of renewable energy development.

Our transmission planning approach should integrate local values and ensure local communities can influence the planning and investment process and directly benefit, where possible, from regional development opportunities.

Having routing and siting decisions guided by the community through a more "consistent", "fair" and "just" rationale will provide the greatest benefit to any electricity transmission project. Community-first framework, combined with a new set of rules, policy and planning instruments will produce more consistent, defensible, and transparent electricity transmission routing decisions.

Infrastructure planning that's fit for purpose

Thinking about the local community where renewable energy infrastructure is planned and thinking about the workforce as we transition away from coal is important to build trusting relationships with industry and the public.

Given that future renewable generator and storage development will be delivered by private companies with no statutory authority to access or acquire land, it is crucial that the level of community acceptance first be determined through meaningful discussions with communities before planning renewable energy zones (REZ) transmission.

REZ zones can then be progressed where acceptance levels are greater. For example, the Western Renewables Link (WRL) in Victoria is receiving an astonishing level of opposition. This opposition is not against the transition to renewables but the enabling framework.

Communities along the proposed 190-kilometre overhead-transmission corridor have been so adversely impacted (mentally and emotionally) over the past two years that if the WRL proceeds, it will likely result in a "transmission line to nowhere".

As such, communities have clearly spoken — no landholder in this region will accept renewable generation or storage development on their land as a direct result of the WRL. Social licence has been completely discarded.

This presents major challenges in this REZ and is likely to result in an $800 million transmission investment with no foreseeable benefit. If the framework is not urgently fixed, this will likely impact every new transmission build.

Why community first?

A community-first framework would introduce a strategic and proactive process to ensure timely coordination of investment in transmission, generation and dispatchable storage infrastructure across REZs, tailored to meet the needs of regional communities and the energy needs of each state.

Such a framework would better integrate land use considerations, environmental impacts and community views into the planning process. This includes opportunities for earlier and deeper engagement with regional communities to help better manage impacts and to make the most of regional development opportunities for host communities.

It’s encouraging to see the Victorian Government moving to adopt a community-first approach through its proposed Victorian Transmission Investment Framework (VTIF) as this can better build the widespread support needed to accelerate climate action.

Adopting such a framework, followed by state-level REZ and grid planning, will allow Victoria to take control of its own planning priorities, quantify realistic generation and firming capacity and reduce heavy dependence on costly and potentially unnecessary interconnector transmission corridors.

If there is a need for interconnection to increase security, reliability and resilience, this can later be addressed through the ISP or alternate planning tools.

The transformation of Victoria’s energy grid and the development of the VTIF provides a unique opportunity to reset the process on new and existing transmission projects and progress all developments under a new framework that is better suited to a future decentralised system.

It is not defensible to not apply the VTIF retrospectively to projects that have already commenced regulatory processes. The VTIF proposes a more robust, responsible and defensible criterion to project assessment and development than the RIT–T or ISP frameworks. It is essential, for all stakeholders and indeed Victoria, that the assessments of these projects be brought under the proposed VTIF without further delay.

The current ISP-first regime does little to actively consider issues beyond power systems and cost-benefit modelling and this is where the heart of the issues around social licence lay.

So, why is transmission still being planned under this framework? Because large-scale transmission has not been built in Australia for at least three decades and the rule book was not rewritten to facilitate a once-in-a-lifetime transition to renewable energy. Sheer lack of policy and failure to view holistically is why the transition is stumbling.

Raising the standard

A paradigm shift in how and where we generate, store and transport electricity requires a paradigm shift in thinking and best practice planning that considers all things beyond the energy system. A community-first framework does more to actively consider this and will lead to more robust and reliable solutions.

There is much work to do, especially when accounting for socioeconomic, welfare economics and environmental concerns. Recognising the need for public and environmental policy and developing new methods to apply this early in project development will minimise risks to project delivery, increase confidence for renewable investors and will better serve the environment, public and broader economic interest.

As fossil fuel plants retire across the nation and our impact on climate becomes more urgent, there is too much at stake to adopt the current "decide, announce, defend" ISP-first model of infrastructure delivery. There is too much at stake not to urgently consider state-level needs, roadmaps, policies, legislation and objectives first.

There is also too much at stake, as concerns social licence, not to be robust, transparent and accountable in all cost-benefit tests.

An urgent need exists for regulatory reform to better facilitate the acquisition of social licence for all industry participants. The reform required will take time that some may argue we do not have, but you must ask: what is the consequence of inaction on this much-needed reform?

When you consider the "business-as-usual" alternative, the cost of inaction will lead to a groundswell of opposition to overhead transmission projects across the nation and the market will dispense with any opportunity to acquire social licence.

The resulting material project delays will adversely impact the industry, economy, consumers, investors and above all, our legislated climate change objectives.

We all need to do more to actively consider issues beyond the power system and economic modelling in transmission planning decisions.

Darren Edwards is a Darley resident and business owner who has lived in the region for more than ten years. He is a director of Energy Grid Alliance. He is also the founder of the Trail Hiking Australia website, drawing thousands of visitors to the region annually.

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