CEC CEO Kane Thornton on why ARENA needs refunding

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In late January, think-tank the Australia Institute (TAI) made a pre-budget plea to the Morrison Government for a $460 million top-up of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) before funding dries up in mid-2020. 

The $460 million top-up represents an urgent two-year funding extension for ARENA, $230 million per year for 2022-23 and 2023-24. The call comes from a TAI Discussion Paper from Dan Cass, Energy Policy & Regulatory Lead at TAI, in which Cass argues that technology’s centrality to reducing emissions by 2030 is in jeopardy as ARENA has only $200 million for allocation to new projects.

With such a threat looming imminently upon ARENA’s future, pv magazine Australia spoke to Kane Thornton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council (CEC) about the significance of ARENA to Australia and the energy transition. 

Thornton lauded ARENA’s role since its creation in 2011. “Its role in large-scale solar is an excellent example of the role it played in building scale, technological maturity and driving down cost such that large-scale solar is now the lowest cost source of new energy generation in many parts of Australia,” noted Thornton. 

“I think there is a growing respect for ARENA and the work it needs to continue to do: supporting integration into the grid, developing our hydrogen industry, supporting R&D and transitioning many more industries to clean energy.” 

Thornton also noted ARENA’s remarkable hit rate, especially in regards to solar but across the clean energy board too: “Whether its demonstrating large-scale solar at scale, helping drive R&D in solar cell efficiency or driving innovation in business models and technology for rooftop solar, ARENA has played a massive role.” 

The top-up being lobbied by the TAI is mild by comparison to the CEC, argues Thornton, “The Clean Energy Council has been lobbying for ARENA to be extended to 2030 with an additional $2 billion of funding over that period.” 

Despite the obvious short-sightedness of underfunding our energy future, earlier this month the Federal Government pulled the plug on two years of funding for the international research collaboration known as the Energy Transition Hub. 

Thornton said he was disappointed to see funding pulled from the Hub, but noted that the Government has made “a substantial commitment to the Reliable Affordable Clean Energy for 230 CRC. With the Government focusing on technology through the technology roadmap process,” continued Thornton, “we should expect to see further budget commitments in this area.” 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s long-awaited Carbon Reduction Roadmap, supposedly a pathway to carbon reduction through technological prometheanism, has been further delayed due to the Coronavirus outbreak. It is thought that we will see the “Roadmap” by the time Taylor attends the 2020 climate talks in Glasgow. 

However, like the redirection of Energy Transition Hub funding, and recent CSIRO job losses in its Energy Business Unit, some are concerned about the Government’s mixed messages about its energy direction. Thornton is one of these people. “Yes, these decisions and some of the rhetoric in relation to fossil fuel technology support is confusing and frustrating. But the reality is that renewable energy and energy storage will dominate the energy system in Australia in the future. Everyone knows that. These decisions are distracting, but we must remain optimistic about the future and the inevitability of policy and funding decisions focusing on the technological reality that clean energy is realising.” 

Of course, despite the Senate passing a motion in February backing ARENA’s refunding, the future of ARENA ultimately rests with the Federal Government. Thankfully, despite mixed messages, Thornton is confident the Government will refund ARENA. 

“ARENA has been extraordinarily successful over the last five years,” said Thornton. “Given the Federal Government’s focus on new technology, I think it’s very likely that ARENA will be extended and receive further funding. Doing otherwise would be short-sighted and simply make the transition harder and more expensive.”

Considering the budget is being delayed by the Coronavirus outbreak too, we won’t learn ARENA’s fate for another few months. In the meantime, says Thornton, “The CEC is focused on building awareness about the success of ARENA and ensuring the federal government understands its importance to the future of the energy system.” 

Thornton made a special plea to those who have received support from ARENA over the years to reach out to their federal politician and tell them of ARENA’s importance to them, their project, and their ongoing mission. These may be uncertain times, but it still remains politics as usual.