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Solar Highway: The ACT’s Renewable Energy Journey

If you’ve recently confused driving Canberra’s Monaro Highway or Majura Parkway with a scene from a dystopian film, you’re probably not alone. However, the answer to what exactly these alien looking installations actually are is much less sinister than any current Atwood-esque interpretation would lead us to believe.

What they are, in fact, is part of the ACT Government’s aim to meet Australia’s most ambitious renewable energy target – 100 per cent renewable by 2020. Significant legislation has also been passed with the aim of achieving zero net carbon emissions across the Territory by 2050. With the recent instalments of the Williamsdale and Mugga Lane solar farms, the 50 kilometre stretch of road from Majura Parkway to the Monaro Highway dubbed the ‘solar highway’, now houses more than 174,000 solar panels.

With four solar farms now located at Royalla, Mount Majura, Mugga Lane and Williamsdale, the ACT looks in good stead to meet its target. The combined megawatt (MW) energy generated from these farms will provide enough energy to power 11,700 ACT homes. To maximise energy consumption, the panels at Mt Majura, Mugga Lane and Williamsdale all rotate throughout the day. Interestingly, the Mount Majura farm is actually owned by SolarShare Community local investors, who reap financial rewards while also contributing to Canberra’s clean energy future.

This is happening amidst the global trend of giving increasing weight to the arguments of climate change deniers. As the US President seriously considers withdrawing from the Paris agreement, and our own Federal Government seems unwilling to commit to any real action to combat climate change – little old ACT is bucking the international political trend by committing to its 100 per cent goal.

Aided by the massive investment push by Germany, the US and China; the renewable sector is the fastest growing energy sector globally. In many areas of the world, outdated political rhetoric is losing ground to overwhelming scientific consensus and the power of clean energy to create jobs and economic growth.

Minister for Climate Change and Sustainability Shane Rattenbury notes that ‘Canberra is a becoming a hub for renewable energy research and innovation, creating new jobs, driving investment to the ACT and region and stimulating our economy.’

So, why is renewable energy stalling nationally?

Considering the country’s considerable capacity for renewable energy generation – 500 times greater than current power generation – it is surprising, to say the least, that in 2014, investment dropped by 70 per cent when compared with that of the previous year. In parts, this is due to federal uncertainty. It’s an uncertainty underlined by the Federal Government’s penchant for coal and tendency to blame renewables for recent blackouts in South Australia, all of which contradicts mounting scientific evidence that fossil fuels are a disaster for the climate. Indeed, recent reports are ‘highly doubtful’ that Australia will even succeed in reaching the Abbott-Turnbull Renewable Energy Target (RET) of 28 per cent renewables by 2030, which already falls well short of the commitments made by the UK, US, Germany and Canada.

Policy instability in the Federal Government is leaving lenders uncertain, and nationally, the country is floundering. Perhaps the ACT’s push will be all that gets the nation over the line in regards to meeting its Paris Agreement targets. As Rattenbury suggests, it is now that ‘local efforts on renewable energy are more important than ever.’

In fact, the vacuum created by the Federal Government’s indecisiveness in regards to renewable energy policy has actually allowed the ACT to secure large scale renewable investment – and at significantly lower prices than the Federal Government predicted.

Using a process of reverse auctions which began in 2012, companies competed to offer renewable energy at the lowest cost, as opposed to the usual auction process where the highest price is considered.

To keep prices low in the auctions process, a set price has been agreed on for the renewable energy produced, a price which will remain steady for the next twenty years and protect ACT consumers from fluctuations in the energy market. When market prices are higher than the agreed-on price, the generator pays the ACT electricity distributor, ActewAGL, and the savings are passed on to ACT consumers.

Two significant auctions, held in 2014 and 2015 respectively, created investment in 400 MW of wind generating capacity. These five windfarms combined will deliver 50 per cent of the Territory’s 2020 electricity supply. The first auction delivered three farms, Ararat (80.5 MW) and Coonooer (19.4 MW), both in Victoria, and Hornsdale (100 MW) in South Australia. The second auction secured the Sapphire and Crookwell 2 Wind Farms. The Sapphire Wind Farm is the largest in NSW and, when complete, will power around 48,000 ACT homes. The Crookwell 2 Wind Farm is set to be completed in September 2018 and will power 41,600 Canberra homes.

Wind will account for the bulk of renewable energy, as the five wind farms have a combined generating capacity of 600 MW, compared to only 40 MW generated from solar farms. According to Shane Rattenbury, ‘contracts have already been signed in order for the ACT to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable solar and wind sources by 2020’.

The significance of this statement extends well beyond political rhetoric and showcases the ACT’s tangible support for the renewables sector.

And how does all of this affect you, the energy consumer? Well, the total cost of this effort is set to peak at $5.50 per household in 2020 and will decline from then on. But it is also likely that these costs will in fact be offset by mandatory energy efficiency measures – like the installation of free energy saving lightbulbs.

Of course, much as it is easy to say that the rest of Australia must follow the ACT’s lead – the territory has several significant advantages which have aided it in its quest for 100 per cent. The first is its relatively small geographical size, compared with other states, who will be tasked with having to secure a much larger pool of potential suppliers to guarantee constant supply. The ACT is also a compact jurisdiction, with little industry to power and none of the overdevelopment which characterises other states. Additionally, it already has the cheapest electricity prices.

The advantages of being the first mover are undeniable. The ACT got in first to secure the cheapest renewable energy in the country; now the rest will have to avoid saturating the market. It is likely that the renewable race amongst the other states will now begin, while the ACT can sit back – knowing it sits on the right side of history.