Interview with Lisa Millar, ABC News Breakfast

Lisa Millar
National Electricity Market

LISA MILLAR: It's been described as the perfect storm with the electricity market operator taking the extraordinary step of suspending the wholesale market in a desperate effort to seize control of the current energy crisis impacting the eastern states, but it's increasingly likely consumers and businesses will end up picking up the tab with higher prices. Federal Energy Minister Chris Bowen joins us now from Parliament House in Canberra. Minister, thanks for coming on the show. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Pleasure, Lisa.

LISA MILLAR: There's a lot of Australians who are, honestly, scratching their heads this morning wondering why a country like Australia, with the energy supplies it has, is in a situation where people were being told to think about whether they needed to leave the lights on. 

CHRIS BOWEN: And fair enough too, Lisa. I agree. And, as you know, this is as a result of almost a decade of underinvestment in renewable energy, underinvestment in transmission and storage. That's the situation we're dealing with. And last week I convened State and Territory Energy Ministers, who agreed on a comprehensive national plan to fix that. And that was a big step forward. But in the short term, we are dealing with a very challenging situation, but, I guess, the good news is, Lisa, that the regulators and operators are working very closely with governments. We are managing that situation. We have avoided blackouts and we have avoided load shedding so far, and yesterday was an extreme action. It wasn't taken lightly, but it was the judgement that it was what was absolutely necessary to act in the best interests of consumers to intervene and to close the market and to take control, and that's what happened yesterday and that was the right decision.

LISA MILLAR: Okay, well, you've got more meetings today. What are you looking for? What information do you need? 

CHRIS BOWEN: Oh, look, there's no summit today. I've seen that reported. That's not correct. What we are doing is I'm in regular contact with industry, with energy providers, with State and Territory Ministers, with all the operators and regulators. That continues. I've got some meetings today, but they are just part of that ongoing engagement, and that will continue for as long as necessary, and that's been happening since literally the day the Government was sworn in. That started for me the afternoon I was sworn in because this situation was starting from just before then. And our very active management will continue, and this intervention from the energy market operator will continue, let me be very clear, for not a day more than it needs to, but not a day less either.

LISA MILLAR: What's the estimate? Could it go for months? Could it last all of winter? 

CHRIS BOWEN: I don't envisage it being that long but it will be reviewed on a day-to-day basis, and I'm very, very clear the regulator and the operator – and I've been very clear to the chief executive of the operator, he has my full support for any action he deems necessary; the Government will back the operator and the regulators 100 per cent, and this intervention will not be lifted one day earlier than it needs to be in his judgement. 

LISA MILLAR: What's your take on how the energy generators have dealt with this? I know you said everyone is on the same page, but they've been criticised by some for having the power and not releasing it into the market because it came down to how much money they were or weren't going to make? 

CHRIS BOWEN: And that's, basically, why the intervention yesterday occurred. Now, this is a complicated—the national energy market is, in some senses, a complicated beast. The generators bid in, and the energy regulator wrote to all the generators last week and reminded them of their legal obligations to bid in at fair and accurate rates and reminded them that the energy regulator was closely monitoring behaviour. But clearly, yesterday, the judgement was made that that wasn't enough, that the operator needed to step in and take control. Now, I'm not here to second guess the energy regulator has our full support in monitoring all behaviour. I'm not here to make accusations. I'm here to say the regulator and operator have our full support in any action that they deem necessarily, as they have done and as they’ll continue to do.

LISA MILLAR: It seems the market needs an overhaul, surely, if this is where we're at. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Yeah, look and there’s things that State and Territory Ministers will look at with me to see how this situation has unfolded and see what needs to change. But in the short term and the immediate short term, in the hours and days ahead, we'll simply work with the existing rules; the existing rules let us do what happened yesterday. We didn't need any change to the law or any meeting of State and Territory Ministers. The energy operator spoke to me. I asked him to speak to all the State and Territory Ministers affected. He did so, and action was implemented immediately.

LISA MILLAR: Well, you've just arrived into Government and you've now got all these challenges facing you. Where does it leave you on your timetable, your timeline for moving to renewables, the challenges you're now facing to implement the policies you promised? 

CHRIS BOWEN: More important than ever, Lisa. It's more important than ever to get on with the job. We went to the election with a plan to invest in transmission – the Rewiring the Nation policy. We went to the election with a plan to get 82 per cent renewables into the grid. All this is more important. The climate change deniers and delayers say “This just shows renewables don't work.” That's a lie. It shows the transition hasn't been well managed by the previous Government. There wasn't enough investment in storage. There wasn't enough investment in transmission. We saw a drought in investment in renewable energy. 

Now, we've already seen in the early weeks of the Government, confidence up in the renewable energy sector. We've seen confidence up in investment decisions that are coming forward and in the pipeline. That's very important. But it's more important than ever to get this transition right. That's what our policies do. That's what I will be focused on. That's what the Prime Minister is focused on with me. It's what the entire Cabinet is focused on. We will be getting on with the job. This isn't less important. Dealing with climate change isn't less important. It's more important than ever and getting that transition and creating the jobs of the future and getting the reliable energy and getting storage is very important. 

And the deniers and delayers say “This just shows the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine”. Well, a couple of points: one, the rain doesn't always fall but we store water. We can store renewable energy. 

And, secondly, this is a crisis driven by and large by unexpected outages in coal fired power stations because the fleet has been ageing. No fault of any one of the operators. The fleet is ageing but there hasn't been that investment in new technology, in new transmission, in new storage to come forward because the previous government just played around with it for nine years and had 23 different energy policies, kept denying the challenge, kept denying the opportunities, kept denying the need for a comprehensive economic and energy policy. We take a very different approach. We went to the election with an energy policy. That's exactly what we're getting on and implementing, and it's more important than ever.

LISA MILLAR: All right. Chris Bowen, thanks for your time this morning. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Good on you, Lisa.