Press conference with Assistant Minister Matt Thistlethwaite and Professor Renate Egan

ARENA funding of ACAP, Energy market, renewable energy, Australian Energy Regulators

MATT THISTLETHWAITE: Welcome everyone to UNSW, it’s wonderful to have Chris Bowen, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy with us to make a very very announcement, but before he does that, I want to thank professor Martin Green and Professor Renate Egan and the team at here at UNSW solar for the wonderful work that you have done and continue to do in solar research. It's ground-breaking research and I'm very, very proud to represent a community that has the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics in my electorate and to see on a regular basis the wonderful work that is done here. Over the course of the last half of a century the biggest development I think in renewable energy has been the development of the solar cell and solar energy. It's an incredible achievement that the commercialisation of solar energy and the revolution that it has provided in energy development, most of the technology was developed right here at UNSW, so that 90 per cent of the solar cells that are now sold throughout the world have some technology that was developed right here. But the team here at UNSW certainly don't rest on their laurels. They are continuing to innovate and advance the development of efficiency around solar cell technology, and we have been fortunate to witness some of that work that's going on here today. 

But, of course, you can't do that and develop those new technologies without the support and assistance of Government, and Labor Governments have been supporting UNSW and its work for many, many generations and it's wonderful to have the Minister here today to make another important announcement about Labor's commitment to solar energy development here in Australia. I'll now hand over to Chris Bowen to make that important announcement. [Applause] 

CHRIS BOWEN: Thanks very much, Matt. This centre has many supporters and many champions but none stronger than Matt. When I first took over the climate change portfolio in early 2021, this was one of my visits here to this centre at Matt's suggestion, and it's great to be back with such good news today. Can I also acknowledge the fact that we meet today on Eora land and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging.

Well, it's great to be back here with Matt to make this very important announcement. And before I make the announcement, I also acknowledge one other person as well as Matt. The solar industry in Australia has also many fathers and mothers and many champions, but none more so than Professor Martin Green, and Professor Martin Green is in my view a national treasure. So, Martin, great to see you today and thank you on behalf of the nation for everything you've done over many decades to see Australia becoming such a world-leading solar innovator. It is in no small measure, this centre, and all our achievements due to you, so I just want to acknowledge you today as somebody of whom this nation can be very, very proud. 

Well, today, we are taking this centre to the next stage. Today, we're announcing that the Albanese Labor Government will invest $45 million in this centre between now and 2030 so that the work that has happened here for so long can continue with policy funding and certainty, and that's really important because we've got a big job to do as a country. As a country, we need, of course, to meet our emissions targets but we can also help the rest of the world, and in no small measure that will be because of the innovation and the science and cutting-edge technology that happens right here and in other universities, and the Australian National University and elsewhere, but no place no more than here at the University of New South Wales. So, I'm very pleased and proud to make this announcement today. 

Also, I want to acknowledge ARENA. This year, the next 12 months will mark ARENA's 10th anniversary. And I said to the chief executives of ARENA and CEFC who are both celebrating their 10th anniversaries in the next 12 months, we need an appropriate, but good party to celebrate the work of ARENA and CFC because, in no small measure again, the achievements of Australia are due to the work of ARENA and CFC, the proud creation of a former Labor Government. And this Labor Government will not just tolerate ARENA, but will nurture, invest in, celebrate and work with ARENA and the CEFC to take us to the next level. 

So, this is very important work. We have much to do. ARENA has a 30 by 2030 goal—that is, to take solar panel efficiency to 30 per cent to reduce the cost of energy generation to 30 cents a watt by 2030—30 30 30 plan that ARENA is engineering and some of the scientists we just met inside said we might be able to do a bit better than that. I'm sure the scientists and I'm sure Martin and Renate and everyone else would agree that as important and as celebrated as the work by our scientists here is, it couldn't happen without the funding and support of Federal Government, of ARENA, and I'm very pleased to confirm and announce today that that will continue and grow, and we will celebrate the work of Australian scientists. 

We've got a lot of work to do, and, of course, we need to take it to the next level. I often say to groups, to organisations, to meetings, the modern solar panel is in effect an Australian invention. The solar panels around the world, the technology that's in them, in no small part was invented here and in other Australian universities. That's something we can be proud of. But we've got to take it now to the next step. We've put 60 million solar panels on roofs in Australia in the last 10 years. One per cent of them have been made in Australia. That's got to change. This is Australian technology; we want to see more of it made in Australia, and as you know the new Government has plenty of plans and initiatives in place to help us make more things in Australia and including making more renewable energy hardware and infrastructure in Australia including solar panels through our national reconstruction fund, and other initiatives which will play out in coming months and years. 

But today's announcement is about science. It's about research. It's about the next level. It's about cutting edge. It's about taking the work that's happened here, and then investing in it and making Australia even more a world leader. That's what we're committed to. That's what we'll deliver in Government. 

Now, I'm going to ask Renate to say a few words. Then I'm happy, and I'm sure Matt is happy, to take any questions. What we might do for members of the media is take questions on this announcement. Then if you have any other issues of the day you want to ask me about, you're more than welcome but we'll just do it in two parts so that if there are any questions that either Martin or Renate want to take, they can take those separate to the partisan politics of the day. Renate. 

RENATE EGAN: Thank you very much. Thank you, Minister Bowen. It's very exciting. I'm here representing the University of New South Wales and the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics to gratefully acknowledge the announcement that this funding will continue. The centre has been running now since 2013. The Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics is a national centre. It includes a number of universities and institutions around Australia. It's delivered—continuing to deliver outstanding results in setting new benchmarks and records in solar performance and developing the technologies of the future. I'd be very grateful to Darren Miller here, CEO of ARENA, to say thank you again. ARENA has been a huge supporter of solar research in Australia, not just the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics but solar research in general, as well as deployment, which has seen Australia really push ourselves to the forefront of solar uptake. Australians now have more solar per capita than anywhere else in the world, something which we can be really proud of. We have around close to 15 per cent of our entire electricity consumption is delivered by solar. We've seen that double effectively every three years for the last 20 years, and I'm optimistic that we will see it continue to grow. 

Thank you, Matt Thistlethwaite, our local member for his ongoing support. He's always been a continuous champion for the work that we do here. So, thank you very much for all of you for coming and we look forward to another eight years of continuous excellence in research at UNSW and the Australian Centre for Advanced Photo Photovoltaics. Thank you. [Applause] 

CHRIS BOWEN: Ladies and gentlemen of the media, any questions on this announcement? Peter. 

JOURNALIST: Minister, this funding was set up prior to the election, and [inaudible] didn't announce it and left it for you, which is a good thing. But we know that the previous Government wasn't necessarily a big supporter of renewable energy. Now that you've got control of the ministry, is there scope perhaps to extend this, maybe expand this? I know this is relevant today. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Do you mean this centre or more broadly?  

JOURNALIST: Beyond the 45 million—after eight years. Because after five years I think it's up for review. But given your interest in promoting manufacturing of solar in Australia, could you see this 45 million as a down payment for more in the future?  

CHRIS BOWEN: In relation to the first part of your question, I approved this funding—I received a brief from ARENA and the department, and I approved this funding; so, it wasn't something which had previously been authorised and approved. It came to me as a new Minister to approve, which I did without hesitation. 

Secondly, about what could be the next steps. I mean, the world's our oyster. We'll work closely with ARENA. We'll work closely with this centre. As I said, we want to see more solar panels manufactured in Australia, so that's a commercialisation task and a task that we all need to be involved in — all in — and if there is good advice from this centre or from ARENA more broadly about things that can be done, this Government will be very receptive to that advice. 

JOURNALIST: Would I be able to get your take on the current crisis, and I guess how have you seen — I guess did you see this coming? Do you feel, in the last five or 10 years or so, solar could have had such a big [indistinct]?

RENATE EGAN: Sorry, you're going to have to explain to me which crisis you're talking about. 

With respect to the current energy crisis, we could certainly have invested more in solar and in storage and in transmission, anticipating the energy transition. So, most of the investment to date where we are world leaders in solar uptake has been by end consumers, supported by Government initiatives which were, I believe, put in place by the Labor Government, under our renewable energy targets. But we could certainly have prepared ourselves better. There's a fair bit of politics going on, and with the operation of certain of our generating assets, which will settle with time, I think. But we could certainly—and the really nice thing about solar technologies is how quickly you can deploy them and battery storage technologies, as well, provided you can source them and having local manufacturing for the technologies would be a really great outcome to manage supply chain risks. So, for solar manufacturing and battery manufacturing locally would really help and Australia is not the only place contemplating this. I think we'll end up with a much more resilient supply chain than we currently have. We could certainly have averted some of our recent crises or pressure points if you like. I do think we'll ride through this and that it's actually just extra incentive to get a move on and install more solar and batteries. Thank you. 

CHRIS BOWEN: Is that all the questions on this? Questions on matters of the day. Peter? 

JOURNALIST: AEMO has just lifted its suspension [indistinct]? 

CHRIS BOWEN: I'm pleased with progress. Mr Westerman and I announced the return to more normal market operations two days ago. Yesterday, I visited AEMO's control room to check on progress and thank the AEMO staff for role they've played in helping us keep the lights on against considerable challenges over the last few weeks. Mr Westerman is very pleased with progress over the last 48 hours and it's good to see a return to more normal market conditions. We're very vigilant to the risks in the system. We're very aware of the long-term challenges and the need to get more renewables and storage into the system. That work will continue. In the meantime, we're managing very vigilantly a short-term crisis. 

JOURNALIST: How do you respond to claims of being taken for a ride by the big energy companies?  

CHRIS BOWEN: Who's made that claim?  

JOURNALIST: Various people. 


JOURNALIST: Government. The Opposition, various…

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the Opposition has got a choice to make. They can be taken seriously as credible alternative Government or they can be a laughing stock. They appear to be taking the latter approach by somehow claiming that the last 10 years of denial and delay don't count and somehow claiming that a Government that has been in for four weeks is somehow, you know, by talking about renewables, is somehow spooking the coal fired generators to not working. Apparently, that's what Sussan Ley said yesterday. All this talk of renewables spooked the market. Well, renewables don't spook people, and renewables certainly don't spook coal fired powered generators into not working. If the Liberal Party wants to be taken seriously, they might sort of start being a bit more mature about the discussion. 

JOURNALIST: If energy companies are deliberately getting into the market, shouldn't the Government be stepping up to take more assertive role other than leaving it up to the regulator?  

CHRIS BOWEN: The regulator is the regulator. As I made crystal clear in every single press conference I have had on this issue, they have my 100 per cent support. Consumers come first. The regulator's job is to ensure that consumers are coming first. The regulator has been very strong in their actions, and they have my 100 per cent support if they do so. It's not for politicians to regulate the law. It is for the regulators to regulate the law and they have my full support as they do so. I've been in constant contact with the generators and they know the Government's expectations. But there's a regulator who implements the law of the land. 

JOURNALIST: So it's nothing more you can do?

CHRIS BOWEN: The Government has been very active and the fact that we've managed collectively, the regulators, the operator, working cooperatively with states and territories, to avoid any load shedding, to avoid any blackouts is a testament to all those who worked so hard over the last three weeks—no help from the people who created the situation in the previous Government. Regulator, operators, State and Territory Governments working very cooperatively with the Commonwealth, managed to keep the lights on, no load shedding, no blackouts. Peter?  

JOURNALIST: I understand that the Australian Energy Regulators has been in contact with retailers to seek more information, as reported in one of the newspapers this morning, about the financial stability of retailers. What do you see how this might play out — 

CHRIS BOWEN: Peter it would be irresponsible—I don't mean to cut you off, Peter. It would be irresponsible of me to start speculating about liquidity matters. I remain in constant contact with the regulator. The Government remains very alive to the issues that need to be worked through, as the market returns, and we'll continue to monitor the situation very closely. I'm not going to start commenting on financial viability. 

JOURNALIST: The New South Wales Treasurer has talked about the potential for underwriting or some other intervention. Is that something that you would consider? 

CHRIS BOWEN: The Treasurer of New South Wales and I have discussed various matters over recent weeks in his capacity as energy Minister. I'm not going to start a running commentary. 

JOURNALIST: Can you guarantee energy security throughout the winter given the [indistinct]— 

CHRIS BOWEN: I can guarantee that the Government is fully focused on the task at hand. I can guarantee that every single action that needs to be taken, will be taken, as it has been over the last three weeks. Every single action has been taken. I've been very clear. It's a bumpy winter because we've had more generation leave over the last decade and not enough to replace it. But the actions that we put in place over the last few weeks make us best placed to manage this situation today and going forward. Of course, I've said there are risks in the system, if there's more unexpected outages of coal fired power generation, for example, as we've experienced in recent weeks. That will put pressure on the system. But we'll continue to remain focused on the job. Any other questions? All in, all done? All good?  

JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] crisis [indistinct]

CHRIS BOWEN: When the Government has the opportunity to start implementing its policies. All right thank you.