Interview with Katie Woolf, Mix 104.9 Darwin
2 September 2020
Subject: Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, electricity, transmission lines, renewable energy, foreign investment, defence in the Northern Territory
KATIE WOOLF: Now, two new major energy projects in the Northern Territory have been given Commonwealth Government funding, that includes a new 12 megawatt gas fired power plant in Darwin and a 10 megawatt solar and battery farm near Batchelor. The Government is going to chip in $37 million as part of the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, also known as the NAIF, and the projects are expected to create around 160 jobs and help lower power prices. To talk more about this is the Minister for Northern Australia, Keith Pitt. Good morning.
KEITH PITT: Good morning Katie. How's it going?
KATIE WOOLF: Oh, very well up here in Darwin, beautiful weather - probably a lot better than what you're experiencing. Are you in Canberra?
KEITH PITT: I am. It's- it has been horrible down here in the minuses. But what a great summary, I've got nothing left to say. You've just done it all.
KATIE WOOLF: [Laughs] Well, no, I've got a few questions for you. Now, tell us a little bit more about these projects firstly.
KEITH PITT: Well firstly, as you've said, it's a 12 megawatt gas fired power plant in Darwin, and a 10 megawatt solar and battery farm near Batchelor, about 100 k's south of the capital. So, that's a $37 million loan through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, and that means more capacity in terms of electricity generation into your market which means lower prices.
KATIE WOOLF: And Keith, does that mean- I mean, are they new projects or are they already under construction, and today's announcement's more about that funding?
KEITH PITT: So, these are new. So $37 million is the loan for those projects through the NAIF facility which has been approved, and that brings the total for the Northern Territory from the NAIF to $830 million, in terms of loans that have been approved from the NAIF. Now, these projects are all about modernising your energy networks, you know, we need to reduce the reliance, particularly on diesel. So, lower prices, better reliability; that's a great outcome for the Territory.
KATIE WOOLF: There's a bit of talk in the Territory at the moment about our capabilities, in terms of our power infrastructure, and to the Northern Territory's current- you know, if it's basically capable of taking on the energy generated from these new projects. Have you sort of had much discussion about that?
KEITH PITT: Well, the advice I've got from Senator ...
KATIE WOOLF: … from his delivery of the worst performing economy in the nation for Territorians. So-
KEITH PITT: …in easy terms that means blackouts which is bad news all around. But, you know, these projects are very solid, they'll produce jobs locally. That power generation, transmission infrastructure has been badly neglected, if you don't look after your network, that means a reduction in reliability, and in easy terms, that means blackouts which is bad news all around. But, you know, these projects are very solid, they'll produce jobs locally. Anything that adds to strengthen your network. I'm an electrical engineer - so I'll be careful not to get too technical here, Katie.
KATIE WOOLF: Yeah.
KEITH PITT: Anything that strengthens your network is good news.
KATIE WOOLF: Well, I mean, are you concerned though that the Northern Territory's grid isn't capable of long term renewable energy sources? Because, again, I guess that's where we're sort of starting to get to in terms of discussion here in the Territory at the moment is, you know, it's all well and good to say as a government, as the Northern Territory Government have said, that they want to reach 50 per cent renewables by 2030. But you've got to make sure that the infrastructure is up to speed?
KEITH PITT: Well, you can't just build intermittent wind and solar willy nilly. You do need to have a plan. I mean, South Australia's a great example, in terms of a science experience, the previous Labor government down there just let installations happen anywhere. That resulted in the highest price of electricity in the world at one stage. You need to have backup; you've got to be able to fill the gaps where these products don't work. That's where gas is a great gap filler, in terms of generating on demand power.
KATIE WOOLF: So, you don't have any concerns though, with these projects coming up, that you are obviously confident that our grid is going to be able to manage?
KEITH PITT: Well, governments are always very strong when it comes to regulation around power systems. There's a whole heap of design that goes on in the background, it's what I used to do.
KATIE WOOLF: Yep.
KEITH PITT: So, you know, we need to ensure that the transmission networks are there as required. But once again, we just need to take a balanced approach, and that's certainly what the Commonwealth is doing right across the country.
KATIE WOOLF: And Minister, how many jobs are you expecting to be created as part of these projects? Obviously jobs are a big topic for discussion in the Territory, not just at the moment, but all the time.
KEITH PITT: Well, there's around 160 during the construction phase of these two new generators. In total, in terms of what the NAIF's committed to the Territory, we expect around 3000 jobs out of that $830 million that we've committed in loans, that should generate more than $2 billion in net economic benefit. This is all about the multiplier, of course reliable and affordable power means that you can have more local manufacturers and businesses are more successful. And this is also, once again, it's about small family businesses that are struggling to pay their power bills. Everything we can do to help them with that overhead, with that cost to make them more profitable, give them more certainty, is good for everyone.
KATIE WOOLF: Minister, are there any other projects that are in the pipeline, per say, when it comes to the NAIF or things that we might be able to sort of- to keep an eye out for?
KEITH PITT: Oh, there's a large pipeline of projects being assessed by the NAIF - I'd love to give you a scope, Katie …
KATIE WOOLF: Yep.
KEITH PITT: … But obviously they're commercial in confidence, and we're working our way through the process. The NAIF's independent, it makes recommendations to me once it's finished its assessment process, of course we work closely with the Territory Government. And you've just had an election, and it's not quite over yet from what I can tell, it's all very close.
KATIE WOOLF: Yeah, still four seats undecided at this point in time, but it is certainly looking as though Labor is going to still form that majority government. It's - there's no doubt, you know, it's always an interesting time when you talk about politics in the Northern Territory. But on Monday I actually caught up with the Federal Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, and we spoke about the changes that Scott Morrison announced towards the end of last week around some of that international investment or foreign investment. And he, you know, he is calling for the lease of the Darwin Port to be reversed. Is that something that's even on the government's radar federally?
KEITH PITT: Well, we certainly took action once that occurred, in terms of determining what critical infrastructure was, ensuring it was listed, that it required foreign investment review by the FIRB, the Foreign Investment Review Board for assets right across the country. And the Treasurer has announced that we have made some decisions around further strengthening those requirements and those controls across the nation. It is very important, it's critical that we keep an eye on our national infrastructure, particularly the stuff that ties in with the nation's security; and that is electricity, it is very large water and infrastructure, and it is ports. Now, it's easy for Mr Albanese to come out and demand something happen, but once again, these are processes which occurred under the previous legislation and we're looking to ensure it can't happen in the future.
KATIE WOOLF: Well, I guess at the end of the day if the government was to take the port back then Landbridge would have to be- well, they'd have to be compensated, wouldn't they?
KEITH PITT: Well, I mean, they're decisions for the Territory Government. I'm not aware of any process that's underway, I'm certainly not aware of anything that's been put to the Commonwealth. It's a bit side out - a bit outside of my ministerial scope I've got to say, Katie - I'm Minister for Resources, Water and Northern Australia. But I know we are watching very closely in terms of investment, foreign investment in our country, and what those assets are that are critical to the Australian people. And of course, at the Commonwealth level, our first and foremost priority is security of the nation.
KATIE WOOLF: And how important is the Northern Territory, particularly the Top End, when you talk about the security of the nation?
KEITH PITT: Oh, well, you know, Darwin's a very important defence base, it's obviously well positioned in terms of our northern borders. There's significant investments and we've just announced some more - I think we spoke about this just a couple of weeks ago - in terms of defence investment into Darwin; that does help drive jobs, it does help ensure Australia's national security. And look, I'm very pleased with the support that all of our defence forces get when they're in the Territory, as it should be.
KATIE WOOLF: Well, Keith Pitt, the Minister for Northern Australia, we really appreciate your time this morning. I know that you are obviously in Federal Parliament today, so we appreciate you taking the time to have a quick chat with us.
KEITH PITT: Always great to catch up with Territorians.
KATIE WOOLF: Thank you. That is the Minister for Northern Australia there, Keith Pitt.