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Interview with ABC Radio NSW Statewide Drive

5 June 2020

Fiona Wylie

Subject: Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund and microgrid grants, foreign investment, and the HomeBuilder scheme.


FIONA WYLLIE: The Federal Government today announced phase one of the $50.4 million Regional and Remote Communities Reliability Fund. It's going to fund microgrid projects across the country. Now, a microgrid is a group of interconnected energy resources that acts as a single controllable entity and can operate in isolation or in connection to the grid. To talk to us further about what these are and where they're going to be, I've got the Energy Minister and Member for Hume, Angus Taylor on the line. Hello.

ANGUS TAYLOR: G'day Fiona.

FIONA WYLLIE: What was the temperature in Nimmitabel this morning? [Laughter]

ANGUS TAYLOR: I don't know but I can tell you in Goulburn, we had a hell of a frost. It was very white. We’ve got lambs outside who are running around in the frost, having a wonderful time. But it was cold.

FIONA WYLLIE: I saw a photo from Canberra of a black swan with all this white frost on it. Incredible.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah, it was it was a big frost. In fact, we've had two in a row now. So good introduction to winter.

FIONA WYLLIE: Yes indeed. Okay, tell us about these microgrid projects, where may they be in New South Wales?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Yeah. Look, there's 17 around Australia - three in New South Wales. This is the first round of, as you said, of a $50 million program. These are on the edge of the grid or off grid, and typically, they'll be in remote communities or agricultural businesses that are in regional areas. What we're seeing increasingly is the technology is improving to either go off-grid or largely off grid and create your own reliable energy source for either a residential use or commercial use in many cases. So one example, which is not too far from home, is at Nowra. We've got what one of your colleagues at another ABC station this morning called ‘poo power’, where dairy farmers who are using manure from their dairy operation to then power a bioenergy plant and use that then to run their dairies. And this is something – bioenergy - the technology is improving dramatically and very quickly and there's real potential to use this to bring down the cost of electricity for those businesses, avoid having to build long transmission lines to more remote or isolated areas, and also provide really secure supply of electricity. And in that particular case, also deal with a problem which dairy farmers have, which is what to do with all the manure.

FIONA WYLLIE: Well, the sugar mills have been doing that, haven't they, making their own power?

ANGUS TAYLOR: They have. Yes. They have for a long time. Up in Queensland, they use the-

FIONA WYLLIE: [Talks over] And Broadwater.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Leftover from the sugarcane to produce bioenergy in electricity plants and there's potential to do much more of that which we're constantly looking at.

FIONA WYLLIE: Okay. Are we going back to how we used to produce power by the local county council and people had hydro and different systems in place and just look after their local region?

ANGUS TAYLOR: No. Look, I mean, I think you'll have a mix of both and that's where we're heading to. You are seeing more local generation. I mean, every time someone put solar cells on the roof, they're doing local generation of course and that's almost one in four Australians now, Australian households. But at the same time, we still going to need the big grid. In suburban Sydney, for instance, is going to need a grid to support it. That's not going away anytime soon. But what we certainly are seeing in regional areas is more use of this localised microgrids or localised sources of energy. Farmers have understood this for a long while, where windmills, which were the traditional renewable source of energy for farmers to pump water, now are making way for solar cells for pumping and they're very, very widely used now in rural areas and very, very effective way to pump water. There are some of these projects that are focused on irrigation schemes and using solar for irrigation schemes.

FIONA WYLLIE: Minister, will you be prioritising projects in bushfire affected areas which have lost so much infrastructure?

ANGUS TAYLOR: Look, we're keen to do them where they make sense. If you look at the projects I just talked about, which are based out of Nowra - in fact, that's going to apply across a whole series of dairy farms right through the South Coast including fire-affected areas - so there's real opportunity to help out in those areas in that particular project. So we'll continue to look for projects like that, where, for one reason or another, there might have been damage to the grid and now's a good time for them to go off grid or to make use of local generation sources, and certainly that dairy project I mentioned is one where we're doing exactly that.

FIONA WYLLIE: And Minister, the Federal Treasurer has announced new national security measures to, as he says, aim to protect critical assets from falling into the wrong hands. Where does our energy resources fall into this? Will this affect ownership for any of our ports or anything else?

ANGUS TAYLOR: It certainly could affect who can buy them, Fiona, and this is the important point. We are tightening up the national security tests for foreign investors. So if it's a sensitive national security business, then regardless of the value of that business, it can be caught under the FIRB processes and it will have to demonstrate that there's not a national security risk. There's also a big focus here on compliance. We have seen in the past foreign companies have bought Australian businesses. They have had to make undertakings as to how they were going to avoid national security risks and act in our interest as an owner of those businesses. They haven't always complied with those things in the past. And so, we're tightening that up. There will be a much stronger focus on ensuring we have compliance where undertakings have been made. 

FIONA WYLLIE: So that 99-year lease that the Chinese have on our poles in New South Wales and wires, will that be looked at now?

ANGUS TAYLOR: It's hard to unwind acquisitions once they've been made, and that's the truth. We rely on foreign investment and it remains an important part of our economy and has been from the beginning. I mean, our wool industry got going right up front two centuries ago based on foreign investment. So it's an important part of what we need. On the other hand, when people make acquisitions, those acquisitions have to be in the national interest. And it's true, we've seen in the past some acquisitions made where there's been really serious questions asked because these laws weren't tight enough. So we are tightening them up.

FIONA WYLLIE: Has COVID-19 made people more aware of being sort of more nationalistic? Is this where it's come from?

ANGUS TAYLOR: I don't think it's a matter of being nationalistic. Certainly, there's been concerns with COVID-19 that foreigners might be able to buy assets cheaply and be acting against the national interest. I think though that one of the factors that really has had an impact in recent years is cybersecurity. As a former cybersecurity minister, I know how important this issue has become in recent years. You know, having a foreign national, a foreign power being able to manipulate really critical infrastructure in this country is not something any of us could want. That is something we've got to keep a very, very close eye on, and it's a really crucial national security issue. These laws are strengthening our national security framework to make sure it'll be much harder for that to occur in the future.

FIONA WYLLIE: And finally Minister, announcement yesterday about the renovation, a new home scheme, that's part of the Government's support of our economy. A lot of people critical that the criteria shuts out a lot of people. Maybe this should have all gone into social housing rather than people doing $150,000 plus renos. What have you been hearing around your electorate of Hume? Are people doing up their bathrooms and putting on another storey? 

ANGUS TAYLOR: Look, I've heard those points made and I understand them, but the point I would make is the overriding objective here is to create jobs and that is going to be an enormously important focus for the Government, should be for every level of government in the coming months and years, getting people into work and making sure every dollar of government spending is getting the maximum number of people into work. That's how this scheme is designed. For every dollar of government spending, $6 or much more in many cases of private sector spending, which is then employing tradies, manufacturing businesses, timber businesses, that whole supply chain in the construction industry that relies on a dollar of spending from someone who's building a home or doing up their home. So, that's got to be the focus, on getting people into work and keeping people in work, and that's certainly how this program has been designed.

FIONA WYLLIE: I know you've got to go but can I just quickly ask you, any chance of more grants for sustainable energy schemes for householders? You might have a window into that. Any money coming that way?

ANGUS TAYLOR: There's already much of this in place and the single biggest thing is that people mightn't realise is that when they put solar cells on their roof, roughly half of that cost is actually covered under a Federal Government scheme. So that's a really important contribution-

FIONA WYLLIE: And that's not stopping anytime soon? Because you see the ads saying: ‘Get in soon because it's going to go soon’.

ANGUS TAYLOR: No, no, no. Well, as the cost of solar cells is coming down, it does reduce because it can because what we're seeing is that the affordability of solar cells has improved so dramatically in recent years. But what it's doing is it is capping the cost of putting solar cells on your roof and that's one of the reasons why we have amongst the highest level of household solar penetration in the world, and that's not going away anytime soon.

FIONA WYLLIE: No insulation schemes?

ANGUS TAYLOR: No plan of insulation schemes as far as I know. No. That's not something on the horizon.

FIONA WYLLIE: Thank you very much for your time.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Thanks Fiona.