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Interview with Michael Condon, ABC Radio NSW Country Hour

11 June 2020

Michael Condon

Subject: Farming and emissions abatement, soil carbon, Emissions Reduction Fund, Climate Solutions Fund, renewable energy, micro-grids, hydrogen.


MICHAEL CONDON: Angus Taylor, the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, says the Government is always open to new ideas but he's not committing to any more new money for such a climate package. He says that the elements on the climate action wish-list are already being supported by the Government.

ANGUS TAYLOR: We're always open to good ideas, and more importantly we're very much in favour of the role that regional areas and farmers can play in abatement and emissions reduction. That's already happening on a very significant scale. For example, in the last year we've seen $94 million paid out from the Emissions Reduction Fund in regional and rural areas, and indeed across all of our abatement, the Clean Energy Regulator tells us that about 82 per cent is occurring in regional and rural Australia so there's no doubt it's playing a very big role. As we transition from the Emissions Reduction Fund to the $2 billion Climate Solutions Fund we see much greater potential for agriculture to play a big role. We know when a farmer increases their soil carbon levels, not only do they improve the productivity of their soil particularly for pasture production for livestock, but they also reduce or abate carbon. So, there's great potential here. We are seeking to harness it and we're looking forward to working with our regional communities and farmers to do exactly that.

MICHAEL CONDON: Soil carbon is one element of the story, but in this plan from Farmers for Climate Action they talk about attracting large scale investment in things like renewables, wind power, solar power, and maybe even hydro power. That doesn't seem to be something that the Government is focusing on as its number one priority if you're looking at soil carbon and emission reduction in other areas.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, Michael, it's already happening. I mean, in the year 2019 we saw $9 billion of investment in renewables in this country, much of which was in regional areas. So we're seeing massive investment, and that's continuing this year. We're seeing a similar rate of investment in the first quarter of this year - it's going very fast - and as I say, much of that is in regional areas. We do need though to decarbonise across the areas outside of the electricity grid which is why technologies like hydrogen, which has great potential in regional areas, dispatchable energy that can be used for industrial processes as well, and soil carbon offer enormous potential. The great virtue, as I say, of soil carbon is it doesn't just abate emissions or abate carbon, it drives up productivity on farm and improves our soils, and there's great potential as farmers understand only too well to do more of that.

MICHAEL CONDON: The other issue, though, they have raised is decentralising or changing the power grid to allow more power to come from these renewable, you know, wind and solar in regional areas to go back into the grid rather than just sort of being a one way like they are from the current power stations. Would you be in favour of that? Are you keen to see some more investment in that?

ANGUS TAYLOR: We're already seeing it. As I said we saw $9 billion last year, and that's going into the grid - there's no question about that. Of course farmers are also pioneers in fringe of grid activity and we've just committed $50 million - the first round of a $50 million fund for micro grids. And, you know, we've seen micro grids from farmers for decades now. In fact, the old Southern Cross windmill was a kind of micro grid, renewable micro grid. We're seeing that more and more now across broader areas, and we'll continue to see that for many years to come. We're very committed to it. As I say, the investment in renewables is happening at a rapid rate now. Our challenge is to broaden that, and make sure that's integrated into the grid in a sensible way - that we've got enough dispensable power as well, which is why hydrogen is so important. I think farmers and regional communities will continue to have an important role to play in all of that.

MICHAEL CONDON: But Farmers for Climate Action also say there's too much reliance on coal, steel, and gas - is the other one really - and they're saying that they're only sort of short-term, short gap measures and that they're not really reducing carbon enough as some of the other renewables are.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well we're reducing carbon in our electricity grid faster than almost any other country in the world. So it is coming down very very quickly, there's no question about that.

MICHAEL CONDON: Well, what about the $1.8 billion? Is that going to be spent though? Because that's what they've asked for.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we're always open to good ideas, but the point I would make is we have very significant investments that can be tapped into today. So when you look at the financing that the Clean Energy Finance Corporation is providing, or ARENA, or indeed the Emissions Reduction Fund which is moving to the Climate Solutions Fund - $2 billion fund - they are there to be tapped into. We're looking for good projects. We've already seen many projects, carbon farming projects for instance, being registered under the Emissions Reduction Fund. We want to see many more as we move to the Climate Solutions Fund. So you know, we're looking forward to working with our regional communities and farmers using those funding sources that are there, and we look forward to also working with those communities on how we can fine tune the methodologies and the approaches we're taking within those funding sources.

MICHAEL CONDON: So what about increasing subsidies for renewables? Or you would prefer to see it happen as a free market?

ANGUS TAYLOR: The truth is we are seeing now with the subsidies in decline - which is part of the program that was put in place many years ago - continued very fast investment in renewables. So you know, the real challenge for us now, as I said, is to have enough dispatchable power and to decarbonise outside of the electricity grid as well, which is why what's happening on farms, in manufacturing, in transport is now crucially important.

MICHAEL CONDON: The other issue they say is we're missing out on some 15,000 or maybe even 16,000 jobs in renewable energy by 2030, and they say we really need to ramp it up to make, you know, make use of those jobs or create those jobs in regional areas.

ANGUS TAYLOR: Well, we're seeing one of the fastest investment rates in the world. It's difficult to go much faster than that. And integrating it is a challenge, as I say, which is why it's so important we have those dispatchable energy sources alongside the solar and wind. That needs to be a focus of policymakers. It is a focus of the Government, obviously. And that will create great opportunities. I mean hydrogen, which is a very significant focus for the Government - we've established the National Hydrogen Strategy and significant funding sources behind that from ARENA and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation - it will rely heavily on cooperation from regional areas to make that work.