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RET: The energy to change

Brain Coral Bleaching

The Renewable Energy Target, or the ‘RET’ as it’s know to its friends, can easily come across as one of the more mundane aspects of the fight against climate change, but here's why it's not, writes Ed Butler.

There’s no real political bunfight about it (it has, incredibly enough, bipartisan support), it doesn’t have a catchy name or acronym, and it’s not a great big tax on anything. It’s the softly spoken older brother of the clean energy boom.

But, like that older brother who winds up leading the highschool Glee club, the RET is likely to be a vital tool in coming years if Australia is serious about taking on the climate crisis and spurring a clean energy revolution. The RET is, as its name implies, a target set by the federal government mandating that by the year 2020, 20 per cent of our electricity supply will be generated by renewable sources. Simple, really.

Not really. The RET is driven by ‘Renewable Energy Certificates’ (RECs), which retailers have to buy from generators in order to prove that they are using clean energy. The price of generating wind power is greater than the price of coal or gas, and the RECs are designed to ensure the wind providers can compete. The electricity retailers would never buy wind on its own. The RET ensures that they have to buy clean energy, and the RECs are proof that they did so.

Like that older brother who winds up leading the highschool Glee club, the RET is likely to be a vital tool in coming years if Australia is serious about taking on the climate crisis and spurring a clean energy revolution

This is vitally important if Australia is serious about reducing our emissions and solving the climate crisis. Critics of the RET claim that it is made redundant by the existence of the carbon price. In reality, the carbon price, while the largest and most visible part of Australia's efforts to reduce pollution, is only a part of our effort. And the reality is, while the carbon price starts low and slow, it won’t be high enough to drive renewable energy investment. Enter the RET.

The carbon price is intended to appropriately apply a cost to polluters to reflect the existing, unpriced, costs. At the same time, the RET, along with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), is designed to encourage the shift away from old, out-dated power generation to the inevitable clean energy phase.

The RET is not only a bipartisan method of allowing vital commercialised technologies to compete in a market where electricity is artificially cheap. In the coming clean energy revolution, it ensures that, irrespective of the various permutations that may emerge from international climate negotiations, or shifts in global carbon pricing, Australia will begin moving to a clean economy. 

And Australia is not alone in seeing the value in this target. Australia is joining countries like China, Brazil, the EU, Canada, Japan, Russia and major US states in implementing a Renewable Energy Target. Combined, these countries represent more than three quarters of global emissions.

Various interest groups are lining up to pressure the government into maintaining  – or even lowering – the existing target, in the pursuit of their own short-term profits

Right now, the government, advised by the Climate Change Authority, are considering whether or not to increase the target. Of course, various interest groups are lining up to pressure the government into maintaining  – or even lowering – the existing target, in the pursuit of their own short-term profits. 

However, should the Climate Change Authority do the right thing and expand the RET to allow CEFC projects to be considered above and beyond the 20 per cent target, Australia could create the equivalent of 73 big solar plants by 2030. If we don’t do this, we still get growth in renewables, but we don’t get as high and as fast as we could – in fact, we could miss out on a clean energy burst equivalent to 1,300 wind turbines. In all cases, the cost to consumers through higher electricity prices? Zero. 

Unfortunately, while our opponents’ voices were heard by the Authority in closed consultations on the issue, the views of Australians were not. So along with our colleagues at the AYCC and 100% Renewables, ACF ran the People's RET Review. This was a chance for concerned citizens to make their voices heard, and we took those voices to the Authority and the government. 

As we have seen in the recent American summer, the effects of climate change are getting worse. We're seeing weather on steroids, fuelled by rising sea and air temperatures, culminating in Hurricane Sandy.

The effects of climate change are getting worse. We're seeing weather on steroids, fuelled by rising sea and air temperatures, culminating in Hurricane Sandy

Over 5,000 members of the public spoke up. Over 90 per cent wanted a higher RET, 98 per cent wanted to set a 2030 target today, and wanted that target to be at least 50 per cent.

Climate change is driving more, and fiercer, extreme weather, and we're beginning to see the results. If Australia wants to avoid our own Hurricane Sandy, our efforts to curb emissions and move to clean energy must expand.

Pushing the RET to 60 per cent by 2030, rather than the arbitrary, but alliterative, 20 per cent by 2020, is a vital step in our fight against the growing threat of climate change-fuelled extreme weather. 

Image © Cveldstra/Flickr