Debate on national green power target

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The pledge by Australia's prime minister John Howard for a 2% increase in the use of renewables by 2010 is shaping up to be more than a token gesture. A federal government discussion paper is calling for A$10 billion to be invested in new energy sources to produce 9000 GWh of power. Even a small increase in the use of renewables, which are thought to provide about 10% of total consumption, can potentially create a substantial new market for clean power technologies in just a decade.

At the Kyoto climate change summit, Australia was one of the few countries which won permission to increase emissions. Nonetheless, Howard seems determined to green electricity supplies. He is facing a tough task. The federal government has no power to legislate within the energy market and some states such as Queensland and Victoria are opposing the 2% proposal. Meantime, determining what qualifies as renewable energy will potentially solve much of the current debate between industry and government.

Queensland is pushing to include coal seam methane, a natural gas derived from coal mines which the state has in plentiful supply. But this is not a renewable source argues Andrew Durran of the New South Wales Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA). Environmentalists also debate the classification of large scale hydro as renewable; and electricity retailers have complained that hydro-rich Tasmania will create an unfair economic imbalance in the market. To solve this inequity, measures such as regional electricity pools and trading in renewable credits are being considered.

The debate has also focused on extra costs of buying electricity from renewable sources. Industry estimates have ranged from A$1.5 billion to A$5 billion, depending on which side the numbers are coming from. Durran estimates the extra cost to a household will be A$5-8 a year. No one will notice it, he says, particularly in view of the estimated savings from deregulation of the Australian electricity industry.

There has been considerable debate on how to force the industry to comply with legislation demanding that power marketers buy green power, such as the Green Power program introduced in New South Wales (NSW). Anna Selleh of the Australian Consumers Association has criticised the license conditions on retailers to limit greenhouse gas emissions in NSW, calling them "slippery."

In the long term, the process of designing a fair and achievable target for renewables may be simply academic. Consumer demand for clean energy is growing, comments Neil Gordon from NSW electricity retailer energyAustralia. Both business and license compliance activities will take energyAustralia well beyond a renewables target before it is in force.

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