Press conference - New England, NSW

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, thanks for coming. I’m delighted to be here to launch the first stage of what will be Australia’s largest solar farm. This is good news for the New England, it’s good news for energy consumers right across Australia, across our National Energy Market, this is good news for those who believe in reducing emissions.

Renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy available, and it is absolutely vital in our plans to reduce emissions in Australia by 43 per cent by 2030, to move our energy grid to 82 per cent renewables. And, importantly, the areas that have powered Australia for so long will power Australia into the future and increasingly that will be the New England.

I want to congratulate ACEN for the work it has done in community consultation, worked with traditional owners, worked with the landholders, worked with the community. I understand this project has strong community support, and that’s very important because we want to bring communities with us on this very important journey. We want to work with communities right across Australia, and that involves government, it involves the Renewable Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, it involves companies working very hard in genuine consultation.

So, as we are on this important national journey to reduce emissions, to introduce more of the cheapest form of energy – renewable energy – this is a good day. This solar farm when it’s fully up and running can power 250,000 Australian homes. And, importantly, it will include storage. Dispatchable renewable energy is the way of the future. Cynics, deniers and delayers say, “Well, the sun doesn’t always shine.” Well, that’s true, but with storage we can store renewable energy for when we need it. And that will be a very important part of this project.

Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Minister, this project has considerable social licence, but in the New England region there are a number of other projects that are dividing communities where neighbours won’t talk to each other. What is your government doing to allay this conflict of land?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, what we do is encourage best practice consultation. We do that through our commissioner, Andrew Dyer, who was involved in the early stages of this project. But all credit to ACEN and the company for having best practice engagement. That is what I expect of all renewable energy companies. Of course, every single renewable energy installation, just like everything else, has to go through the appropriate environmental approvals. What we’re also doing is reforming what’s known as the RIT-T process, the approval process for transmission, which is important. Again, transmission is absolutely vital for this transition. There’s no transition without transmission. But I want to bring communities with us.

Now, obviously that doesn’t mean that at the end of the day absolutely everybody is a bag fan of absolutely every project. It does mean that everybody gets their say, everybody gets their views genuinely considered and consulted upon and we continue on this very important national journey.

JOURNALIST: The gas shortfall that we’re being warned about now, what is your government doing to address that? 

CHRIS BOWEN: What we’re doing is continuing to work with our state and territory colleagues, a wide range of initiatives have been agreed unanimously between me and my state and territory colleagues giving AEMO, our market operator, more powers to direct gas into storage, to purchase gas when necessary, get more information and insight and, indeed, AEMO is the body that very appropriately issued this report today. It’s a standard report, it’s a statement of gas opportunities. It’s a standard and regular occurrence, just as the statement of electricity opportunities was last week.

What we’re also doing is ensuring that Australians get access to Australian gas at reasonable prices. This is Australian gas under Australian soil and Australian seas, and we think gas companies deserve reasonable profits. They don’t deserve profits which are exorbitant and be able to charge Australians prices that are exorbitant. And we continue to work that through the mandatory code, and I’ll have more to say about that in the coming weeks. That will be very important.

Finally, of course, we are – as I’ve said repeatedly in the currently negotiations in the Parliament – reminding the Parliament that it would be irresponsible to rule out new gas when we have this important transition underway and gas is an important and vital underpinning because it’s so flexible of our transition to 82 per cent renewables.

JOURNALIST: Can you assure households across Australia there won’t be a gas shortfall this winter?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, the good thing about the statement of gas opportunities is that it, quite appropriately, sends the signals to governments of all persuasions and levels and the private sector about where the investment opportunities in gas. Now, if you read the report carefully and totally, you’ll see that in the short term they are concerned about very short-term shortages on particular days, extreme days. But they point out more particularly that by 2027 there’s a broader problem. That’s why it’s important to get the settings right now, for governments of all persuasions to work together to ensure that gas, which is a vital underpinning of our renewable energy system and it’s also important for feedstock for manufacturers and direct energy for many manufacturers, we have an appropriate level of supply.

JOURNALIST: Do you consider the government’s price caps are stymieing the investment that’s needed, and do you need to reconsider getting rid of the permanent reasonable price cap because they’re causing investor damage? 

CHRIS BOWEN: I absolutely reject the argument that the price cap at $12 would in any way influence supply. 96 per cent of gas was sold for less than $12 pre-2022. It’s a price at which you could make a perfectly reasonable return. And, of course, we have special arrangements in place for potential new supply.

In relation to the management code of conduct, the ACCC and my department are working very, very closely together, and I’ll have more to say about the appropriate design elements, as we’ve previously said, in coming weeks.

JOURNALIST: A lot of people in this region don’t want gas. What do you say to them?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, it depends what you mean by don’t want gas.

JOURNALIST: Don’t want gas projects under their land.

CHRIS BOWEN: I understand. Well, again, that goes to in importance of community consultation, which is a very contested space obviously where everybody’s views, particularly communities where proposals are live should be considered. As I said, we’re going to take our energy systems to renewables to 82 per cent by 2030. That means 18 per cent will still be traditional forms of energy in 2030. That’s up from around 30 per cent today. So that’s a massive lift in 82 months – 82 per cent in 82 months. That’s a huge national task. We’ll do it, but it’s a big lift. 

It still means 18 per cent will come from traditional forms, primarily obviously coal and gas. Coal will increasingly leave the system. That means out of that 18 per cent remaining that increasingly gets focused on gas. We need to ensure we have supply. But in terms of community consultation, it is very important that communities have a stake in the decision-making.

JOURNALIST: How does the need for more gas in Australia align with our country’s climate targets?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, it aligns in terms of our ambition to reduce our emissions by 43 per cent and have a flexible form of firming and peaking to underpin the 82 per cent renewables, which is key to getting to our 43 per cent emissions reduction target. I mean, we’ve lifted the country’s emission reduction target from 26 per cent to 43 per cent in our first months in office. And now, importantly, we’re getting on with the job of doing it through our safeguard reforms, through rewiring the nation, through the other initiatives we have, the work on electric vehicles and the national electric vehicle tax cut we’ve already implemented. All this is part of it.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned the number of medium and long-term strategies to sure up gas supply. But what do you say to people to need to heat their homes this winter?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, we’ll also got short-term plans. I mean, that’s why what’s been agreed between State and Territory Ministers and I, they’re the powers that we’re giving AEMO to increase storage in the short term so that that’s available for peak periods. That’s not a long-term plan, that’s a short-term plan.

JOURNALIST: The new owner of Vales Point power station says they won’t commit to closing the station in 2029. How real is the threat of energy shortages, and with Liddell also closing next month what does this mean for net zero by 2030?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, Liddell closure was announced many years ago under the previous government. There’s been a big uptake in renewable energy dispatchable renewable energy, since then. Most particularly last year, 2022, and most particularly post May – up 50 per cent. I have been briefed by AEMO, the Australian Energy Market Operator, on the impact of the closure and they assure me that enough dispatchable energy is in the system so the closure of Liddell can be sustained in the system.

JOURNALIST: In the transition to renewable energy 10,000 jobs will be lost a year. What’s your plan for that?

CHRIS BOWEN: Our plan is to create a lot more new jobs – a lot more new jobs. 600,000 jobs across the country. And five out of six of those in the regions, because renewable energy being the cheapest form of energy is good for job creation. That’s the plan. Most of those in the regions because – look around you – it’s the regions that will power Australia and will help us become a renewable energy export powerhouse creating not just our own renewable energy but jobs and investment creating renewable energy for the world.

JOURNALIST: On gas would it be easier to pull the gas trigger now and give the government power to intervene in gas exports?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, you can’t pull the trigger without the process occurring. There’s two steps there. Minister King has outlined what steps she has taken. She’s also outlined on behalf of the government what reforms we might contemplate so that it becomes more fit for purpose. The gas trigger was designed for a particular purpose, which is not the circumstance we’re facing now.

JOURNALIST: AEMO has flagged homes and businesses on the eastern seaboard are in danger of shortages by 2027 with the closure of all these plants. What will plug the gap?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, with respect, the AEMO report is not relating to the closure of anything, it’s relating to gas needs for existing facilities, as I’ve outlined. That’s why it’s important that we don’t ban new gas. That’s why it’s important, as we’ve said, in terms of our safeguard negotiations. That’s why it’s important we work to ensure that while we move to net zero we have the flexibility in the system that keeps the lights on. That’s exactly what our government’s policies will achieve. Anything else? All done?

JOURNALIST: I’ve got one more. I’m just wondering, so you said there’s going to be enough jobs, but you need 400 jobs to construct this, but then there’s only like 30 or 40 that continue on a farm like this. So how would that work?

CHRIS BOWEN: That’s one particular installation. And I know – I mean, the company can brief you on all the ongoing jobs, but that’s part of the ecosystem. It’s part of the infrastructure. It creates jobs down the line in storage and in due course with the capacity of our National Reconstruction Fund in manufacturing. I mean, we put 60 million solar panels on roofs in Australia in the last 10 years. 1 per cent of them have been made here – 1 per cent. I want to see Australian manufacturing solar panels so that many more of the solar panels we put on our roofs and in farms like this are made in our country. That’s what our National Reconstruction Fund is all about. That’s why it’s important it passes the Parliament next week because that will create thousands of jobs right across Australia.

JOURNALIST: Is there someone from ACEN at all that can speak?

JOURNALIST: Can I ask one more question, Minister?

CHRIS BOWEN: One more and I think there’s a tight time frame. One more.

JOURNALIST: Paul Keating has attacked your government yesterday and many of your colleagues personally over the AUKUS deal. Are his criticisms valid and do his views represent the broader movement within the Labor Government?

CHRIS BOWEN: Well, of course Paul Keating is, you know, one of the most important commentators we have in our country as the architect of our economic renaissance over the last three decades. He’s a very close friend of mine for many, many years. No surprises there – that’s a matter of public record. Our government has, however, acted in the national interest, taken all the relevant advice, and that is a decision with the full support of the cabinet, absolutely the full support of the cabinet, as you would expect for such a decision.

JOURNALIST: Can you just introduce yourself and your role in the project?

ANTON ROHNER: Certainly. My name is Anton Rohner, I’m the CEO of ACEN Australia. We’ve been on site developing this project for over five and a half years and have involved the community, Traditional Owners and the local landholders and people that want jobs for a long time.

JOURNALIST: There’s a stage 2 to this project. Do you have the capital in place to ensure that goes ahead?

ANTON ROHNER, CEO ACEN Australia: Yeah, absolutely. I think we are part of the ACEN group, which is a large conglomerate based in the Philippines. We have the capital ability to invest the extra 320 megawatts AC of solar, and we’re looking to get to financial investment decision later this year. We’re just corralling the appropriate contracts into place and making sure we have the appropriate panels, the right environmental approvals and infrastructure in place.

JOURNALIST: Obviously you’d have some considerable social licence for this project, but one of the post-construction complaints has been a disturbance of natural housing in the area, so people who live here can’t afford to rent anymore. Would you in stage 2 think about your own housing for the project?

ANTON ROHNER: That’s a really good question. We haven’t had too much of that feedback to be clear. But we accept it. One thing that’s evident is we haven’t just used people from Uralla. 80 per cent of the 450 employed have been from the New England region. So, we have used the Armidale and Tamworth areas for accommodation also. And we’ll be looking to continue that.

JOURNALIST: How much of the energy produced here goes into storage that you have?

ANTON ROHNER: Yeah, so the batteries will be taking approximately 50 megawatts. Most of it is exported to the grid, as is we actually make the energy. The first stage is 400 megawatts. But importantly, we have the ability to expand that battery to a much larger size into the future. So, we can store pretty much close to 200 megawatts for 3 to 4 hours at the very long-term stage.

JOURNALIST: Can you explain how it goes from the panels into the grid?

ANTON ROHNER: We could be here for a couple of hours, and I’m not sure whether you did science at school – I didn’t do it very well. But at the end of the day the panels go through what’s called these inverters, and they convert it from a DC to an AC. It gets sent to that substation and from the substation it gets put on to the grid. And the grid goes between New South Wales and Queensland. So it’s part of the National Electricity Market. And that’s a really, really short version.

JOURNALIST: Can you just say where we’re up to and what’s going to happen next with the project?

ANTON ROHNER: Yeah, sure. So what we are, we’re going through the commissioning process as we speak. We have put up close to 300 megawatts of panels. We are commissioning at this point in time we are approximately 100 megawatts today and we go through separate hold points which protects the grid but also protects our systems. And it’s very important to do that. And over the next couple of months, you’ll see us ramping up to full production over the next four to five months. Importantly, we will then be looking to go into stage 2 and start construction on that later this year.

JOURNALIST: And so how many jobs are going to be ongoing for people in this region?

ANTON ROHNER: I think – well, remember there was no jobs for energy in this region. And I think as Adam Marshall point out, there was none in this region, unless you’re talking the Hunter, which is a different group. We expect approximately 20 direct jobs over the 30 years. And that will obviously increase when we have Stage 2 working also. And then working in this area there’ll be more than just us. So I think you’ll see a large renewable energy zone created and much more jobs long term created. And these are just direct jobs; these aren’t the contractors’ jobs. We have all the subcontractors working for us, all this fencing, and we also have a lot of traditional owners working on our lands also.

JOURNALIST: So you also said that you’re going to be working with Aboriginal People. How do you go about that?

ANTON ROHNER: Well, I’ll think you’ll hear the welcome to country will explain that in detail. But effectively we were able to help them discover some important sites on the land and we’ve been able to help and assist them gain access to those sites. And they have now [indistinct] back to the country with those sites. And I think that’s more for the Traditional Owners to explain as part of the welcome to country, and I think you’ll find that fascinating.

JOURNALIST: Thank you.

CHRIS BOWEN: Thanks very much.