I’m a strong supporter of renewable energy and the benefits the transition to renewables could bring to regional Australia. The member for Higgins has highlighted some of the government’s work on climate change and energy. However, if the government is to meet its own targets and decarbonise the economy, it must do more to bring the whole nation along on the decarbonisation journey. Australia does have the best renewable energy resources in the world, and the transition to renewable electricity is underway in the regions. In my electorate of Indi, a trip up the Hume Highway from Melbourne to Wodonga will take you past grid-scale solar projects near Glenrowan and Winton.
As a regional Independent, I want my local communities, and others like them in regional, rural, and remote Australia, to benefit—to truly benefit—from hosting these large-scale, mostly foreign owned renewable energy developments. This must be a win-win situation. Through job creation, skills development and co-investment, locally generated power could, and should, be driving money into our local regional economies and reducing power bills now and long into the future.
Landholders and farmers, understandably, have questions about the benefits and the impacts of proposed projects close to where they live. Yet their questions and inquiries are too often dismissed as objections to projects and progress, and that’s not fair to them. A question becomes an objection if it’s not listened to. Regional people are practical, resilient people who look for sensible solutions to new challenges. Regional communities deserve to be consulted early and honestly, to have their concerns listened to and to be provided with options to capitalise on these long-term benefits that can be realised with the renewables boom—a boom that’s happening at their farm gate and, in many instances, inside their farm gate.
The failure to properly consult with regional communities affected by large-scale renewable energy projects risks delaying or, indeed, derailing the transition to a decarbonised energy grid. Project developers would do well to listen to the concerns of local people, and I’m pleased that the government is waking up to this. In September, I joined Indi locals from Meadow Creek, the Strathbogie Ranges, Barnawartha and beyond as they had their say about renewable energy projects proposed near to where they live in the electorate of Indi.
The Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, Professor Andrew Dyer, visited Indi to conduct three roundtables as part of his community engagement review. The review was established to advise on how best to engage with communities about future renewable energy and transmission projects. Independent senator David Pocock and I worked closely with the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Minister Chris Bowen, to put the interests of regional Australians front and centre in this review, ensuring that the terms of reference would properly cover both the opportunities and the challenges being faced across regional, rural and remote Australia. The review is considering issues I know are important to regional communities, such as the impact of projects on agricultural land, emergency management and fire risks and the possible increases in landholder insurance premiums.
My communities are telling me about these issues, and what they’re also telling me is that community consultation by project developers has been disappointing to date.
This is what we need: (1) assurances that renewable energy project developments do not adversely impact the availability or affordability of insurance for neighbouring landholders; (2) land not suitable for renewable energy infrastructure development being clearly mapped, including land that has high agricultural value or fragile ecosystems or is in a high-risk natural disaster zone; (3) community engagement guidelines that require developers to broadly engage local communities early and honestly, with genuine avenues for addressing community concerns; and (4) a requirement that all new large-scale renewable energy projects offer at least 20 per cent of project equity to local investors in a community and co-investment funding round before final planning approval can be granted.
These are sensible, practical measures grounded in the knowledge and lived experience of farmers and regional Australians. The commissioner’s report for the Community Engagement Review is due very soon, and, if the government is serious about successfully transitioning to renewable energy, they must carefully consider and respond to the voices of regional Australians who deserve to be consulted earlier and to have a share in the economic benefits of the renewable energy boom.