By Tanya Plibersek

24 June 2024


MONDAY, 24 JUNE 2024


PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: The energy debate will go radioactive as Parliament sits this week, following the Opposition’s nuclear plan outlined last week. But the government says it is moving faster than ever on its renewables rollout, having greenlit 54 renewable projects in just over two years. Now, new data that’s going to be released from the federal Environment Department shows renewable approvals have got to record highs, outstripping coal and gas projects by seven to one. That’s Tanya Plibersek’s department. She’s the minister responsible for approvals and she’s our guest, and she’s in the warm embrace of the parliamentary building’s energy system. Welcome to the program.

TANYA PLIBERSEK, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER: It was a pretty chilly start to the day, Patricia.

KARVELAS: It is full-on. How many more approvals are in the pipeline right now?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, about 20 per cent of all of the projects that are before me for assessment are renewable energy projects, just over 20 per cent, and, of course, that’s record highs. If you have a look at what was happening under the previous government, on average, they were approving about 13 renewable energy projects a year and on average they were approving about 13 coal or gas projects a year. What we have seen under us is that we have doubled renewables to around 27 a year on average and the coal and gas projects have fallen to about three and a half on average each year. So, this is an illustration of what’s actually happening in the real world and it shows that the energy transition is already happening. It’s real and it’s already happening. You can see that with the addition of around 25 per cent more renewable energy in the national grid and you can see it with the projects that have already come before me for assessment and you can see it with what’s in the pipeline.

KARVELAS: Okay. We are now having a big debate about the future energy mix in this country. You have strongly rebuked the Coalition’s alternative, but has it had any impact thus far, given we are so close to an election, really, in terms of the cycle, to investment and do you expect it to?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, of course, it’s having an – do you mean does the nuclear fantasy stop the investment in renewables?


MINISTER PLIBERSEK: So, that’s the risk, of course, that the uncertainty – 

KARVELAS: You say that’s the risk, but we haven’t got any evidence of it yet.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ve only had a week’s worth of discussion about the seven reactors, but anybody in the energy sector will tell you that uncertainty kills investment and that’s the big danger here. Peter Dutton is saying that he might build reactors in 10, 15 or 20 years’ time. The risk is that business will factor that in and hold back on additional investment in renewables. So, of course, that’s a real risk.

KARVELAS: If that’s a real risk, is it a real risk that you have to factor in terms of what you see before you?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think what we need to do, Patricia, is explain to Australians that nuclear energy is expensive now and only becoming more expensive and renewable energy is already cheaper than nuclear and is becoming cheaper all the time. If you look at the scale of investment in renewables around the world – like, 20 years ago it took a year to add one gigawatt of solar energy to global energy. Some days last year, we were adding a gigawatt a day of solar energy globally. So, the scale of investment in renewables has just gone through the roof and you can see it in Australia as you can see it globally. The big danger is that Peter Dutton will distract and divert investment. And at the end of the day, he won’t tell Australians what this will cost, not in the building and not in energy prices once nuclear is built.

KARVELAS: That’s right. We don’t know the cost yet. The renewables targets still aren’t quite on track, though: 82 per cent by 2030 and it’s costing a lot of money. Do you concede that people are a bit frustrated at the rollout?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we’ve been in government for just two years and we have already increased renewable energy in the grid by 25 per cent. I think that is a pretty good start coming from 10 years of inaction by the previous government. They had 22 energy policies when they were in government. They didn’t land a single one. We’re being asked to believe that number 23 is a charm and that number 23 will work to bring down energy costs. It is fanciful. We are also dealing with the fact that the previous government was told that 24 coal‑fired power stations were closing. They were given closure dates and they did nothing in their decade in government to prepare for that closure and now we are expected to believe that this uncosted plan is the solution to – 

KARVELAS: If I can turn to your policy though, will you meet your target? You say you’re in striking distance. What needs to change to make sure that you meet your target?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I think we need to stick on course, and the big risk to being on course are these sorts of distractions from the Liberals and Nationals.

KARVELAS: And if it’s such a distraction, do you predict that it will have an actual consequence on what you see in terms of things before your desk? Is it inevitable?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I think that is something that the business community are saying very clearly – that they want certainty. They want certainty for investment. We can see with one in five projects in front of me in the assessment pipeline being renewable energy projects, there is no shortage of interest and demand from investors, and I think that’s an important point too. These are people prepared to put their own money on the table to build renewable energy projects. Peter Dutton knows that there is no interest from business in doing this because it is risky and it is expensive, so he’s saying taxpayers will foot the bill. But he won’t tell taxpayers what that bill is.

KARVELAS: Let’s go to bills, if you don’t mind, because bills are important. Peter Dutton says the government policy costs $1.2 trillion.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that is a joke. I mean, honestly.

KARVELAS: What does it cost?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: $121 billion. That’s the AEMO figure for what it will cost.

KARVELAS: $121 billion is the accurate figure.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, that’s what AEMO has calculated – the Australian Energy Market Operator has calculated. I think this is another example of misinformation from the Opposition. They are inflating the costs of the transition. They are inflating the figures like the kilometres of transmission lines and so on because they know that their proposal for nuclear energy is expensive and unattainable.

KARVELAS: New polling that no doubt you’ve seen in the Nine papers shows more people are willing to consider nuclear energy and 41 per cent of voters back it. That means many Australians are willing to consider the case for change, right?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Before they know the bill. Honestly, if we’re going to spend – today’s estimate is $600 billion on nuclear. How much will taxes have to go up to pay for that $600 billion investment? Would Australians rather see $600 billion spent on hospitals, roads and schools or on nuclear energy?

KARVELAS: Peter Dutton says Labor has a renewables-only policy.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: That’s nonsense again.

KARVELAS: Is that your policy? How would you describe it then?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Our policy is to maximise cheaper cleaner renewable energy in our grid, but we acknowledge our target is 82 per cent renewable energy. That’s still 18 per cent coming from elsewhere. We’ve made it clear that gas will have a role, particularly in the transition to more renewable energy.

KARVELAS: Right through to 2050?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we are hoping that green hydrogen is another energy source that will come onstream, but that’s not commercial at the moment. We are investing to make sure that it becomes commercial, but 82 per cent renewable energy is an incredible transformation in our energy grid.

KARVELAS: I’m going to put a question to you that’s come through from a listener who says, “If renewables are so cheap, why are my energy bills going up all the time?”

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, because we are only two years into the transition. So, we’ve seen a 25 per cent increase in renewables in the grid so far. We’re not at 82 per cent yet. But you only have to look – there’s so many examples around the world. If you have a look at Ontario and Quebec, neighbours in Canada, Ontario has nuclear. It’s got more expensive energy. Quebec is 96 per cent renewable. It’s got cheaper energy. There’s so many examples of that. There’s a reason that 330,000 Australians put solar panels on their roof last year. We’ve got more than three million Australian homes that have got solar panels on the roof not because it’s the more expensive, not because they’re all mad greenies. It’s because it brings down power bills.

KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister and my guest this morning. Minister, there are major concerns of a gas shortage on the east coast. Reports are saying it’s in part due to a slump in the output from wind power. Is that your understanding?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Oh, look, that’s really a question for Chris Bowen, the Energy Minister. But as we’ve said, we have a future gas strategy. It says that gas will be an important part of our energy mix for a time to come and that, of course, we still need gas for industrial uses as well. We want to be able to manufacture steel and cement and industrial chemicals here in Australia and gas is a really important part of those industrial processes.

KARVELAS: Consultancy group WattClarity says the yield from major wind farms across the National Electricity Market is the worst in the last five years. Is that your understanding?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, like I say, I’m the Environment Minister, not the Energy Minister so that’s a Chris Bowen question.

KARVELAS: Is Victoria at risk of running out of gas this winter?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Again, that’s a Chris Bowen question, not an environment approvals question. But we are very confident that with the gas reservations we have put in place, we have got sufficient gas.

KARVELAS: You’ve introduced laws to set up a national environment protection body as part of your promise to reform the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act but conservationists aren’t happy that you’re leaving half of these reforms to later. Have you got a deal with the Greens to get this through?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, our reforms to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act are in three parts. We passed the first tranche of laws at the end of last year when we established the Nature Repair Market and expanded what’s called the water trigger, which is the part of the environment laws that protects water sources from mining projects.

The second tranche of our legislation will establish, as you say, for the first time in Australia, a new environmental protection agency. It will significantly increase penalties for wrongdoing in the environment. It will provide the opportunity for stop-work orders under environmentally environmental laws. It will do a number of other really important things. That’s the second tranche of our laws, which are in the Parliament right now.

And then the third tranche of our laws we continue to consult on. This is a huge rewrite of our entire Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which runs to more than 1,000 pages, but it is very clear where we are going. Professor Graeme Samuel reviewed the legislation for the previous government. In response to that Samuel review, we put out our Nature Positive Plan, which goes into the detail of where we are headed, and where we’re headed is better environmental protections, more protection for nature and faster, clearer decisions for business.

KARVELAS: Environment Minister, thank you so much for your time this morning.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Thank you, Patricia.

KARVELAS: Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister. You’re listening to RN Breakfast.