Tim O'Loughlin, Commissioner for Renewable Energy, South Australia.

Clare Saxon Ghauri
Reading time: 6 minutes
26 September 2012

This interview with Tim O'Loughlin, Commissioner for Renewable Energy, South Australia is part of our Clean Revolution case study series. Read the South Australia case study.

  • At the federal level Australia was seen as something of a climate laggard for much of the past decade. In this environment, what enabled the South Australian government to set more ambitious climate targets?

To some extent, there was a need to fill a vacuum. More importantly, we were in the middle of refocusing the economy in new directions. Providing a broader context in which responding to climate change presented investment-attraction and reputational opportunities made obvious sense.

  • What are the main challenges to meeting South Australia’s targets, particularly those set for 2020?

The problem with achieving targets is that you cannot control many of the variables. It is therefore important to get the targets right in the first place. In particular, you need to have sufficient control over the variables to be able to form a judgment on whether you have succeeded or failed. For instance, last year Premier Rann announced the concept of capping the carbon intensity of new electricity generation. That is plainly something which is in our orbit of control.

  • What were the drivers in setting the state’s revised renewable energy target of 33%?

The fundamental driver for setting the 33% target was the need to achieve an outcome which is comparable with leading practice internationally. This is not as easy as it seems. Australia does not really have an integrated electricity grid. It is more a cobbling together of individual state grids joined by relatively low-capacity interconnectors. In this respect, our situation is more comparable with the US than Europe. However, we have set a target in line with that allocated to the UK by the European Commission. This is a tougher target than all but a small number of US states. We commissioned some technical modeling, which showed it was achievable but a stretch.

  • What actions has the South Australian government taken to ensure business and public support for its ambitious climate agenda?

Individual, voluntary sector agreements are the vanguard of our efforts to bring business and the community with us, requiring both parties to make significant commitments to tackling climate change. The Government has 15 such agreements at present, covering individual industries such as wine and cement, as well as other sectors sectors including the Technology Industry Association. Several more are in the pipeline.

  • What would you say are the three most critical things for a sub-national government [or political leader] in achieving a Clean Revolution?

The most critical task is assisting with capital formation. Many of the investments that work commercially cannot attract funds due to the lack of experience with the technologies and other market failures in information provision. State Governments can use their standing as well as their purchasing power to help overcome these failures. Another critical task is to have a regulatory regime which anticipates the Clean Revolution rather than responding to it. Third, state governments can help out in small scale commercial demonstration. This link in the chain is frequently overlooked and it often requires support that states are best placed to provide. For example, wave power developers need access to coastlines which are near to power lines and roads.

  • What leadership lessons has the government learned from its experience to date, including with respect to the implementation of the Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act 2007?

Some of the key leadership lessons have been to move early and to work in partnership with industry and the community. For example moving early in preparing our planning system for wind power has been a key reason for attracting more than US$ 2 billion in investment in wind farms, almost half of Australia’s total investment.

We have also achieved significant investment into geothermal exploration. We are not the only state with geothermal resources but we were the first to put in place a regulatory framework specifically tailored to the needs of that industry.

The same story has repeated itself in domestic-scale solar panels. Our decision to introduce Australia’s first feed-in scheme acted as a spur to that industry so that we have a higher proportion of households with solar panels than any other state. Renewable energy projects are going ahead and delivering results, not simply because South Australia has better wind profiles, hot rocks or sun than other Australian jurisdictions. It is through our preparedness to work with industries and change our regulatory process to provide greater consistency, transparency and investment certainty that we are recognized as a leader and jurisdiction of choice.

The Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act also has a particular emphasis on working in partnership with industry and the community.

  • Outside of expanding renewable energy, what are the other critical low carbon areas for South Australia over the next decade?

Energy efficiency is too often referred to as a glib palliative. Behind it lies some serious opportunities. Consumers around the world have become more conscious of energy prices, creating a wealth of opportunity for technical innovation. This form of innovation can be both capital and labor intensive and regions that support it will attract more than their fair share of investment and jobs. The same goes for adaptation. States are even better placed to support and profit from supporting adaptation research and policy development because it cuts across so many areas in which they are active.

  • What specific experience or knowledge would you share with other state and regional government leaders who want to implement ambitious climate actions?

We are always looking to learn from others. My interest is in finding regions facing similar issues to ourselves: for example, managing high levels of intermittent renewable energy within a constrained transmission grid; or developing new approaches to building-and land-use-planning policy in a city that is not areas but there is a danger of becoming too isolationist and thinking of our challenges as unique. All regions are different but success in one region can usually be replicated in others.

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