National Infrastructure Awards, Sydney, 27 April 2023
Anna Collyer, Chair AEMC
*check against delivery
Let me also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land where we are meeting tonight, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. It’s even more important that we recognise all first nations people in Australia, when so much of the work of the energy and infrastructure sectors occurs on their custodial lands.
Thank you very much Rob for the introduction, and to Adrian, Sir Rod, and the rest of the Infrastructure Partnerships Australia team for maintaining this wonderful event.
I’m very excited to see the results of the awards tonight and I congratulate every one of the finalists – to be included on this program is itself an enormous achievement.
In the 1800s, English regulators faced a big problem with technological change.
There was a growing demand for motorised vehicles, which meant, among other things, replacing the inherently good sense of horses with the obviously poor judgement of humans.
Horses were the AI, sat-nav, speed-limiter and rechargeable battery of 19th-century road transport.
Humans knew a lot about what made horses go, why they might stop, what breeds best suited what purposes, and what their capacity was for the transport and energy tasks we set for them.
But, at that time, humans knew very little about how humans might behave in the new technology of horseless carriages. And so, as a regulatory response, the Red Flag Act was born.
Among other things, the Red Flag Act limited motor vehicles to two miles per hour in a city, when a bicycle could do 10.
Two mechanics had to travel with the car, and a man with a red flag had to walk 60 yards ahead of the vehicle, both to warn other road users and to send back signals to the car about any traffic in front.
Officials at the time noted that a consequence of the Red Flag Act was to kill off investor interest in developing the market for horseless carriages.
Regulatory efforts to manage the change had effectively blocked all the real advantages of the technology.
By the late 1890s most jurisdictions with Red Flag rules in the UK and America had softened or repealed them, and so here we are today: with horses mostly relegated to recreational pursuits, and driverless trains and cars perhaps poised to finally remove those pesky humans from the equation altogether.
The present tense
We’ve all learned a lot of lessons about accepting the pace of technological change since then.
Where I sit as an energy sector regulator, we also like to think we’ve learned a lot about the ways regulation can enable change safely and fairly, without applying red flags.
Nothing, however, could prepare anyone in our sector for the place we find ourselves now: in the thick of a planetary technological, industrial and social transformation.
Australia’s agreement to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is behind us. There is unprecedented alignment between Australian governments to meet that target, replace fossil fuels, reduce emissions, and slow global warming.
We’re no longer anticipating the energy transition. We’re in it, in the present tense. And it can be an untidy stage - a place of extreme innovation and equally extreme uncertainty.
As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in Wonderland, if you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter which road you take.
Well, we do know, now, where we are going.
While the targets are ambitious, their existence allows us to define the very problems that might stop us from achieving them, and that helps us to think differently about what roads we need to take.
Energy and opportunity
Energy has always been a significant part of the economy, but what happens in the energy sector doesn’t stay there anymore.
The energy transformation represents a crucial focus for us all:
- Firstly – because it is by far the largest contributor to carbon emissions. Around 75% of all emissions come from the fossil fuels the world burns for electricity – it’s a global no-brainer to prioritise energy emissions.
- Secondly – because we already know what to do to fix it. Compared to the complexity of, say, embedded carbon in construction or methane from livestock, the way ahead in energy is relatively clear: more renewables, more firming, more transmission.
- And thirdly – if we in the energy sector do our job and decarbonise the power network, we make it easier for everyone else to reduce emissions by electrifying as much as possible.
Along the way, the energy transformation is creating extraordinary, once-in-a-generation opportunities for builders and investors to participate.
And you are stepping up. In the next 5 years, energy projects will jump from 20% now to 70% of Australia’s infrastructure pipeline. There are various projections for the total spend to shifting Australia to a renewable, reliable system by 2050. The figure our economists are standing by is $274 billion, both public and private funding.
In this rapidly changing period it might feel safer to sit back and wait for clearer opportunities to come.
But as Albert Einstein said: Imagination is more important than knowledge.
With nearly $300 billion at play, the time is right for imagination to find opportunity to build knowledge and innovate.
Scale of transition
I’ll talk tonight about some of the issues that might be holding us back – social licence, workforce and investment confidence.
But first, I’d like to spend a moment on the sheer scale of the transformation work ahead.
At last year’s oration, to demonstrate the magnitude, Dr Alan Finkel coined a new unit of energy measurement.
Far beyond kilowatts and gigawatts, he called this unit the ozziewatt, where one ozziewatt represents a year’s worth of electricity generated in Australia.
To replace fossil fuels, we need to generate three annual ozziewatt hours pretty much entirely from solar and wind. Renewables last year represented about 15 minutes of an ozziewatt hour, which meant a 12-fold increase was required.
Alan also factored in Australia becoming a green hydrogen superpower by 2050 – and since making energy takes energy – we would need a system capable of generating a massive 25 ozziewatt hours of power – in just over 25 years.
But the payoff, in his dream scenario is that
- electricity would be cheap for everyone,
- manufacturing would thrive on smart energy and smart exports,
- and little children would be told stories about the bad old days when there used to be power blackouts.
Only 12 months later, I’d say that, fortunately, we’re heading towards Alan’s dream scenario. In just one year, that 15-minute portion of renewable energy in an ozziewatt hour has grown to 20 minutes.
So, we’re already down from a factor of 12 to only nine-times the increase, to meet our renewables target.
It’s still a challenge, but already, and increasingly, more achievable.
And while he was cautious about reliance on batteries last year, Alan in his words is now a ‘battery groupie’.
If you know Alan, you know that’s an evidence-based epiphany! He wrote to us last week about improvements in batteries based on private and public investment here and overseas, and he said:
“Now, I would be surprised if anything will compete with batteries for short and medium- duration storage (up to 12 hours) and, in future, it might be batteries and nothing else, all the way out to 24 hours.”
As he goes on to say, the boom in battery availability might substantially influence our understanding of where we need new poles and wires.
Efficient, grid-scale batteries, placed close to renewable generation, may speed up the transmission build by concentrating efforts and reducing distances.
And that means sending renewable energy into the grid, faster and more flexibly and reliably, which will be good news for all of us. When I look at other advances since his 2022 oration, there are too many encouraging examples to list – here are just a few that point to an accelerating pace:
- EVs outsold petrol in Australia’s medium car category in the first quarter of this year, even ahead of the recent government paper on emissions and Sydney has just switched on the country’s first power pole EV charger, in Glebe.
- China doubled its solar installations in 2022 to 414 GW. It’s a great leap forward of another kind: they now claim nearly 50% of the world’s solar capacity.
- Every week there’s another innovative storage announcement. Apart from continuing improvements to lithium batteries, others are emerging with compositions ranging from salt to timber to single cell organisms
- Victoria has launched Australia’s first major offshore wind zone, set to increase that state’s renewable energy generation by 500%.
- Australia’s first green hydrogen microgrid opened this February in Denham, WA, and just down the road from here tonight, Barangaroo South recently became our first carbon-neutral city suburb, thanks to technologies including maggot farms run with AI and robotics.
The how is hard
I’m an optimist by nature – perhaps not all of you will share my enthusiasm for the significance of these individual achievements.
I’m certainly not underestimating the challenges ahead, but whether you’re part of the energy sector or not, I’m sure you’ve all got examples of dreams that were called impossible – until they weren’t.
As another surprisingly serious builder - Dolly Parton - once said: Some of my dreams are so big they would scare you.
So think back, to other times when imagination has met with opportunity.
I’m reliably informed that if you’d been in this room 15 years ago proposing a single-deck, fully automated, turn-up-and-go train for this city, you’d have been laughed all the way to the dessert trolley.
Yet here we all are, with Sydney Metro nominated for other innovative work tonight, and so many more extraordinary changes in Sydney’s rail network underway that you won’t find the four-year-old North West line surprising at all.
Unless you worked on it yourself, in which case I’m sure you remember exactly how hard the progress was!
Barack Obama had a plaque on his desk that read, ‘hard things are hard’.
The ‘how’ stage of any major work is hard. It requires imagination, an eye for opportunity, and a good dose of grit to stay the course.
Challenge 1 – social licence
Which brings me to the first of the three hard issues facing the energy sector in the current times: social licence.
I started this oration with a story of horseless carriages and the Red Flag Act. While that’s a story about regulation and technological change, it’s also about people, and fear, and what governments do until we reach what we now call social licence.
There are three areas of social licence particularly affecting our sector at present:
Infrastructure - transmission
Our physical infrastructure is the first, and I’m sure we can learn from other builders in this room about innovative engagement with landholders and communities.
I always like to acknowledge the work of the Australian Infrastructure Commissioner who is working away in the background supporting transmission providers in improving the way they engage with landholders and communities.
At the AEMC we’ve been working on a very specific social licence issue under our Transmission Planning and Investment Review.
That’s because 10,000 kilometres of new poles and wires are going to cross land at a rate we haven’t seen since electricity was introduced to this country.
But it’s harder than that historic effort – because back then, much of the transmission was installed by governments who were bringing power to people for the first time.
Since then, most new transmission has been in relatively short bursts, dealing with fairly small numbers of landholders each time.
But the scale of the new connections will involve far more landholders and surrounding communities: remember we need to connect nine times the current amount of renewable energy to the grid, not just a handful of large thermal generators.
Our recommendations aim to support communities and offer cost-recovery to give transmission providers confidence that they can invest in meaningful and productive engagement.
We’re moving quickly ahead – Minister Bowen last week submitted a rule change request based on our recommendations, and we have more work underway in the review to further improve engagement between transmission providers and communities.
Broader social acceptance
Then, there’s the broader question of societal understanding and acceptance of the significant changes the energy transformation brings.
Again, this makes me consider the horseless carriage style of social licence, because regulators didn’t drop the Red Flag Act just because it was deterring investment.
Society as a whole came to accept that cars and trucks and buses served a useful purpose and could be managed safely at increasing speeds, as well as the changing costs and responsibilities for roads and vehicles
And that acceptance is a form of universal social licence that removes red flags.
We can all contribute to this normalisation of energy changes.
Nationally, while climate education is present in many ways, energy transition education is a work in progress.
Energy Consumers Australia is working with the Commonwealth on a public literacy campaign focused on assisting households to manage their power bills. In light of impending price increases.
ECA has an excellent record in consumer communication, and we look forward to seeing this added support for users to understand and control their energy and future campaigns to support households across the energy transition.
A simple way for large energy users to contribute to that social understanding and acceptance is to share your own decarbonising journey – you need not have reached net zero to send the signal you’re on your way.
I’m thinking of well-publicised examples like Woolworths committing to powering all operations on renewable electricity by 2025, or Brisbane FourX factory’s recent switch to 100% solar power.
When big brands set up public expectations, it helps normalise the transition for everyone, showing decarbonisation in action in a myriad of ways.
Of course, regulators are rightly concerned about greenwashing…
But where there are genuine and demonstrable steps being taken to achieve net zero, this can help normalise the transition for everyone, showing decarbonisation in a myriad of ways.
Then there’s another kind of infrastructure evolution happening at the household level, which brings up questions of social licence as part of a just transition.
A recent Newgate report this week found most Australians feel positive about our transition to renewable energy and the net zero target.
Most also supported individual changes they might make to help get there. 55% would be happy to fully electrify their homes, and 65% expect to choose EV or hybrid cars for their next vehicle within 10 years.
But there’s a large question mark over how many people can receive the full benefits of the energy transition at this stage.
While 3.4 million Australian rooftops are already under solar panels, and growing by around 300,000 installations per year, many homes and businesses don’t have that advantage.
Renters, strata bodies and people with too many large trees all face different barriers to accessing the solar revolution. Innovative answers are needed to create a more just transition.
We are working on a rule change which aims to unlock the benefits of rooftop solar and other customer assets - for the benefit of both the individual customer who invested in those assets but also for the mutual benefit of the grid and therefore the wider community.
We are aiming to give customers more ways to use and manage their energy and to create incentives for new businesses to enter the market to help customers get the most out of the solar panels and other energy assets.
And on the flip side we want to enable innovative mechanisms to harness the wealth of unused energy from millions of rooftops together with other energy assets within the grid itself, for the benefit of customers with those assets and those without.
As a recent example, the University of NSW Solar shift project showed it was possible to coordinate multiple household water heaters to act as a mega battery, without anyone having to take cold showers.
If we get this right, we can all benefit from these household resources, and do so in a way that no one gets left behind.
Challenge 2 - Workforce
The next issue I’d like to discuss is workforce, and the shortage of skilled workers that has been an Australian headline for most of our adult lives.
The problem is compounded by both the disruptions of the pandemic and the demand for additional workers to help us meet growth in energy-related construction.
Of course, workforce is complicated. Of course, it depends on your industry. Of course, you’ve all undoubtedly got great recruitment strategies underway.
But… as one of Australia’s ambassadors to the global Energy Equality Initiative, I really hope you’re not leaving 50% of the potential workforce on the sidelines for the sake of a few additional portaloos for female staff in the field!
When it comes to gender balance, the energy sector is the third worst sector in Australia, only falling behind mining and – you all know this – construction.
We can claim around 40% female participation in the clean energy sector, and I’m pleased to say the AEMC has women at least 50% at every level of seniority.
But in the broader energy sector that representation falls to more like 20%, and in senior leadership roles, and in the trades, it’s far worse.
We have a lot of very complex problems to solve, and a lot of plant to build. So why does it matter who does it?
Two major reasons: numbers, and capacity.
We can’t afford to leave half the potential workforce on the sidelines. We simply won’t have enough people to get the work done.
And we also can’t afford not to harness every available talent to the energy transformation.
So, it remains a priority for us to add to the total pool of engineers and electricians by making those careers more attractive to women.
But, as we also move away from the traditional shape of the energy sector, and towards reliance on new technologies and CER, there are so many more skills we need to add to the mix. We used to call these soft skills: things like
- inclusiveness, and creativity.
I prefer to call them ‘power skills’ – pardon the pun and, they’re essential skills when you have jobs ahead of you like developing social licence for 10,000 km of new poles and wires, for instance.
Or coming up with the kinds of management services that will benefit households with solar, and parlaying that into a more easily orchestrated grid.
Balancing workforce also goes beyond a male/female lens.
The Australian Diversity Council has some great work on the business case for diversity and inclusion – finding it is strongly linked to innovation.
Bringing together different perspectives, whether it’s gender, culture, age, ethnicity or life experience, adds to an organisation’s effectiveness and innovation.
We simply get better solutions when we embrace a wider range of perspectives.
So how are we going to reach a healthier level of diversity and inclusion in our sectors?
Setting an ambitious target is a good start.
I have a whole other speech on that, which I’d be delighted to give to anyone who wants to do more to meet diversity objectives.
But, at a minimum, please at least make sure you’ve got enough portaloos…
Challenge 3 - Investment
And finally, let’s talk about investment, and the interesting times we find ourselves in with public and private investment in the energy sector.
The story of the Red Flag Act shows how governments can impede or support investment in technological transitions.
So what are the respective roles of the public and private sectors as we replace fossil fuels with renewables, storage and transmission.
Given the scale of the energy transformation, it’s understandable and rational that governments are stepping forward right now.
It’s also understandable that private sector investors are concerned about how they fit into the puzzle that's worth, as I’ve mentioned, $274 billion.
We’ve got a bit of an untidy moment here – where there are calls for government to intervene both more, and less.
More – because there is concern that the US Inflation Reduction Act might pull too many resources away from Australian projects.
And less – because the recent return of state corporations like the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, and the rise of initiatives like the Queensland Energy and Jobs Plan, could leave private investors feeling crowded out.
It’s important to remember this is new for everyone…
- and we’re all heading in the same direction,
- and there are more than enough puzzle pieces for everyone to share.
In fact, public funding tends to take a partnering or complementary role, taking on projects that are less attractive to private investors.
For instance, the NSW Energy Security Corporation is explicitly focused on hard-to-invest technology geared toward reliability - like pumped hydro and community batteries.
Government is also doing necessary work in areas like negotiating the safeguard mechanism, and building carbon emissions targets into the National Energy Objectives.
And Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers recently hosted a Roundtable of leading energy experts and investors, including banks and global asset managers, no doubt include some of you in this room, to supply some of the blue sky thinking needed for Australia to take the opportunity of becoming a renewable energy superpower.
The Government has stated that it sees the journey towards net zero as a once in a lifetime opportunity for Australia and is seeking to uncover investment opportunities across the national economy.
In considering those opportunities in the energy sector, there are some areas where we have a degree of certainty.
Along with death and taxes I’m very certain that our current fleet of coal fired power stations will retire. I’m equally certain that we need our replacement assets in place before this happens so we don’t risk reliability of supply.
I’m also certain that overall system demand for electricity will increase, as other sectors decarbonise by electrifying.
And I’m certain we need a mix of assets to meet the needs of the system, wind, solar, firming, short and long term, and assets to keep our system secure.
Not everything is clear of course.
And with a nod to the spirit of the Red Flag Act, governments also have a role - at this ‘present tense’ stage - to protect customers from the risks of transformation.
One of the most important conversations happening right now and dominating my news feed (if not yours) is in relation to gas and its current and future role in the energy mix.
70% of the gas produced in Australia is exported to other countries. 25% is used by households, commercial and industrial users and 5% is used in power generation.
Based on what we know right now, gas remains part of our power generation mix, although rarely used, throughout the period of the ISP.
We know governments are introducing measures to support households electrifying their gas usage and we know some commercial and industrial processes can be electrified while in others gas will be hard to replace.
What this presents is a challenging mix of need for gas in some areas, reduced use of gas and its supporting infrastructure in others and risks for customers and investors arising from both.
What I hope to see though is through the current debate on price caps, domestic reservation and codes of conduct is a plan for what we need and what we don’t and how we’ll protect customers along the way.
Because that will provide us with a much clearer picture of how we balance the path along our journey to net zero.
Your puzzle pieces
Returning to my earlier puzzle-sharing analogy – my strong advice is not to wait too long to choose which of the energy investment pieces you can fit together! Others are certainly joining in.
Take note of just three:
- There’s Brookfield’s $18 billion deal to buy Origin Energy and turbocharge its decarbonisation pace
- Then Transgrid, which recently picked up a $385 million federal underwrite for a massive bundled procurement across the HumeLink, VNI West and EnergyConnect projects
- Or look at Acciona, committing to a second, 1000 megawatt, $2billion wind farm at Herries Range, in Queensland.
- Notably, Acciona can roll on the same kit and workforce immediately to Herries Range, once they complete the nearby MacIntyre wind precinct, which is a similar size.
Call to action
So, take a wide view of these kinds of investments alongside the sharp uptick in energy infrastructure projects in the pipeline…
I note that actions sometimes speak louder – and more confidently – than words.
Speaking to the investors in this room: please, don’t wait.
Look for the meeting of imagination and opportunity I’ve been talking about. It’s all around us now.
And to all of you, innovate, and participate.
Either directly in energy, or in cutting emissions in your own field of work as far as you can.
With a final word on the Red Flag Act… and hasn’t that been the lawyer’s gift that keeps on giving tonight!
I pointed out that the outcome back then, like our goal now, is for governments to get rid of red flags as society and capital become ready to take the reins.
The private sector has a strong and permanent role in the energy transformation.
Many of you are builders, but none of you would be in this monumental world of infrastructure unless you were dreamers too.
You, of all people, know the joy of leaving something special behind in your work.
I promise you, there will be no greater opportunity in this century, and certainly not in your generation, to build things that really change the planet.
Whether that’s the energy sector’s building of new transmission, generation, storage and markets or whether it’s infrastructure employing low emissions plant and investing in the innovations that will resolve the embedded carbon issues in construction.
There’s more than enough work for all of us to make a mark.
Earlier I quoted Einstein’s saying, that imagination is more important than knowledge.
The second half of his quote is less well-known: Knowledge is limited, he said, but Imagination encircles the world.
You can’t put a plaque on saving the world, but you’ll look back at what you’ve built and you’ll know what you did. Thank you.