Green energy projects in limbo awaiting Australian poll outcome

Conservatives' vow to repeal carbon tax if they win changes landscape for renewable power

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 3:19am

On a line of low hills beside a dry lake bed near Australia's capital, giant turbines turning slowly in a winter breeze give no hint of a multibillion-dollar storm building around renewable energy.

Infigen Energy's Capital Windfarm, built five years ago, was a vanguard for wind power as Australia sought to wean itself from cheap fossil-fuel power in the face of climate change blamed in part for Lake George's transformation into a vast plain.

But big plans to expand the Infigen project near Canberra and others like it have been put on hold awaiting the outcome of an election in September.

The ballot, which opinion polls show the opposition conservatives winning, along with an economic slowdown and rising home energy bills have put the brakes on Australia's decade-long clean-energy push.

At stake in the September 14 vote is a controversial carbon trading scheme championed by the ruling Labor Party to curb greenhouse gas emissions, with a A$20 billion (HK$150 billion) pipeline in renewable investment largely on hold as nervous companies sit on their hands.

Infigen is undecided whether to go ahead with a A$180 million expansion of the Capital wind farm, despite having local planning approval, or with a A$150 million joint venture solar plant with US-based Suntech Power.

"We expect changes. We don't know what they'll be. But the uncertainty is having a crippling effect on the market," said Nathan Fabian, head of a group of institutional investors with US$900 billion in funds under management and worried about the looming climate fight.

The conservative coalition has pledged "in blood" to scrap a carbon tax and cut power costs in a country with plentiful supplies of cheap coal, while reviewing policy on renewable power. But how they may do it is unclear.

"We don't see any clear long-term policy direction on the climate or energy sector from the opposition," said Fabian, of Australia's Investor Group on Climate Change, which includes pension funds and major banks. "And until that is clear, capital is sitting on the sidelines."

Reversing renewable momentum would be politically risky for opposition leader Tony Abbott, not only because of electoral concern about climate shift and the billions of dollars at stake, but also because the push to cleaner energy was born in conservative politics.