Renewable energy industry smashes 2020 target – so what’s next?

Earlier this month, the Clean Energy Regulator confirmed a major, years-in-the-making milestone: Australia is on track to meet the federal government’s 2020 large-scale Renewable Energy Target (RET) a full year ahead of schedule.

The success of the RET proves that the right policy, combined with collaboration across sectors, can propel us toward a cleaner, cheaper energy system and thousands of new jobs. But, with regulatory uncertainty and misconceptions about job impacts, what’s next? How can Australians continue capitalising on renewable energy investments and the benefits of cheaper, cleaner energy?

What is the RET and how did the industry meet it?

The federal government introduced the RET in a bid to reduce carbon emissions, setting a 2020 target for generating an additional 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources compared to 1997 levels. The scheme has two levels: the large-scale RET which requires high-energy users to ensure a certain amount of their electricity comes from renewable sources, and a small-scale scheme that offers financial incentives for individuals and businesses to install renewable systems.

The scheme has been one of the big drivers for billions of dollars of investment in renewable energy across Australia. According to the 2019 Clean Energy Australia report, last year alone saw $20 billion in private investment and was the biggest year ever for rooftop solar.

While subsidies provided a necessary jump-start, they wouldn’t have been enough on their own — the industry has worked hard to navigate complex structural, financial, regulatory and political challenges to deliver positive outcomes for investors and communities. 

Impacts on growth and opportunity

Meeting the 2020 target has provided real-world examples of what investing in renewables can do.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, last year Australia saw its highest level of full-time employment in renewable energy in almost a decade. And rooftop solar is the largest driver of full-time employment in the renewable energy sector, representing more than 8,000 jobs. With investments surging, renewable projects are still creating thousands of jobs, many of them in regional communities.

What’s more, global research from REN21 shows renewables is reducing the cost of electricity generation, with further reductions expected over time. Not only do renewable projects bring fresh economic opportunities, but they can also help remove many of the environmental costs that coal-powered generation tends to outsource to the wider community.

In other words, we’re already seeing real-world benefits. But we can expect greater benefits over time if we play our cards right: experts project that, with the right policy and investments, renewable jobs would more than compensate for any job losses related to reducing coal-fired generation.

How to keep building a cheaper, cleaner future

Along with proving the benefits of renewable energy sources, the success of the RET demonstrates a few key lessons that will be important if we want to keep making progress.

One of those is collaboration. When it comes to moving Australia to better energy systems, everyone has a role to play, from policymakers to businesses to customers. First, both state and federal officials need to start looking at what policy comes next. Instead of new subsidy, the industry needs regulatory reform that aligns rules and standards across states, while the introduction of an ombudsman could hold any dodgy actors accountable and strengthen trust in the industry.

The industry itself will need to continue working with the public sector to ensure future policy aligns with on-the-ground challenges and the wellbeing of their end customers. It also needs to be more proactive in educating consumers and investors about what to expect, as well as working together to deepen a network of trust and continuous learning across the industry.

But consumers have a role to play, too. With energy prices rising, Australian homeowners have strong incentives to be more active in their own long-term energy usage and start considering options like solar energy installations. While industry leaders and lawmakers work toward more comprehensive regulation, homeowners also need to be vigorous in researching local installers and brands.

Working together, we can all ensure that this exciting achievement is just the beginning — and that Australia will lead the way in clean, affordable, reliable energy.

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