Australian farmers call for renewable energy zones as Nationals push coal and nuclear


Renewable energy zones must be “at the centre of any regionalisation agenda”, the National Farmers’ Federation has said.

In a policy paper released on Tuesday, the NFF makes the call for renewable energy to be part of new investment to address the $3.8bn annual shortfall in infrastructure in regional Australia.

The paper, which makes no mention of coal or nuclear energy supporting jobs in the regions, comes as the Nationals push for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to invest in those technologies.

Guardian Australia understands those policies passed the Nationals party room on Monday, despite a reproach about the way the backbench, led by Barnaby Joyce, had launched them without prior approval.

The NFF is increasingly at odds with the Nationals on climate policy, after it called for a target of net zero emissions by 2050 and urged caution about the prospect of a gas-led economic recovery.

The NFF’s chief executive, Tony Mahar, will launch the paper on Tuesday in a speech to the National Press Club titled “Regionalisation – the Time is Now” alongside the Business Council of Australia’s Jennifer Westacott and Council of Small Business Organisation’s Peter Strong.

The NFF paper argues that “nascent energy industries, including renewables and hydrogen supply chains, can gain competitive advantage from being in regional and rural areas, as can digital infrastructure such as datacentres”.

It called for “place-based economic development” through infrastructure investment including recognising that “existing infrastructure investments, such as the inland rail and renewable energy zones, be at the centre of any regionalisation agenda”.

The NFF called for the discount rate for cost-benefit analysis to be lowered as a way to take advantage of low interest rates and fund projects.

Despite praise for renewable energy zones, the NFF paper claimed that the integrated systems plan drawn up by the Australian Energy Market Operator did not involve sufficient consultation with landowners and local governments.

It warned that decisions should not be made “with urban consumers and the energy industry in mind, while the impacts (positive and negative) and challenges to rural communities and industries are only considered during the implementation phase, where most decisions on the plan have already been made”.

A section authored by the BCA argued that following Covid-19 lockdowns, regional areas could become a preferred onshoring location if there were incentives to invest there.

“This will require tax incentives such as payroll tax discounts, along with addressing barriers to investment such as energy and transport costs,” it said.

“Skills packages will also help anchor regions and develop talent pipelines for emerging local industries.”

On Monday, independent MP Helen Haines introduced a bill to set up the Australian Local Power Agency to help establish regional renewables hubs and underwrite community-owned renewables. Under the plan, large-scale renewables would be required to offer co-investment opportunities to local farmers and residents.

Last week, Joyce moved an amendment to his government’s own CEFC bill attempting to allow it to invest in coal. That was followed by amendments championed by all five of the Nationals senators to include nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage.

By front-running the debate the Nationals backbench could further destabilise the leadership of Michael McCormack, who Joyce has said must sharpen policy differences with the Liberals to ensure electoral success.

On Thursday a spokesperson for McCormack said: “It is important that consideration is given to the amendments that have been put forward.

“We have always said a diverse energy mix is needed to ensure the lowest possible power prices for Australian families and businesses.”

Since the Nationals revolt, the CEFC grid reliability bill fund has not been debated in the lower house. The energy minister, Angus Taylor, has not explained how the amendments will be handled.

On Monday, Joyce told Guardian Australia the Nationals “went to an election telling the people of central Queensland we’d build one [a coal-fired power station]”.

“If we don’t follow through they’d say ‘you lied to us’.”



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