Towards a coherent energy transition: expanding renewables while sustaining community wellbeing

20 November 2023
Where do the synergies and tensions lie on the road to a coherent transition away from fossil fuels in Australia? Researchers have outlined some key recommendations for navigating the way forward.

By Associate Professor Jonathan Pickering, Canberra School of Politics, Economics and Society, University of Canberra

Australia is in the midst of a generational shift in how we produce the energy that powers our society. But the pace of the transition to renewable sources of energy needs to pick up if Australia is to play its part in global efforts to limit temperature rise. A faster-paced transition is also vital to safeguard the reliability of our electricity system as ageing coal-fired power plants retire.

The energy transition offers opportunities to lower power bills, create jobs and address the health problems associated with burning fossil fuels. But unless plans for the transition are carefully designed, opportunities will be lost to make the most of these upsides.

Against this backdrop, it is vital that energy policies are designed and implemented in ways that advance rather than undermine community wellbeing. A useful lens for thinking about this challenge is the idea of policy coherence. Policy coherence, in a nutshell, refers to the idea of designing policies so that multiple objectives complement or reinforce each other rather than undermine one another. Australia has pledged to advance “policy coherence for sustainable development” as part of its commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The question of how Australia could achieve a more coherent energy transition was the focus of a workshop held at the University of Sydney in late September 2023 which brought together around 30 researchers and practitioners in person and online. The workshop was co-hosted by the Sydney Environment Institute and the University of Canberra’s new Centre for Environmental Governance, with support from a project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development. The workshop built on the experiences of policy-makers, NGOs and businesses as well as recent research, including on a just transition from coal, critical minerals, the Real Deal initiative, and the rollout of solar and wind infrastructure in regional New South Wales.

Several key themes emerged from the workshop. First, following recent changes of government there is arguably more coherence between federal and state levels on energy policy now than in previous years, along with stronger cooperation across these levels. There have been some significant innovations that aim to build synergies between the energy transition and community wellbeing, including ongoing work to co-design a First Nations Clean Energy Strategy. State policies such as the New South Wales Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap seek to deliver benefits to regional communities hosting a major scale-up of solar and wind infrastructure.

However, current policy settings reveal significant tensions between some objectives. Some forms of incoherence may be inadvertent due to factors such as uncertainty, for example if renewable energy projects are delayed or do not yield expected levels of benefit due to volatile conditions in global markets. However, some forms of incoherence can also be strategic. A key area of strategic incoherence for Australia is ongoing support for coal and gas exports at the same time as domestic energy production is moving away from these fuels. Other forms of incoherence may reflect inconsistent positions across different parts of government, such as new draft planning guidelines that would make it much harder for wind projects in NSW to gain approval and could significantly constrain progress on the Roadmap.    

Even when there is some degree of coherence in the content of policies, coherence in implementation can be challenging. For example, agencies delivering the NSW Roadmap have encountered challenges in engaging effectively with communities and delivering on promises to boost jobs and economic activity in regional areas.

Second, incoherence can arise not only from failures of coordination or institutional capacity constraints but also from a wider variety of sources, including vested interests, gender and racial discrimination, legacies of colonialism, and electoral incentives (e.g. delivering conflicting messages to different groups to secure their support).

Third, an essential ingredient in a more coherent approach is better understanding of the needs and perspectives of different groups who need to be involved in the energy transition, including those of culturally and linguistically diverse communities, First Nations people, rural communities and low-income households. It is also vital to understand the relationships, power dynamics and diversity of views within each of these communities.

Finally, a number of barriers need to be overcome to ensure that communities can benefit from the energy transition. For example, training needs to be more accessible to workers in regional areas so that they can secure good jobs in the renewable energy industry. Communities need access to trusted and appropriate information on issues such as the siting of proposed large-scale renewable energy projects, options for changing their energy use, or how to set up a community energy project. And renewable energy industries need to foster more inclusive workplace cultures, which should help to lift the participation of women, First Nations people and different cultural groups in those industries.

The discussions at the workshop informed a submission to a Community Engagement Review on renewable energy infrastructure that is currently underway. The Review is being coordinated by the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, Andrew Dyer, and is due to report by the end of December 2023.

The submission (pdf, 162KB) makes a range of recommendations on how the energy transition could be more coherent, particularly in Renewable Energy Zones. Recommendations include:

  • Shifting from more transactional, fragmented modes of community engagement to longer-term, coordinated modes of engagement that build relationships of trust;
  • Developing narratives that articulate the roles of rural and urban communities in the energy transition more convincingly;
  • Proactive efforts to pre-empt and counter misinformation;
  • Strengthening regulatory incentives and financial support for community energy projects;
  • Structuring community benefit programs so that communities have a say in what is funded and that funded activities deliver meaningful benefits; and
  • Sharing knowledge across Australian jurisdictions on the community wellbeing implications of the renewable energy transition, including on policy options and lessons from implementation.

An associated project report will be released later this year. While the workshop highlighted how much more needs to be done to achieve a coherent energy transition, it also highlighted the value of bringing together researchers and practitioners from different backgrounds to generate new perspectives and identify areas of common ground.

Group picture of researchers in seminar room

Participants at the Achieving a coherent energy transition workshop, held at the University in September 2023.

Header image: Kwest via Shutterstock, ID 60199522.

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