Then there was one: Renewable Energy Agency board dwindles

By David Donaldson

February 2, 2016

The federal government continues to drag its feet on replacing personnel to bodies it doesn’t like, with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency board being left with only one member.

Following the departure of the other three, Department of the Environment secretary Gordon de Brouwer is the only member left sitting on the board. Chair Gregory Bourne, along with Danny Broad and Judith Smith, all finished their six-month appointments on January 16, reports The GuardianThe Australian Government Boards website now shows the positions to be empty.

The ARENA board consists of the Environment secretary and up to six other members, according to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency Act. It may continue to operate in the absence of other members, however, as quorum only requires a majority of current members to be present.

This is the second time the government has allowed the board to atrophy to a single member, which occurred in 2014 in anticipation of the government’s announced intention to get rid of of the body, which invests in emergent renewable energy technologies.

“The government has been stringing the OAIC along in the absence of support to abolish …”

In a situation mirroring that of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, there is still a bill before parliament to abolish ARENA, though it lacks support from the Senate to pass.

With the failure to gain support for legislation to eliminate agencies focused on transparency and climate change, the government has instead taken the approach of making operations difficult by reducing funding and stalling on appointments.

The government has been stringing the OAIC along in the absence of support to abolish the freedom of information-focused agency. Tim Pilgrim, the only one of three remaining statutory officers, was recently reappointed for the minimum period of three months — the third time Attorney General George Brandis had opted to do so.

The government allowed the number of board members at the Climate Change Authority atrophy to the point where it risked being unable to meet quorum, before eventually making a series of appointments several months later.

The high-profile role of sex discrimination commissioner also remains unfilled following the departure of Elizabeth Broderick in September.

The government also plans to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which invests in commercially viable low emissions technology.

Chief scientist: we need energy innovation

The news of the dwindling Renewable Energy Agency board comes as Australia’s new chief scientist Alan Finkel used his first interview in the job to call for increased investment in “sustainable energy use”.

Finkel, who describes himself as a “techno-optimist”, says he thinks it’s “essential that the government continues its plan to invest in technological solutions to improve our energy productivity and our energy efficiency.”

He would not offer an opinion on the proposed abolition of the ARENA and CEFC, but says both are part of the “innovation landscape”, for which he would advocate future funding, reports The Age.

The government is promoting the Department of the Environment’s new Office of Climate Change and Renewables Innovation, headed by environment department deputy secretary Rhondda Dickson, as its answer to boosting innovation in low carbon emissions energy sources.

In June de Brouwer told the Australian Academy of Science that of all the progress to be made towards achieving the department’s objectives through technological improvements, “perhaps most spectacularly we will see future technology breakthroughs that further break the link between economic growth and greenhouse gas emissions, be they changes that reduce the cost and increase the reliability of renewable energy, or changes that reduce or de-link greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuels.”

Meanwhile, Australia’s carbon emissions have started growing again. A report from energy market analyst RepuTex states that national emissions grew 1.3% over financial year 2015 — “the first increase in fiscal year emissions since 2005-06, ten years ago, when Australian emissions reached their historic peak.” It predicts growth of 6% to 2020, “despite current policy”.

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