Victorian Premier Denis Napthine is under pressure in his own rural electorate this election weekend after the loss of more than 100 renewables jobs.
The job cuts in the south-west Victorian town of Portland, population 10,000, were mainly at wind tower manufacturer Keppel Prince, but electricians R & M Menzel also spoke to ABC news about 30 positions winding up as projects finished, with no immediate wind energy bookings in the pipeline.
Menzels electricians have trained workers in Australia and Europe and have been working on projects in South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria since their first wind farm job at the Portland Wind Energy Project in 2007.
Many Portland residents have expressed their frustration that the lack of State Government action to prevent the job losses, with tough wind farm planning laws never revoked by Dr Napthine despite 18 months of leadership of the party, and a lack of commitment to a Renewable Energy Target.
Australian Wind Alliance (formerly known as the Victorian Wind Alliance) supporters have been making their concern about this felt as far back as April 2013.
Alliance supporters met at a pre-election meeting in Portland last week and heard from three candidates who have wind power high on their agendas.
Thomas Campbell from the Greens, Michael McCluskey, an Independent, and Roy Reekie from the ALP were at the meeting and argued that they or their parties could make a difference to renewables at a state level if they were elected.
Dr Napthine was not available to attend the meeting as he was out of the electorate.
Dr Napthine pledged to support the retention of the Federal Renewable Energy Target earlier this year, however his support was contingent upon gas being included in this calculation – an unusual inclusion given that gas is a finite resource and a fossil fuel.
He also refused to commit to reinstating the Victorian Renewable Energy Target (VRET) the ALP introduced in 2006 despite the likelihood that Federal political deadlock over the Federal RET is unlikely to end anytime soon.
A VRET would short-circuit these Federal attacks, Mr Campbell told the audience.
"A VRET of 90 per cent renewables by 2030 is Greens policy. So you can trust us to introduce that if you vote for us, unlike the ALP, who have not committed to reinstate a VRET."
While he wouldn't commit, pre-election, to returning a Victorian Renewable Energy Target to the state, Mr Reekie said he would bring the proposal to his party leaders if the ALP were elected.
The ALP's Future Industries Fund includes renewables as a priority area. It will allow grants of up to $1 million (when backed by money from private sources) to get projects on track.
The ALP would also reduce the right of residents to veto a new wind farms’ development from a 2 to 1km radius of a proposed wind tower if elected, while the Greens would remove that veto right completely.
Investing in research to make sure renewables become more cost-effective and cheaper to run than coal-fired power was a key argument put forward by Mr McCluskey.
"Then the market will naturally favour using more renewables."
He also emphasised taking short-term political point-scoring out of critical policy areas such as the transition to more renewable power.
The way to achieve that would be through strong public service agencies that operate independent of the government of the day, similar to the relationship between the Reserve Bank and government that we see today.
Meeting attendees, who were invited as supporters of the Australian Wind Alliance, said they all agreed renewables jobs were critical for the south-west, and that they wanted, at a minimum, the Federal RET to stay as it is, however with no further reviews until 2020.
The candidates faced some tough questions as attendees considered how they might vote.
Attendee Ivan Boyer urged candidates to keep the town’s biggest single employer, aluminium smelter Portland Aluminium, on their radar. He said the community needed to come together and work out with the company and the government how the smelter can be powered by more renewables in the future.
“Sixty per cent of electricity produced in the La Trobe Valley for the smelter is lost during transmission, so there’s definitely a case to be made for generating more electricity from renewables closer to Portland in the future,” Mr Reekie said.
Mr Campbell said his study of smelters elsewhere in the world was that they were moving to places with major renewable energy resources.
Another meeting attendee said her voting decision had been changed after hearing the candidates speak and being impressed by what they had to say.
Vote 1 Local Jobs party candidate for Upper House the seat of Western Victoria, James Purcell, provided a written statement to organisers about their position on wind energy, saying they were supportive of it “providing projects are situated in appropriate locations.”
They said they also supported a Renewable Energy Target at a state or Federal level.
Mr Purcell was until recently Moyne Shire’s mayor. The shire plays host to the southern hemisphere’s largest wind farm, Macarthur.