On June 28th, the Australian government decided to split the REC trading environment within the country into two parts: one REC market for large-scale technologies like wind (LRECs) and one market for small-scale technologies like solar (SRECs). The law will go into effect on January 1, 2011. Of the original Australian target—45,000 GWh by 2020—LRECs are to account for 41,000 GWh and SRECs 4,000 GWh. This separation is theoretically akin to the “carve out” for solar energy development seen in several US states, but has been created with the opposite intention: to aid large-scale renewable energy development that would otherwise be dampened by a tendency toward small-scale systems.
The original Australian Renewable Energy Target law was passed last year with a target of 20% renewable electricity generation by 2020, along with a system for requiring utilities to buy all Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs – equivalent to 1 megawatt-hour, like in the US) created within the country.
The government also created a “Solar Credits Multiplier” which effectively multiplied by 5 the number of RECs produced by solar installations less than 1.5kW. This program, however, quickly flooded the market with RECs from small household solar thermal heaters and pumps. These government-discounted systems ultimately lead to a steep decline in REC prices. At values as low as $29 per REC (~$25 USD) large-scale renewable technology developers could no longer take on the financial risk of new projects. The Australian government, aware that larger wind and solar projects have greater potential to provide baseload power, decided to reinvigorate incentives for investment in large-scale renewable energy technologies.
Under the amended law, small-scale SRECs can be sold at a fixed price of $40 per MWh in a clearinghouse set up by the government. These SRECs will be sold quarterly in the order that they are produced. If supply of SRECs is greater than demand, then the government can lower this fixed price or reduce the Multiplier. Yet, if demand outpaces supply, then the government can sell “advance” SRECs to keep the price stable at $40.
The government does allow for SRECs to be traded outside of this clearinghouse, but this will most likely only attract sellers who do not want to wait if their SRECs are too far down the “first-come, first-served” list. Their SRECs will not be purchased for more than the fixed price clearinghouse, as utilities will be able to buy “advanced” SRECs at $40 if necessary. Without a true market for these SRECs, an efficient market price in Australia will be impossible to establish.
In the other market, LRECs will be sold and purchased annually, but it is important to note that those RECs that are produced from small-scale systems before January 1, 2011 will still be eligible. Critics have pointed out that the oversupply of RECs from 2010 will keep prices in both markets low until around 2014 when utilities will need to replenish their supply.
This decision was an important step for the Australian government in creating a more balanced mix of renewable energy technologies within the country. Nonetheless, one of the most pervasive elements of the initial law was the Solar Credits Multiplier. This policy instrument, coinciding with high rebates for solar thermal systems that were also eligible to create RECs, created too much overcapacity in the market. This multiplier provided the overwhelming incentive to install small solar installations. With a REC market flooded by credits that did not accurately represent the electricity produced from small systems, REC prices faced continued downward pressure. With both large- and small- scale renewable developers looking to this same pool of RECs as a means of financing their projects, most large projects (solar and wind alike) were pushed aside.
Multipliers have also been utilized within the United States as well, yet nearly always create an imbalanced mix of renewable technologies within the state’s portfolio. For Australia, it was small-scale solar that overtook the market. The government was forced to amend the law to create a “carve out” for larger-scale projects such as wind. This “carve out” mechanism has worked in the United States to provide the necessary developmental period for high-value, nascent technologies to become competitive in an otherwise hostile market. Yet, Australia may soon find that it’s support will simply create a new dominant technology. The Australian government has opted to favor large-scale projects in proposing that they should inhabit 90% of the total renewable target. These projects, given the current economic superiority of large-wind in a separated LREC market, will most likely be filled entirely with wind power.
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