22 Jan 2024

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The withdrawal of coal from our energy system and the concurrent build-out of renewable energy zones across the country is a monumental undertaking.

Australia currently generates approximately 35 per cent of its power from renewables and this journey has taken the best part of two decades.

If the Australian Government is to meet its target of 82 per cent renewables by 2030, we need to deliver in six years more than one and a half times what has been delivered in the last 20.

And we are facing this challenge against a backdrop of significant global competition for skilled labour and critical minerals, along with rising costs, environmental concerns, planning delays and increased community focus on the impacts and benefits of these major projects.

As a proudly Australian-owned and listed energy infrastructure business, APA sees several opportunities for governments to address these issues and accelerate the path to delivery of electricity transmission infrastructure for renewable energy zones.

Basslink transmission line

First, the process of selecting a preferred consortium to deliver these projects could be simplified. The rising cost of capital and a tight domestic employment market means governments can’t afford to have multiple organisations tied up in a tender process for up to 12 months before work can commence.

At present, there is more work to do than resources to deliver it. While commercial processes need to remain transparent and competitive to ensure the best outcome for governments and communities, contractual frameworks need to pivot to address current market constraints and to ensure projects can move to delivery sooner.

Second, we must continue to build technical skills and capabilities in the domestic market.

Australia is currently in deficit when it comes to the skilled labour capacity required to deliver high voltage substation and transmission line projects at the scale required. And these challenges are more acute given skills and resources will be needed in regional areas.

Governments need to work side-by-side with industry to identify these critical skills and fill the gaps. This is a golden opportunity to develop Australia’s capacity to deliver and support the energy transition with the creation of new jobs and skills in regional communities.

Upskilling the existing workforce from adjacent infrastructure projects is one opportunity. We must also accelerate investment in apprenticeship programs to develop a pipeline of the right trades.

Federal Skills Minister Brendan O’Connor recently acknowledged this, noting the slow uptake of spaces in the Federal Government’s New Energy Apprenticeships Program launched in early 2023. The Federal Government needs to balance attracting more young Australians into the energy sector with the opportunity for skilled migration to help us fill the gaps.

Global partnerships also have a role to play. International know-how and best practice needs to be linked with Australian organisations to deliver this huge program of work.

One example is APA’s partnership with leading global energy infrastructure organisation EDF Group. The partnership will bring together EDF’s leading global experience in electricity transmission infrastructure delivery and operation and connections to supply chains with APA’s strong local experience in the construction and operation of critical energy infrastructure. This will ensure we are well positioned to deliver emerging projects, noting the whole world is competing for the specialist skills and equipment required to build out the renewables network.

Third, we must look to our past to help secure our future. NSW, Victoria, and Queensland have all delivered major transport and infrastructure projects over the last decade that have created a valuable skills legacy and extensive supply chain network.

I was proud to be the Project Director and part of the leadership team that delivered Australia’s largest ever road infrastructure project – the recently completed WestConnex project in NSW.

The scale and complexity of WestConnex has accelerated the experience of a large cohort of contract administrators, commercial analysts, planners and community engagement specialists. The project has also built significant expertise in engineering and design, construction management, commissioning and operation along with skills in critical trades.

We must now move quickly to attract these people to the energy sector. Many of the skills needed for electricity transmission projects are transferrable and the NSW Government must ensure emerging projects tap into this significant skills legacy.

We must also leverage the learnings around community engagement from these mega transport projects. While the infrastructure might be different, the reality is the issues faced are much the same.

The significant landholder and community opposition to renewable energy zones is not unlike that faced during the delivery of WestConnex. It wasn’t so long ago that this project was subject to community protests and local councils preventing road access and refusing to grant construction permits.

WestConnex project delivery demonstrated a clear process for engagement and ongoing efforts to listen and build community trust to ensure the infrastructure was delivered responsibly.

Emu Down Wind Farm

At APA, as we consider future renewable energy zone projects, we have already started thinking about how we can best engage with the community, how we can minimise impact, and importantly, what legacy we can leave.

Governments and successful consortia must clearly communicate these short and long-term benefits. Employment and skills development, investment in regional businesses, positive engagement with Indigenous communities and community investment over the long-term are just some examples.  

That's not to say these challenges will be easy to overcome. However, thinking innovatively and leveraging the significant knowledge, experience and expertise across the infrastructure sector will give us a great chance of meeting our net zero and renewable energy targets.