Saturday, July 12, 2008

'Dirty' fuel firms split clean energy group

A DAMAGING rift has split Australia's top renewable energy group following an effective takeover of the organisation by fossil fuel companies.

At a time when more renewable energy is needed to replace polluting forms of electricity, the Clean Energy Council has been hit with accusations that it is run for the interests of "dirty fuel" companies, including the operators of three of Victoria's brown-coal power stations.

The 450-member council faces a bitter legal stoush after its deputy chairman, Melbourne businessman Peter Szental, issued a Federal Court writ on Friday demanding an independent accountant audit the organisation's books or that it be wound up.

He accuses the council of failing to represent its members, particularly solar power and energy-efficiency companies.

The council formed last year after politicians complained it was difficult to deal with the three groups then representing the renewable sector, but the split has become so bitter there are doubts it can effectively lobby for clean energy.

Some members expressed dismay to The Sunday Age that Tasmanian timber giant Gunns was recently approved as a Clean Energy Council member for its proposed wood-burning plant.

The bioenergy plant, part of the company's planned pulp mill, will burn waste from native forests and plantations to produce electricity.

"The way it's going we'll have nuclear energy on the council soon," said Rodger Meads, the Australian head of international solar power company Conergy, which pays $25,000 for council membership.

Representatives from the traditional power sector have been able to take board positions because in recent years their companies have diversified into renewable investments such as wind farms or solar panels.

Two companies that own brown-coal power stations, AGL and TRUenergy, have positions on the board, which has led to conflict-of-interest accusations.

The council chairman is Richard McIndoe, of TRUenergy, which owns Yallourn, the second-most-polluting brown-coal power station in the state. In public comments recently, he has argued for compensation for power stations under the emissions trading scheme.

Such a move, if accepted by the Federal Government, would reduce the pool of money available for research and development in renewable technologies.

Mr Meads has called for Mr McIndoe to step down. "It's a huge conflict of interest," he said. "The council has become a farce. It's a convenient prop to provide legitimacy for (electricity) retailers."

A source working for one of the council's key players - a company with fossil fuel interests - agreed the council was "a mess right at the time renewable energy needs all the help it can get".

The source described Mr McIndoe as "a really good guy trying to do the best he can", but said it would be best if he stepped aside as council chairman.

Mr McIndoe said there was no conflict of interest. He said the large, more traditional, energy companies had the resources to support clean energy, and TRUenergy had put $1 billion into renewables and natural gas in the past few years. "I am not advocating for brown coal. We are focused on renewable energy and the board has a very broad cross-section of the clean energy industry."

Greens senator Christine Milne said she was alarmed at the council's direction when the word "renewable" was dropped from lobbying efforts and replaced with "clean" and "low-emissions technology", which included so-called clean coal and natural gas.

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