Small business energy summit

The economic viability of many of Australia’s 3.3 million small to medium businesses is threatened by rising energy prices and highlights the urgency of a bipartisan federal government approach to the energy market. But in three decades there have been significant differences on policy and an energy policy consensus in the near term is unlikely to be reached, says the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia.

Last week COSBOA staged a Small Business Energy Summit that was attended by small business, the Australian Energy Council and Energy Consumers Australia, with addresses by Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor and Deputy Leader of The Australian Greens Adam Bandt.

The group agreed a range of significant consumer challenges associated with the current operation of the Australian electricity market exist, including the need for improved market transparency and the establishment of ‘consistent pricing mechanisms’ to readily enable consumer comparison of energy costs.

They also recognised the significant opportunity for the small business community and energy retailers to work together (including collaboration between the Australian Energy Council, COSBOA and the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman) to better empower small business owners to take control of their energy use and future energy cost risks.

The opportunity is further strengthened by the establishment of new programs by the Australian Government in the areas of small business energy advice and capital grants for energy efficiency investments, the group concurred.

“The main outcome of the day was agreement that we all have to work together to confront the energy crisis and that a piecemeal approach or antagonistic dialogue will not identify and resolve problems,” COSBOA chief executive Peter Strong said.

Although much of the discussion in recent years has focussed on the operation of national electricity markets, there is an emerging concern about the near-term availability of natural gas in Australia too.

“It is not just about coal and renewables. There are major opportunities for Australia to better harness its vast reserves of natural gas to power Australia’s economy with lower carbon emissions, alongside coal and renewables. Yet many State/Territory governments appear to be asleep at the wheel in respect of these opportunities.”

Peter Strong told Smart Energy at the end of the event that the purpose was to reach agreement about change management in terms of energy reliability and costs, and to manage the environment.

“There’s two million small business people – we know they want the environment managed,  there is still a very small percentage of the population who deny climate change – some think we should not be leading the way but the great majority of businesses want the environment to be managed.

“But the day’s discussion was really important and we didn't argue, we wanted to find areas where we could get costs down, business is already under considerable financial pressure … some power bills have increased by 56 per cent in recent years, an amount that is crippling business.”

To reduce their energy costs, many households have voted with their feet by installing rooftop solar panels, however “Doing this in a small business, operating in a building or shop they don’t necessarily own is harder, but not impossible.”

He said the community has to work together even more than ever if it is to maintain high standards of living.

“The extremes of left and right economic and environmental politics are the enemy of good management. While the major political parties grapple with their extremes we will grapple with reality.”

During the presentation Greens climate change and energy spokesperson Adam Bandt launched the Greens’ six-point plan to help small businesses switch to clean energy, reduce power bills and improve their energy efficiency.

In addition to offering financial assistance to small business, The Greens plan includes re-regulating electricity prices and establishing a new public retailer - Power Australia - that will purchase cheap renewable energy and offer low-cost electricity plans to small businesses as well as re-regulating electricity prices.

Under the plan which has been fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office the Greens will establish a ‘Small Business Clean Energy Fund’ with an initial funding injection of $200 million over the next four years.

SMEs will be eligible to apply for grants of up to $10,000 to cover the cost of investment in assets or capital works that will reduce fossil fuel use, improve energy efficiency or switch from gas to clean energy. This fund will operate in conjunction with the instant asset tax write off, as businesses who receive the instant asset write off for assets will also be able to receive money from the Clean Energy Small Business Fund.

The Clean Technology Program that was scrapped by Tony Abbott would be re-established with a $200 million investment to support the innovation of products, processes and services by business and industry.

In addition the Greens will invest $100 million from ARENA to support specific research, development and commercialisation into industrial substitution and electrification programs in the chemical and other manufacturing and fabrication industries.

Storage is also in the works with access to loans of up to $15,000 to help small business with the installation of battery storage. These loans will be repayable over a 10-year period supported by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

Complementing the above initiatives, the Greens will also establish Clean Energy Solution Centres to support business to implement audits and develop energy efficiency plans.

Adam Bandt MP said “Small business is bearing the brunt of the old parties’ addiction to gas and coal.

“The government loves to talk up its small business credentials, but businesses are talking about closing because Angus Taylor doesn’t have the guts to get energy prices under control.

“The Greens will stand up to the big power corporations on behalf of small business.”

He added that in addition to offering cheap, clean electricity packages to small business, the package will help businesses fuel switch from gas to electricity in the short term, while boosting research and development to enable the transition away from gas entirely.

“After we boot out the conservatives we’ll need some new energy laws … [and] the key to helping small businesses isn’t to abandon them with a small government, neoliberal approach, but for government and industry to work cooperatively to help small businesses embrace the clean energy transition.

Adam Bandt has called on the ALP to commit to adopting this package in the next Parliament.