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In my new Green State column on Grist, I write about the latest political machinations in Australia that derailed carbon cap-and-trade legislation at the 11th hour and sets the stage for a national election fought largely over climate change:

As I boarded my flight back to California in Brisbane, Australia, last Wednesday, I received an email alert that the Australian Senate had just defeated the Labor government’s climate change legislation. Only days earlier victory seemed all but assured, allowing Australia to go to Copenhagen with an iron-clad, albeit weak, agreement in hand to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, which per capita are among the highest in the world.

Then in the course of 24 hours the conservative opposition Liberal Party sacked its leader—who had pledged to pass the government’s cap-and-trade legislation—and replaced him with a one-time global warming denier and quickly voted down the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

The defeat gives Prime Minister Rudd the trigger for an early election that would largely be fought over climate change. (If Parliament twice rejects a government bill, the prime minister can ask that the legislature be dissolved and a snap election called.)

In August, after the Senate first rejected the center-left government’s cap-and-trade legislation, I wrote in Grist that the defeat reflected the peculiarities of the Australian political system rather than the viability of a cap-and-trade system.

I’m not so sure any more after watching the latest reversal unfold during a visit to the Lucky Country.

Just as Australia is the proverbial canary in the coal mine for the environmental affects of climate change, a national election waged over cap-and-trade will offer a preview of voters’ willingness to pull the lever for action on climate change.

You can read the rest of the column here.

image: courtesy cinephobia via Flickr

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photo: Better Place

Silicon Valley startup Better Place on Tuesday announced a deal with Hawaii’s governor and the state’s biggest utility to build an electric car charging network throughout the islands.

The agreement comes less than two weeks after Better Place CEO Shai Agassi and the mayors of Northern California’s three largest cities unveiled a plan to build an electric car infrastructure for the San Francisco Bay Area. Better Place also has signed similar deals with governments in Australia, Denmark and Israel.

Agassi said the network of charging posts and battery swapping stations will be ready by 2012. That’s roughly the target date for Better Place’s other projects, which means the year-old startup will be simultaneously building electric car networks in four countries while raising billions of dollars in project finance.

Renault-Nissan will supply electric cars for the network. Better Place will own the car batteries and charge drivers for the miles (or kilometers) driven. By removing the battery from the purchase price of electric cars – the most expensive component – Better Place hopes to sell vehicles at prices competitive with their fossil-fueled counterparts.

Appearing with Agassi at a press conference at the capitol in Honolulu, Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle said the Better Place partnership offers the state the opportunity to slash the $7 billion it spends annually on imported oil and provide a market for renewable energy. Hawaiians pay some of the highest gasoline prices in the U.S. and the state has set a goal of obtaining 70% of its energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2030.

“It’s not a simple goal – we’re looking to end our dependence on oil,” said Agassi, who shed his customary dark suit for a gray polo shirt and wore a lei. “Any form of renewable energy – wind, solar, geothermal – is here in Hawaii.”

“This will be the blueprint where six or seven million visitors will come and experience first-hand what it’s like to drive an electric car,” added Agassi, 40, a former top executive at business software giant SAP. “You couldn’t ask for a better advertisement.”

Utility Hawaiian Electric (HE), which supplies 95% of the state’s power, will generate renewable electricity equal to what the Better Place network consumes and work with the company on developing the charging infrastructure.

“The price of oil is irrelevant to us – we have to reach a clean and secure energy future,” Lingle said.

Better Place’s latest deal came on the same day that General Motors (GM) and Ford, which have asked for a multi billion-dollar bailout from Congress, (F) announced plans ramp up production of hybrid and electric cars.

“It’s a win-win-win – the only loser in the equation is oil and that’s ok,” said Hawaiian Electric executive vice president Robbie Alm. “Green cars will provide the market for renewable energy.”

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In late 2006, there was something of an exodus from Australia as solar startups decamped for California, frustrated by the long-entrenched conservative government’s tepid support for renewable energy. On one Sydney-to-San Francisco flight alone could be found David Mills, co-founder of solar power plant company Ausra, and Danny Kennedy, chief of solar installer startup Sungevity.

Flash forward 18 months and solar energy companies are beating a path back to Australia. Ausra recently opened up operations Down Under, and last week Silicon Valley solar company SunPower (SPWR) acquired an Australian solar installer called Solar Sales. So is Oz the next hot solar market? By all accounts, the sun-baked environmentally conscious country should be. But the move into the South Pacific is another example of how governments’ ever-morphing renewable energy policies are spurring solar companies to move operations around the globe.

“Obviously there’s a lot of sun in Australia but with the recent change in government there’s a policy environment that could be much more favorable for us,” Peter Aschenbrenner, SunPower’s vice president of corporate strategy, told Green Wombat. “We decided to get in now. It was a little opportunistic as the owners of  Solar Sales were looking to monetize their investment. It follows a model of a previous acquisition in Italy where we got in before the market headed north.”

Last November, a left-leaning Labor government took power in Australia, immediately signed the Kyoto Accord and expanded a national subsidy for rooftop solar panels. Meanwhile, individual Australian states, much like their American counterparts, have enacted their own incentives. Three states – Queensland, South Australia and Victoria – have adopted “feed-in-tariffs” that pay homeowners a premium for electricty produced from solar panels – up to four times the prevailing power rates. Solar homeowners that return  more electricity to the grid than they consume can zero out their power bill or even earn cash from their utility.

But the government of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shown the same propensity to alter the rules of the game mid-stream as its predecessor, which wreaked havoc on the wind industry several years ago when it abruptly curtailed a renewable energy target. The Rudd government already has changed course on a national solar subsidy – which provides rebates up to $A8,000 for photovoltaic systems – to make it available only to households earning less than $A100,000 – which qualifies as middle middle-class in Australia’s big cities. Some of the states in turn have limited their subsidies. Victoria – Australia’s second-most populous state – will pay premium solar rates to only 100,000 households.

Given that solar is a game that moves as you play and the relatively small size of the Australian market (population: 20 million) Kennedy for one is cautious about doing business in his homeland.

“I think that it’s potentially a good market in the future,” says Kennedy, a former longtime Greenpeace activist who’s close to Australia’s environment minister and other government officials. “But it’s not living up to its potential because there’s a set of mixed signals from the federal and state governments and no certainty from one year to the next.”

Just how quickly the market can change has been illustrated by Spain, a solar hotspot that has attracted SunPower and other solar power plant builders as well as financiers like GE Energy Financial Services (GE)  with its lucrative premium rates for green electricity. But now the Spanish government is considering cutting its feed-in-tariff and limiting it to an annual 300 megawatts of installed solar, 100 megawatts of which must be rooftop photovoltaic systems. By contrast, some 1,100 megawatts of solar were expected to be installed this year. That would dramatically change the economics for solar energy companies that have moved into the Spanish market.

“This is something we’ve been preparing for,” says Aschenbrenner of SunPower, which has focused on building photovoltaic power plants in Spain. “With our global footprint, we are well placed to move allocation around as these markets wax and wane. In Spain, we’ve been working on building a dealer network to focus on the residential and small commercial markets.”

In Australia, SunPower will need to ramp up its new acquisition since Solar Sales operates on the country’s isolated West Coast while most of the country’s population is concentrated on the eastern seaboard. About half of Solar Sales business has been building off-the-grid power systems for Outback communities that rely on diesel generators for power. Aschenbrenner says he expects that business to continue but the focus will switch to residential solar.

photos: Todd Woody

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