I rise today to speak on the Energy Legislation Amendment (Energy Safety) Bill 2023, a bill that I am happy to support. It may not get quite as exciting as your contribution, member for Narre Warren South. This bill is about modernising the quality of the safety frameworks around the delivery of energy in our state, particularly those in renewable energy sectors. While of benefit to our communities, renewable generators such as solar and wind farms have so far not been made to uphold the same level of accountability that traditional energy companies have. Strengthening the existing energy safety compliance framework is set to be done by a series of reforms, particularly the amendment of the Electricity Safety Act 1998, the Gas Safety Act 1997 and the Pipelines Act 2005. These amendments to these bills aim to improve community safety through more effective and targeted regulation of new and emerging energy safety risks, including those posed by emerging renewable technologies. Looking through the amendments, it is clear to see the changes this bill will introduce.
A member interjected.
It gets better. Extension of the mandatory requirements listed under the Electricity Safety Act 1998 means major electricity companies will prepare an electricity safety management scheme and a bushfire management plan. This means businesses identified as posing a greater safety risk to surrounding land through the operation of their electrical installations will now be required to demonstrate a clear plan for mitigating those safety risks. It is hard to criticise amendments that will further work to keep our communities safe, particularly coming from a regional area that is home to several electrical installations and is prone to bushfires.
The prevailing situation is particularly concerning this year, as numerous factors suggest we might be bracing for an exceptionally challenging fire season. Increasing undergrowth in our forests as well as mild winters and high rainfall have created the perfect fuel for potential fires. The looming threat of extended periods of hot, dry weather exacerbates these conditions, increasing the likelihood of catastrophic events this summer. While the changes outlined in the bill are a positive step forward in ensuring electrical installations are safely managed, it remains critical we do not lose sight of the broader context. We need to acknowledge and address the mounting bushfire risk posed by the undergrowth and changing weather patterns. We have already seen issues with our emergency response systems following recent disasters, including the October 2022 floods, and encouraging these businesses to better prepare for these events will protect our communities. Businesses will also be subject to certain safety duties and obligations commonly seen with major electricity companies under the Electricity Safety Act 1998.
These amendments follow a range of policies introduced at state and federal levels over the past two decades, a time when the electricity sector has been replacing carbon-intensive generation with zero-carbon technologies. At the same time, the sector has been moving away from a small number of large-scale facilities owned and operated by a handful of companies towards smaller scale, more widely distributed electricity production. This significant growth in new energy technologies, particularly in renewable energy and storage, has exposed critical gaps and other weaknesses in the energy safety legislative framework that are being addressed through this bill. The current safety framework was developed based on the risk profiles of regulated entities in the late 1990s, which did not factor in the more recent uptake and investment in small-scale renewable or battery installations. The risks posed by these installations are real, with two serious incidents in 2021, which I think just about everyone has mentioned, underscoring the inability of Energy Safe Victoria to regulate these facilities before these incidents occur.
This bill will also include a series of minor technical amendments to help facilitate these changes. These include amendments to the administration of safety management plans by these businesses, ensuring they remain current to technological changes in both electrical installations and the supply of gas. This bill establishes some stricter guidelines following incidents at these renewable energy providers. The amendment will now require an electricity supplier to preserve the site of a serious electrical incident and a gas company to preserve the site of a gas incident, allowing for inspection by an enforcement officer or authorised inspector. Enforcement of these guidelines will be more heavy-handed. Energy Safe Victoria will now be able to hold on to seized items from affected companies or persons for a longer period of time. Energy Safe Victoria and the Minister for Energy and Resources will be given the power to enter enforceable undertakings with regulated entities as an optional tool rather than court proceedings, and the maximum penalties for offences by energy entities relating to maintaining safe networks will be increased.
As a regional member, improving the capacity of this government to manage the transition towards more renewable energy sources is particularly important. Our regional areas, including the Euroa electorate and the wider north-east of Victoria, are set to be the hubs for many renewable energy projects. Regional communities have had every right to be concerned about some of these projects. I have heard of constituents worried about the impact a project might have on their agricultural land. I have heard them speak about the increased risk of fires, about protecting the biosecurity of our farms and primary producers and about ensuring coherent emergency management strategies, and I have also heard them worry about increases in landholder insurance premiums. While this bill does not address all of these concerns, there are some inroads made.
Another concern about these regional projects has been ensuring that the local communities surrounding them are properly looked after and incorporated into the decision-making process. At the moment in my electorate I have been holding discussions with citizens about the proposed Fera wind farm, something that will impact hundreds of residents between Seymour and Ruffy. Italian company Fera is set to build a 600-megawatt wind farm in the region, with suggestions it could feature up to 100 wind turbines standing 200 metres tall. Residents have been adamant they are not what some might call ‘nimbys’, instead saying that they are concerned about transparency, changes to proposals and the impact the construction will have on the natural and social fabric of the region. This is in no way an indictment of renewable energy sources but rather raises valid concerns about what this bill hopefully aims to address. A major project like this must be held to the same accountability that we see in other sectors, and I welcome this legislation, as it aims to provide this. The Fera wind farm is just one major project in the region and one that will now hopefully follow stricter regulations when it comes to safety, fire management and more, as this bill is set to pass.
Other projects in the community such as the solar farms in Winton and Glenrowan will also benefit from these amendments. While renewables are rapidly developing across the region, bridging the gap between regional communities and mega corporations is critical to economically and socially positive developments. Making this transition to renewables in the right way can and must bring prosperity to our communities. By sharing the benefits, be it through employment, economic profits or development, we can make sure this switch is not at the expense of the people who call these places home.
There is something I wanted to revisit to finish up, and that is how this bill can be of benefit to communities like the Euroa electorate – communities that have unfortunately been prone to several disasters and left vulnerable due to poor emergency planning and preparedness. My electorate has seen issues with flood preparedness and the use of emergency response systems – something that hopefully will be addressed in the inquiry into the October floods. These issues, while mostly relating to flood responses, send a clear message that preparedness and responses to emergencies must be handled better. When Pyalong faced severe storms in 2021, residents expressed concerns about how they were able to access electricity and communicate with emergency services as well as get in touch with loved ones. These sentiments were shared following the October 2022 floods, which greatly impacted much of the Euroa electorate. In the case of a fire, it is worrying to think that these issues would be present too, particularly if the fire had been caused or exacerbated by electrical or gas installations. Preparing the companies involved to actively prepare for these worst-case scenarios is to me the most important provision made in this bill and why I am happy to support it.