By Richard Henderson
Ambitious targets to switch the Australian economy away from fossil fuels lack clarity, thwarting support from business and investors that could delay the energy transition, according to one of Wilson Asset Management’s top portfolio managers.
Last week’s federal election swept to power the first Labor government in nearly a decade. Voters also elevated a record number of Greens members into the lower house and a handful of so-called teal independents that campaigned heavily on climate action.
Labor has committed to a swift ramp up in renewables with a target of 82 per cent of electricity generation to come from the likes of wind and solar by 2030. However, the absence of a detailed policy path to achieving this type of target means businesses have only general guide wires to follow.
“Until we really see the details, these targets really mean nothing. It’s how you get there,” said Matthew Haupt, the lead portfolio manager for the Wilson Asset Management WAM Leaders portfolio, which has $1.6 billion in assets.
“It’s a very interesting juncture at the moment. Domestically it’s too hard to say because it’s lacking on details,” Mr Haupt said during a Friday event for Future Generation, a not-for-profit investment group that supports charities.
The sentiment was mirrored by Gabriel Radzyminski, founder and chief investment officer of Sandon Capital, who said one overarching question facing the move to reduce fossil fuels in domestic electricity was who would bear the cost.
“There needs to be a plan. Renewables are the easiest one to talk about with solar and wind, but there are massive investments required in terms of upgrading the transmission networks,” he said.
Labor has placed a $20 billion price tag on its plan to “rebuild and modernise the grid,” according to details of its election policies, in which it describes the current system as “desperately outdated”. The overhaul would ultimately inject $40 billion into the economy and create thousands of jobs, according to Labor projections.
Mr Radzyminski said there was no clarity about whether the cost would be fully borne by the government, or whether consumers and the private sector would also shoulder the burden.
“Who is going to pay for it? Will it be government funded and therefore consumers aren’t going to be charged for the cost, or will it be privatised in which case the private providers of capital will need to earn a regulated rate of return?” he said.
“Depending on how you want to cut it, it could be a significant increase in household electricity prices.”
Australian blue chips have unveiled a wave of their own targets to achieve net-zero emissions in the coming decades, however the country as a whole lags other regions, particularly Europe, which has pushed for more strident rules.
“It’s a failure of regulation – otherwise, we would be seeing a lot of decarbonisation investment right here, right now because it makes commercial sense,” said Jacob Mitchell, chief investment officer of Antipodes Partners, which manages $8 billion in assets. “Wind and solar are basically grid competitive in most parts of the world.”
Despite the lack of clarity in Australia, the sweeping changes involved in shifting away from fossil fuels will open up investment opportunities.
“Most investors in markets don’t deal with these structural, non-linear investments. It’s a massive investment cycle like we’ve never seen. You have to position now even if you don’t think that regulation is perfect,” Mr Mitchell said.
Exciting new start-ups boasting innovative technology will be among the winners, but so too will other companies, including utilities, as they adapt to decarbonisation efforts, he added.
Utilities typically trade like safe fixed income securities, but have weathered the recent sell-off in government bonds, in a move Mr Mitchell said underscores a new paradigm facing the sector.
“You don’t need to go out on the conceptional fringe to get exposure [to decarbonisation]. It will come through utilities, who invest in the grid and renewables generation. They will become growth assets and they’re not priced as growth assets.”
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