It seems the Rudd Government is having a hard time keeping its climate initiatives out of trouble.
First there was the debacle with the solar installation rebate. Next was the billion-dollar home insulation scheme, currently embroiled in a Senate Inquiry investigating allegations of malpractice and mismanagement. Now as the Government and Coalition continue to exchange blows in Parliament over their respective climate policies, another of the Rudd Government’s key climate change initiatives looks set to meet its maker.
The Green Loans Program — which offers home sustainability assessments (HSAs) and interest-free loans to homeowners making "green" changes — has been given roughly three months to live.
The $70-million initiative, which had been expected to last until 2012, set aside funds for HSAs to be carried out on 360,000 homes nationwide but, just six months into the program, more than 200,000 homes have already been evaluated with the rest soon to follow as a surplus of energy assessors madly scrambles for the work that’s left.
With funding for the assessments virtually exhausted, environment experts claim the program will be lucky to make it beyond April. For thousands of energy assessors nationwide, three years’ worth of potential work has been reduced to a matter of months. More broadly, for those who see this sector as a vital piece in the growth of a green economy, the threat of collapse is a very serious problem.
Unsurprisingly, questions are being asked of the Government, and with some predicting a "climate election" for later this year, the Coalition and the Greens are charging the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA) with mismanagement.
The Department, headed by Minister Peter Garrett, has been accused of fumbling the Green Loans initiative and permitting a blowout in the number of energy assessors despite knowing it only required 2000 assessors to complete the program.
Deputy Leader of the Greens, Christine Milne, claims the operations of large companies and unscrupulous training organisations went unchecked by DEWHA, along the way recruiting more than five times the required number of assessors and essentially milking the program dry.
Alarmingly, Milne also claims DEWHA ignored early advice from its accrediting assessor organisation, the Association of Building Sustainability Assessors (ABSA), that the number of energy assessors was reaching capacity and threatened the overall viability of the scheme. "By September last year ABSA had notified the department that the number [of energy assessors]was reaching 2000 and the program was blowing out," Milne told newmatilda.com. "Why didn’t they move in straight away and curb the numbers?"
Daniel Harper, founder of sustainability assessment company Coolplanet, said that ABSA’s response — announcing that it was going to stop certifying assessors after a certain date — simply made matters worse.
"What the date did was fuel demand because people thought they were going to miss out," said Harper, whose organisation runs HSA (Home Sustainability Assessor) training, along with other green initiatives. "What they did was exacerbate the problem instead of solving it."
In a media statement, ABSA’s CEO Alison Carmichael said that in September they anticipated around 1500 applications would be made by the end of the year, but in fact they received an "unexpected" 6500 over the holiday period.
ABSA has offered those who applied for certification in late December and January the option of withdrawing their applications, but for those who left jobs and invested thousands to become accredited, the option has come too late. With the remaining HSAs fast disappearing — an individual can assess five houses per day — many assessors waiting for certification will be jobless before even completing a single assessment.
Milne claims DEWHA promised assessors on a number of occasions that no more than 2000 assessors would be trained and accredited to guarantee work in the future, but Garrett’s office refutes that claim. "The Government did not limit the number of assessors operating under the Green Loans Program or provide guarantees regarding the number of assessors who would be allowed to operate under the program," a spokesman from Garrett’s office said in a statement to newmatilda.com.
Another factor that appears to have affected the health of this fledgling industry was that Government regulations may have distorted the market in favour of large assessing companies. HSAs were not conducted entirely by individual assessors — the Government also allowed large companies to compete for HSAs, pitting them against small operators. Equipped with call centres booking in homes for HSAs, and hundreds of assessors, these companies were able to assess upwards of 6000 homes per week, while independent assessors were capped at five per booking.
"It would appear they [large companies]have been given preferential — and I would say discriminatory — treatment," Milne said.
While independent assessors must make HSA bookings via an ABSA hotline — which by ABSA’s own admission has been struggling recently with high volumes of callers — larger companies such as Field Force were able to bypass the system and log thousands of HSAs via a separate system, Milne said.
There have even been instances where larger companies have been paying assessors $50 for evaluations, Milne said, while pocketing the Government’s $200 payout allocated for each HSA under the program.
More questions have been raised surrounding the quality of training being offered to assessors. Industry specialists have alleged some organisations packed dozens of students into each training program and rushed through the course to maximise profits with students paying around $1000 per head.
"I am sure there are training providers not concerned with the environment but instead thinking about the money," Harper said. "They try to get as many people in as quickly as possible and then disappear."
While ABSA states its training organisations are all registered and follow standardised methods, Harper claims that since he has been running courses neither ABSA nor DEWHA have contacted him once to inquire about student numbers or course materials.
A source in the environment industry, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the 70 training providers approved by ABSA, only 20 "were registered training organisations". As well, "ABSA didn’t have any criteria for becoming a trainer. They had an Australian national training framework and they chose not to use it. Anybody could have been a trainer."
As questions over the program mounted, on 4 February ABSA released a statement saying that the industry body "does not deliver Green Loans training to assessors". A spokesman for Garrett, however, said ABSA is required to confirm assessors are suitably qualified and experienced before undertaking HSAs, and said the Government would be launching an immediate inquiry into the adequacy of ABSA’s accreditation process.
With assessors paying ABSA $660 for accreditation, Harper said ABSA should be lobbying harder on behalf of its members.
"They have just buried their heads in the sand and hoped it will pass over," Harper said, "To my knowledge they are not doing anything when they should be saying ‘We need more funding.’"
Yet green industry experts still see opportunities to set the project back on course. Environmental insurance expert Anthony Saunders agrees that greed has overshadowed the initiative so far, but says he nevertheless believes "the Federal Government is onto a winner with this initiative".
Harper sees hope for the scheme too. He points out that the Government had hoped 70,000 homeowners would take up the interest-free Green Loans to make improvements to their homes, but so far only 1000 have. Harper proposes that the Government use the unspent funding allocated for paying the interest on these loans to breathe new life back into the program.
Also, the Government has proposed a national program that would require that all homes sold undergo a sustainability assessment, to begin in 2011. According to Harper, if this program were to be brought forward it could fill the employment gap left by the flailing Green Loans Program.
"They need to bring that date forward or there needs to be extra funding
so people can continue to have work," he said. "In a year from now, the whole industry could have collapsed."
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