Article: 3 questions with Nick Baker, Global Co-Head of Energy, Herbert Smith Freehills

We hear a lot of concern that the transition is not moving fast enough. What do you see as potential solutions for unblocking some of the current gridlock?

The main issues stalling faster, more efficient transition are the alignment and streamlining of regulatory processes, in particular environment and planning. We need to coordinate and streamline planning approvals and connection processes for existing renewable technologies. There is also some work to be done on updating and making fit for purpose the old regulatory regimes for new technologies, for example, getting hydrogen properly recognised in all gas related regulations. Some work has been done, but there is more to go.

Stability in the conditions for investment is also important. Renewable Energy Zones are a big step forward, but the variable is when they're actually delivered. This could take time and with energy markets, in particular electricity markets, being so heavily integrated, a very difficult orchestration needs to happen to deliver those new transmission assets, coordinating renewable generation to come online as soon as possible after assets are delivered and align plant closures.

It’s simple to explain conceptually, but when you move things around, even by short periods of time, it causes a lot of chaos to financial models. It's hard to choose a direction without a sufficient degree of certainty, especially for decision makers acting as fiduciaries for others.

How is Herbert Smith Freehills’s approach different to other organisations in the energy sector?

As a law firm, the best role we can play in the energy sector is working closely with our clients, serving them as best we can. In practice it’s working hard with industry to solve industry problems. There are others who speak with more authority and experience to the technical, financial and policy problems, but we help work through those issues in a way that provides clarity, something we're good at as lawyers.

We have aligned our people to the energy and infrastructure sectors. We have over 30 partners and 125 lawyers in a single practice group who think of themselves first as energy and infrastructure lawyers, and second as M&A, construction, finance or environment and planning lawyers (as the case may be). There’s really high engagement on sector issues amongst our people - a buzz and excitement to doing this work. That’s because there is an alignment with purpose and impact in the broader economy. This is particularly important to our younger lawyers, who are looking for purpose beyond being say a great contract lawyer.

Are there any ‘hidden’ or less discussed issues that the energy sector needs to be more aware of?

We need to look hard at capacity building across the sector. Do we have enough people in organisations that are going to have to deliver these outcomes? We’re often dealing with big system issues, big policy issues and a lot of what needs to be done requires lots of people in organisations, government departments and regulators. The whole industry benefits from that cohort of people being as capable, creative and engaged as possible. The sector as a whole needs to think about where these people will come to resource teams, develop capability and give great career paths. With the rate of change in investment and delivery of clean energy infrastructure, we are quickly going to run out of the people to do it. There is a genuinely bright opportunity for people to build and develop long term careers in the energy sector and we don't want them to be doing that at peak stress for the entirety of their career. We all benefit from having a strong emphasis on capability development across the sector.

You can catch Nick Baker speaking on the Plenary day of Australian Energy Week 2024 (12 June).

To access the detailed conference program, download the brochure here.

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