The Burning Question?

(Weekly Times)

In November 2014 I attended a meeting in Bairnsdale on the threat of bushfires at which Bill Gammage, author of The Biggest Estate on Earth (Allen & Unwin, 2011) spoke. His message to the meeting was to burn often and burn everywhere and I noted a number of discrepancies between his lecture and his book which I may eventually document if I live long enough. His plea for a return to an ‘idyllic’ pre European situation of 200 years ago is of course impossible. Suffice to say the Gammage thesis only ever applied to some parts of Gippsland and the last 50 years of clear-fell logging and ‘farming’ of our native forests has made his arguments both obsolete and absurd. And most importantly the burning he advocates takes no account of our serious climate emergency.

I am familiar with many of the burning practices having been occasionally employed as a seasonal worker by the old forestry department. On a personal basis I used small fires regularly – along with mowing, slashing, pruning – to remove extra fuel from around our house in the bush. This was a common sense use of fire as ‘asset protection’. The current practice of ‘asset protection’ fuel reduction burns was instituted after the Black Saturday Royal Commission whereby 5% of public land is to be burned each year. This bureaucratic requirement means that substantial parts of the state are over burned and a large part of this ‘fuel reduction’ burning is nowhere near threatened assets. An example of this is the current proposal to burn bush south of Nowa Nowa between the township and Lake Tyers. One’s imagination must be stretched to see this as any form of asset protection.

This leads us to the question of climate change. Any bushfire, regardless of intensity, puts greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides. It is therefore a question of how to minimise this. There is a substantial argument that regular low intensity burns may help prevent catastrophic fires and the bushfires crowning. Some of the behaviour of the Black Saturday fires appears to contradict this argument and I will have to examine it more closely in another later blog, probably several. Despite this ‘debate’ there are a still a number of obvious conclusions. The logging industry must be phased out as quickly as possible at the same time as the forest and fire protection services are substantially expanded. And until the evidence definitely says otherwise, fuel reduction burns should be confined to real ‘asset protection’ and other, minimal, uses of fire such as ‘ecological’ burns.

 

Our ‘Energy Freedom’ Unit

We sold our house up the bush and moved to a small 2 bedroom unit in town five years ago. In the process of downsizing finance was no longer a restraint. For 6 months after purchasing the unit calculations were made as to how many solar panels would be needed to cover all current electricity costs including service charges. Other options were also looked at including whether to have a mix of photovoltaics, solar hot water and gas.

The solar hot water quotes were about $5000 not including any extra plumbing. As well gas had to be connected to the unit and there was a daily operating charge (about a dollar a day) whether any gas was used or not. It became clear that using gas solely as a hot water booster was not efficient and for a substantial part of the year little or no gas would be required. Thus more gas appliances such as a stove (and thus more plumbing) were needed. We decided to stay with the all-electric unit but one that was modernised and used solar as much as possible.

My calculation of how much solar PV we would need was based on the electricity usage of the old unit. Thus we opted to put a large array of 4 kilowatts on our slightly west of north roof at a cost of $10,000. This I calculated, when the solar subsidy of about 30c a kilowatthour (kwh) was taken into account, would mean we no longer have to pay any electricity bills and the system would pay for itself in six to ten years. We then proceeded over the next 4 years to make a range of changes to convert the unit from its old ‘energy guzzling’ to a modern ‘energy efficient’ home.

First to go was the wall heater replaced by the reverse cycle air conditioner, then all lighting to compact fluoro and LEDs, extra insulation was added to the roof and a heat pump replaced the electric hot water service. The most recent change was in the kitchen where the electric stove was replaced by an induction cooktop. The results of all this meant a sixfold reduction in average daily energy usage from about 12kwh in 2012 to 2kwh in 2016. The economics of this are also startling.  The $10,000 spent on our solar photovoltaic array has been recovered in four years with about $6000 in bills not paid and about $4000 in return cheques from our electricity providers.  The extra $10,000 spent on energy efficiency improvements hopefully will be recovered in four to six years.

With the subsidy gone and our solar now receiving only 7.2c a kwh instead of 31c it remains to be seen if we will be paying our Energy retailer for our bills. Currently we produce on average an extra 14 kwh per day which at 7.2c is about a dollar a day – somewhere near the daily service charge. Future options include looking for the last few ways of increasing energy efficiency and transferring as much energy usage to daytime. Putting more solar panels on the roof, and looking at a battery purchase are now being considered.

 

Our original self-sufficient house 

Our original home was not really self-sufficient as it had energy inputs of gas, petrol and firewood as well as wind and solar. Rather than aiming at any theoretical self-sufficiency when the house was being built in 1980 the restricting factor was finance. The design was basic – a rectangle with veranda all around – and cheap with walls of mud and beer bottles, second hand windows and doors. Construction proceeded as, and when, finance became available. The cost to get grid electricity to the house site was impossibly high. The quote from the SEC to do so was $15,000. So the decision was made to set up a ‘stand-alone’ power system. Eventually the whole house, including the original power system, was built for the same amount as that SEC quote.

Incorporated in the design were a number of simple energy systems. Some worked and some didn’t. The hot house on the north-west and shade house on south-east were meant to provide passive warmth in winter and cooling in summer. The latter was never completed and the hot house only functioned during the last few years of our residence. When used for propagating trees it added a degree or two of warmth to the house in winter. Initially the power system was a reconditioned 300w wind generator with 12v/240v wiring and a petrol generator back up. Solar was far too expensive at this stage. Cooking was via gas stove in summer and woodstove in winter which also provided hot water. The refrigerator was also gas powered. In 1986 we purchased our first solar panels (2 X 30 watt at about $800) and solar hot water was installed to compliment the wood stove. By 2000 the wind generator, after 18 years of reliable service but in need of substantial maintenance, was mothballed and replaced by a further six 80 watt panels of solar.

The biggest weakness in the house was the cooling system. With only a small gap and foil insulation in the iron roof the house tended to retain its heat. For most of the time this did not matter as with natural cooling by night and with regular late afternoon cool changes in summer it was only a matter of opening a few windows. To cope with any heat build-up we only had 2 small portable fans. The 2009 heatwave that preceded Black Saturday meant that the inside house temperatures eventually built up to over 30 degrees at 6am. The response to this was to have reflective paint put on the previously unpainted roof the following season. This had the desired effect of lowering inside temperatures by about 5 degrees.

For 30 years we had a low capital cost but high maintenance house and energy systems. There was regular checking of batteries, occasionally running a petrol generator, buying (or collecting) firewood and gas for fridge and stove. I have estimated the running costs for the house over 30 years – for gas, petrol, firewood at $10,000 or about $330 pa. The capital costs including the original system, replacement petrol generator and batteries (second-hand) solar hot water and 2 lots of solar photovoltaic panels (the second lot subsidised) eventually totalled about the same as the original SEC quote or about $500pa. Considering our financial restraints I think this can be considered a successful experiment tending towards self-sufficiency.

 

Global Warming and Opportunities for the Arts 

By Veronica ‘Trilby’ Wentworth-Smyth, Director, Arts Charity Trust (Pty Ltd.)

(Reproduced from the keynote address to the 2013 annual conference of the Australian Association of Arts Administrators.)

Thank-you everyone for allowing me to address this gathering, especially the traditional Aboriginal owners who for obvious reasons aren’t here tonight.  I was unable to find the Aboriginal for ‘Shanti’ but you know what I mean.

Whatever their medium, like a canary in a coal mine, the sensitive artist responds early to the sicknesses of their society.  It is their responsibility and privilege to alert others.  In their creations they may point to causes, suggest cures or at least provide relief and an opportunity for reflection.  This is particularly in cases where the health of the heart and soul are concerned.   I want to talk to you about a responsibility looming in our near future but also the privilege that I think our future holds for artists.

Global warming will bring terrible loss and sadness to many people.  At our current point eight degree increase life is getting rough and we’re having lots of disasters.  The best projections are that below two degrees we have an 80% chance of avoiding generalised disaster but with further temperature rise we can confidently expect extreme weather and the consequent disasters in steadily increasing frequency and severity.  Beyond two degrees the question of public art is not worth considering because life and certainly civilisation as we know it, will be steadily crashing about our ears.  According to such anti-development hippies as the World Bank, at either the current or treaty rate of emissions we’ll reach a two degree increase somewhere between 2045 and 2050.

If I may digress for a moment to address the climate change deniers:  If you think that’s normal I must assume you’ve witnessed other mass extinctions and other civilisations collapse.  You must have the perspective of a virtual immortal and you are probably also capable of inter-planetary travel.  As a practitioner of meditation I respect and admire you for that although as a human being I fear you.

We can’t give up fossil fuels in any degree because we don’t want to so we can’t.  If we did want to we still can’t because we have no control over our political systems, less still over the corporations that own and control them.  So that’s that.  We need to deal with the situation.  Pacific Islanders are just going to have to move.  The Australian bush will just have to burn and North Queensland will just have to be flooded away.  The east Coast of the US will have to get destroyed by storms, which is such a worn out movie cliché anyway.   Glaciers are alright in their way but who’s really going to miss them?  The third world was never financially viable; it will be a mercy killing. So we live in dramatic, spectacular, significant times.   These are among the best ingredients for great art…

The full piece by Scott Campbell-Smith can be read on Independent Australia here.

 

Soren Hermansen’s Traralgon Visit

Community Energy for Gippsland

Republished with permission  Baw Baw Sustainability Network

Last night a reasonable crowd gathered at the Latrobe Performing Arts Centre to hear a presentation by Soren Hermansen from the island of Samso in Denmark about the transformation of the energy system to 100% renewables which they achieved some years ago. That presentation was followed up by a workshop with about 40 participants from across Gippsland. What is clear to me from the last 24hrs is that there is a real sense of excitement and of opportunity to make the transition from coal based energy in Gippsland to something much better.

It is now obvious that in only a few years there will not be any brown coal power stations in the Latrobe Valley. The age of coal is ending and brown coal is dying first. The market is moving to the cheapest form of new generation which is renewables. The CSIRO has advised that there are no technical barriers to a 100% renewables power grid. The issues of frequency synchronisation and matching supply with demand are manageable with adequate storage capacity in either chemical form in batteries or in potential energy like pumped hydro and other technology.

How Gippslanders respond to this new reality is crucial for the health of the community. We could step back and be the receivers of solutions from big multinational companies who will reap profits lost to our local economy or we could step up and create solutions ourselves. We could duplicate existing community ownership structures for a range of services from energy retailing, generation of power through solar or wind or biomass or pumped hydro, hydrogen production, electric car charging points, managing our waste streams for profit through energy production, putting waste methane to good use from disused tip sites and more….. I think the key is to ensure that the community has a chance to be involved, to plan and to have ownership with reliable financial returns.

Gippsland Climate Change Coalition will be holding more community workshops as will BBSN, so watch this space and get involved. Do you have more ideas to share?

 

A Brief Note from a Retired CSIRO Scientist

Excerpts from a Letter from Barrie Pittock commenting on my blog

Re the future climatic change in the Gippsland region, it is complicated. What is pretty sure is that it is getting warmer on average and this will if anything accelerate. Also that sea-level rise is happening and will probably accelerate, affecting many coastal areas including estuaries and the Gippsland Lakes. Also that warmer climate means the potential for more extreme high rainfall events. What is far less clear, and complicated, is what will happen to average seasonal rainfall in the region.

The East Australian Current is extending further South, and this will bring more East Coast Lows which will come further south and could give more heavy rainfall events in at least East Gippsland, especially in the warmer half of the year. So flood rains in summer are possible. This may be made worse by tropical rain belts heading from NW Australia off the Indian Ocean across Australia to the SE corner. These rain belts have been happening quite a bit lately, with heavy rain in the SE highlands, possible leading to flooding down-stream.

But in winter, the rainfall from the lows in the westerlies will mainly fall further South, as the belt of mid-latitude westerlies gradually move pole-wards, some of that I “predicted” decades ago, but not the stuff from the Indian Ocean. But I am no longer the authority on all this. See the joint BOM and CSIRO reports on the web for more authoritative recent work.

I am touched that you refer to my 2005 book in the Mark Lynas article, and in general I agree with your comments. Nuclear power is at least as yet uneconomic and would leave a long legacy of pollution, as well as a risk of feeding nuclear weapons proliferation – not that that is not happening anyway. “Limited nuclear war” is a growing possibility and could have global consequences. And renewables with energy storage are getting cheaper rapidly.

Bushfires, logging & climate change

Following my pleas for the bush to be protected as a carbon store (see below) one myth repeated as a criticism was that logging reduces fire risk. Briefly the argument is that “locking up the bush” increases the fire risk and that the bush will burn down releasing more CO2 emissions. Both scientifically and anecdotally this is not so. Gippsland has always been a fire prone area and will become increasingly so with climate change. Logging as a carbon intensive activity adds to that.

In the process of ‘farming’ native forests are logged for economic timber (mainly ash and messmate) and others species are all felled in the clear felling process. These include blackwoods, wattles and other non-target species. These ‘waste’ trees, tree heads, leaves, branches, stumps and roots are all bulldozed up into windrows to be burned in the autumn when conditions are favourable. These clearfelled areas are then sown with seed from the economic species. Windrows burnt under unfavourable conditions such as in the severe to catastrophic fires of 2003, 2006/7 and 2009 literally become bombs sending up vast columns of smoke and burning embers which spread the fire well ahead of the fire front. Anecdotal accounts of fire fighters who witnessed logged coups burning during these fires verify this.

Recently Dr Chris Taylor studied the increasing fire severity in logged areas of mountain ash forest. He wrote “Our recent study, based on data from areas that burned on Black Saturday, clearly shows how extensive logging can increase the severity of bushfires in mountain ash forests. We found that the risk of “crown” fires, which burn severely and spread rapidly through the forest canopy, is greatest in mountain ash forests that have been regrowing for about 15 years. Before the 2009 fires, these young trees were established following clearfell logging.”

It follows that as our region gets warmer it will become more vulnerable to bushfires which have already threatened large parts of our region this century. Thus ceasing the logging process is made doubly important in terms of climate change – to act as a carbon store and not make global warming worse and to minimise the harm from the bushfires we will undoubtedly experience tomorrow. An essential part of the process is the protection of the forests, which if done properly, will employ far more workers than logging. The challenge then is to preserve and protect the forests as best possible as a carbon store, especially from severe bushfires.

Mountain Ash Forests as a Carbon Store

(takver)

My recent article (see below) on jobs and timber towns has been criticised in some quarters. I suspect these arose mainly because of my adoption of a powerful meme to illustrate the article and that the critics saw the meme and did not bother to read the article. The article explained my long association with timber towns and how I came relatively late to the cause of complete protection of our native forests – a long process completely separate from the wider environment movement.

Several myths are mentioned by the critics the most prominent of which has been to downplay the importance of old growth forest as a carbon store. It has been clearly documented that old growth mountain ash forest is one the best carbon stores on earth. An ABC article by Anne Salleh in 2009 entitled “Australian forests lock up most carbon” summarised the work of Professor Mackey and colleagues of the ANU published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Their work involved calculating “the total biomass locked up in living and dead plant material and the soil” in each of the forests they studied around the world. They discovered that the “highest amount of carbon was contained in a forest located in Victoria’s Central Highlands, which held 1900 tonnes of carbon per hectare” and that “this most “carbon-dense” forest was a stand of unlogged mountain ash over 100 years old. Mountain ash live for at least 350 years…”

Thus when logged each hectare loses most of their 1900 tonnes of stored carbon. Assuming that at least 1000 tons is lost this translates into roughly 3000 tons of CO2 – the most long lived greenhouse gas – being added to the atmosphere and contributing to the already alarming rate of global warming. On top of this is all the CO2 added in the process of logging, milling and transporting. Examples of this include woodchips for some decades were carried in semi-trailers to Eden where they were shipped to Japan, milled timbers were often transported long distances such as from beyond Mt Murphy to Heyfield (about 300ks each way) and the timber for the Swifts Creek mill is still imported from far west Gippsland, cut into pallet timber and trucked back to Dandenong – all dependent on fossil fuel energy and full of waste and inefficiencies. The logging and processing mountain ash from 1 hectare is equivalent to the CO2 output of about 2000 adult Aussies for a year. Mackey noted: “another common misunderstanding is that younger growing forests sequester more carbon than mature forests…while growing forests have a greater rate of carbon uptake, it’s more important to look at the total amount of carbon stored in a forest…If you take one of these mature [mountain ash] forests with 1900 tonnes of carbon in it and trash it … it’s going to take hundreds of years to grow back that amount of carbon.”

Mackey also noted that rather than reducing fire “logging actually increases the risk of fire by opening up the forest, increasing the amount of fuel on its floor, and drying the forest out.” I will deal with this in a future blog but note that these forests are important and valuable in the fight against climate change and should be preserved and protected.

 

Timber towns, Jobs and the Just Transition

I have lived in and worked in small timber towns – Ensay and Swifts Creek – for most of my working life. In the late 70s and early 80s I worked for the Department of Name Change as a fire spotter and seed picker/fire fighter (commonly known as the summer crew) on a seasonal basis – employment closely associated with the timber industry. When I built my house in the late 70s I used locally milled timbers. ‘Earning a quid’ was predominantly a matter of taking what you could get. Aside from occasional itinerant farm work there was little else available. In the absence of other economic opportunities and especially during rural downturns and adverse weather conditions such as droughts the timber mills supported the towns. Decisions were made from afar with little thought of the workers or the towns they lived in. Where well over a hundred workers were once employed in the old Omeo shire thirty years ago now there are less than 20. My sympathies obviously lie with the workers.

By the mid1980s I became aware of the threat of climate change. (One friend stated in 1986 that the ‘debate’ in the scientific community was over – global warming was happening and it was man-made.) In the 1990s I penned a few brief articles on the subject and it was brought into the political arena by vested interests and foolishly adopted by the conservative political parties. My preoccupation outside of work – I was now self-employed – was war in general and the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq in particular. But the Arctic summer minimum of 2007 changed all that. Global warming, like nuclear war, threatened and threatens the existence of life as we know it on earth.

Now we have a lot of ‘crap’ emanating from the Valley. Not the CO2 from brown coal generators but the hot and noxious air being spouted in some quarters by local and aspiring pollies. Their ignorance of climate change, or perhaps just their selfish political ambition, is appalling. Are their calls for a ‘just transition’ turning the phrase into meaningless jargon? Keeping Hazelwood pumping CO2 into the air is not a fair go for anyone and it is not in any way a transition. Nor is the mirage of the much vaunted ‘carbon capture and storage’ and ‘clean coal’. Where was their voice four or five years ago when the future closure of Hazelwood was clearly anticipated? However some of their calls are valid – anything that improves employment other than at the mine and power station.

Because of the ‘climate emergency’ I have been calling for a planned and orderly ‘just transition’ for more than 8 years. A just transition means not only a fair go for the workers employed at Hazelwood and Heyfield and their communities but also a fair go for everyone. Once the global warming problem is recognised it becomes clear that all the mines and power stations and all the timber mills will have to close in the foreseeable future – the next 10 to 20 years or so. A ‘just transition’ for everyone means carbon dioxide stored in both the timber in native forests and the coal in Gippsland must be preserved and protected. It also means that employment in the communities affected by these disruptions should be strongly supported by the State.

 

Renewable Energy and our local Pollies

Letter to the Bairnsdale Advertiser (published 17.2)

Dear Sir, congratulations to our local member Tim Bull and the Nationals for supporting the passage of the permanent ban on coal seam gas in parliament. It is a pity that the Nationals took so long to come on board instead of supporting local farmers and landholders from the outset.

Now they have a similar and much bigger problem with the coalition in Victoria joining in the Federal government’s war on renewable energy. Without a shred of doubt all aspects of renewable energy including solar, wind, battery storage and micro-grids are beneficial to regional Victoria, country towns both large and small and to farmers, businesses and ordinary citizens.

In last year’s Federal election I noted that the Waubra community north of Ballarat have drought proofed their farms and their community by earning $8000 per annum for each wind generator installed on their land. As there are 128 of them this adds an extra one million dollars to the community each year. The community also receives an annual return – enough to bring their local pub and other organisations back to life. Further 200 people were employed in the manufacture (which could be done in Morwell or somewhere in Gippsland) and installation of the generators and 26 permanent onsite jobs. This keeps a large amount of money in the community and helps revive it. As well as providing renewable energy there is no pollution, greenhouse gases are saved, there is no big hole in the ground and farming continues with minimal disturbance.

It is fairly obvious that there are large parts of Gippsland that are suitable for either wind or solar development and these are still compatible with current farming practices. Where conditions are not suited to wind solar may provide the answer like the recent project for a $20 million community solar farm at Wangaratta. Other types of renewable projects might be suitable for community adoption. For example tidal energy at Lakes Entrance or pumped hydro in the Hazelwood open cut once the mine is closed.

As well as provide jobs many of these projects could be financed locally with our savings which currently are likely to be invested in the Adani coal mine (along with your tax dollars) or one in outer Baluchistan. (Unfortunately as far as I am aware at the moment there are no organisations or banks where you can use your savings to support local renewable energy projects.) Every dollar not spent on your electricity bill is a dollar that remains in the community. It is decentralisation in action – a policy mouthed by the political parties but rarely acted upon.

So what will our representatives do on this issue? At the moment they are not only backing the wrong horse they are doing their best to stop the obvious winner. Some encouragement and a benign political climate is probably all that is needed for renewable projects to boom.