Gippsland News & Views

CCS Rumblings in Gippsland

gippsland basin.png

Our governments, both State and Federal, are persisting with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects despite the fact that any use of coal, especially brown coal, is moribund in a world of worsening climate change. The latest proposal is to burn and turn brown coal into hydrogen and ship it to Japan.  This is another attempt by government, in a long drawn out saga, to save the dying brown coal industry. It illustrates that governments – both politicians and bureaucrats – either do not take the threat of climate change seriously and/or do not understand the basic science.

Another local project of this kind is CarbonNet which has been around since 2009. It is supported by Canberra and Spring St, promoted by the Earth Resources department, and is a continuing exercise in another futile attempt at CCS. The (feasibility?) project involves capturing the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the Valley generators, compressing it into a liquid, transporting this liquid offshore and injecting it deep underground in the Gippsland basin. There are a large number of problems with a project of this nature including the fact that the actual capture of the CO2 is inefficient so a substantial proportion of the greenhouse gas is still emitted to the atmosphere. Also a substantial amount of extra energy is required to capture, compress, and transport it. Almost certainly it fails any economic criteria but most of all any power generators in this scenario will still emit large amounts of CO2.

The coal to hydrogen proposal is another attempt at CCS which governments have been throwing money at for a long time without any tangible result. To satisfy any credible climate change criteria the process involved should be CO2 neutral. As far as I am aware there is no brown coal use that satisfies this criteria with one or possibly 2 exceptions – using the coal as a fertiliser and burning it in pyrolysis generators. With regards the latter one assumes that the scientists and engineers have examined this option in detail and found it was not feasible. In theory at least the pyrolysis process should be carbon negative. Financially supporting CarbonNet (and the current hydrogen proposals?) by governments is an example of ‘good money after bad’ showing our taxpayer funds at work in another ‘dead end’.

The Latrobe Valley is approaching a critical period. Hazelwood will soon be closing. Governments are funding the unnecessary (CCS) and the absurd (see Hazelwood Barramundi ) and appear paralysed to act in any meaningful way. On top of this it now appears that there may be labour problems at Loy Yang. Where, oh where, is the ‘just transition’, or even a modicum of fairness in the treatment of ordinary people?



Climate Change by Joe Romm*: a brief review


A copy of Climate Change: what everybody needs to know (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2016) by Joe Romm has recently been purchased by the East Gippsland Shire Library. The book is a basic primer on climate change for the general public and is recommended. It is structured around ninety-seven questions divided into 7 chapters and a Preface.

The chapters include Climate Science Basics, Extreme Weather and Climate Change, The Role of Clean Energy and Climate Change and You. The Preface begins with the question ‘Why you need to know about climate Change?’ and after dealing with it in some depth concludes “In the coming years, climate change will become a bigger and bigger part of our lives. It is literally the story of the century, and, for better or worse, you and everyone you know will increasingly become part of that story. Here is what you and your family need to know to navigate your future.” (xxi)

The Climate Science Basics chapter commences with the obligatory ‘What is the greenhouse effect and how does it warm the earth?’ and includes “How does deforestation contribute to warming?” and “Why does the rate of warming appear to vary from decade to decade?” The answers are succinct – seldom more than a page or two long and are sometimes illustrated with graphs or maps.

Much of the material I am familiar with but the chapter on Extreme Weather and Climate Change is of personal interest as it is this aspect that is affecting us now. Questions such as “What is the difference between weather and climate?”, “In a warming world why do some winters seem unusually severe?”, “How does climate change affect heatwaves?” and “How does climate change affect wildfires?” are all relevant and applicable to Gippsland today.

Romm concludes with the question “Do we still have time to preserve a liveable climate?” and is relatively optimistic (though perhaps now less so with the election of Donald Trump after publication) about humanity’s ability to solve the problem. I have refrained from quoting Romm’s answers to the questions and you will have to borrow or buy the book to do so. If the latter it will be money well spent. This book will be particularly helpful to any of those local journos who after an unseasonal fall of snow or a few cold days think climate change is, in the words of a recent prime minister, crap!

*Joe Romm has PhD in physics and has been a regular writer and blogger on climate change for many years. His blog is published regularly here.


Climate Change and the End of History


It is difficult to understand the existential threat of climate change. Even many of those active in the climate movement seem unable to do so. It is also hard to find a politician in Federal parliament that does so. If there are any, a green or two excepted, they have so far failed to speak out or be heard on the matter. Outside of parliament the majority accepts the principal of human caused climate change but fails to understand how climate change has been currently influencing extreme weather events.

Aside from the usual reasons for this – the status quo, powerful vested interests, reactive or at best inactive media – there a number of others. They include individuals’ experience of the weather and their anecdotal accounts and the failure of our education systems in basic science, rationality and the ability to discern between reliable and unreliable sources. There are obviously billions of anecdotal accounts with widely differing results none of which could match perhaps the experience of a dweller in northern Alaska or Siberia. Nor are there any anecdotal accounts of the ocean weather, or the mountaintops or that ‘hotspot’ of global warming the Arctic. Those working in the BOM do their best to explain that with global warming there will still be normal weather variability and days of extreme cold. These events will become less frequent over time, whilst the warming records, including night time temperatures, will continue to topple at an increasing rate.

Occasionally in this column I have attempted basic explanations of physics relevant to climate change such as the Greenhouse Effect and the conservation of matter. But the concepts of ‘tipping points’ and ‘wet bulb’ temperature are much harder to explain and absorb. The overused term tipping point refers to an abrupt change in the earth’s climate from which it is impossible to return. The new state is a much warmer climate and eventually much of the earth becomes uninhabitable. The wet bulb temperature (see definition here) rises whereby the temperature and humidity are so high that our natural body coolant, sweating, no longer works. Once the ‘wet bulb’ temperature reaches 35 degrees we die unless we can obtain some artificial means of cooling. This is no horror story far in the future. In 2016 this ‘wet bulb’ temperature was approached in a number of places in India and on the Persian Gulf.

Some decades ago Francis Fukuyama postulated the ‘end of history’ following the demise of the Soviet Union and the dominance of the earth by western, liberal, capitalist society. The fallacy that ‘history’ had reached an ultimate end or goal (the opposite outcome was postulated by Marx) has been around for some time. But there can be another different and real end to history. Humanity in co-operation may be able to act to solve the climate emergency – but if they cannot it will be the end of homo sapiens as the dominant species on earth and possibly lead to our extinction. It is humanity (you and I and a vast range of other species) that is threatened by extreme climate change. When the last human trundles off the planet that will be the real end of history.

Climate Change and the social media


Some years ago I was given a twitter account and website as a gift from my sister. It was a very appropriate gift for someone floundering in the politics of climate change. I already had a facebook page although I was an infrequent user. It took me some time to get used to Twitter and even longer to realise the potential of regular blogging. I have yet to come to terms with facebook and admit I only have a partial understanding of its processes. However each tweet I make is automatically posted on my facebook page sometimes doubling its audience.

Since deciding (about 2008) that the problem of climate change was enormous and that it made all other political issues insignificant I have been active in a number of ways. I began with an emailed newsletter and standing for public office on a climate platform at every opportunity. This is gradually being replaced by regular tweeting and blogging although I still may stand for public office given the opportunity. One aim of tweeting and blogging is to build my audience by increasing my followers. I follow someone on twitter – usually someone connected or interested in climate change or renewable energy and expect them to reciprocate. If they do not respond after reasonable opportunity I unfollow them.  I also manage 3 other twitter accounts and have access to 2 other facebook pages on which I can share posts and tweets – usually with strong Gippsland content or interest.

My twitter and facebook pages have different audiences. The former concentrates on media, those interested in climate change, sustainability, renewable energy and Oz politics with the odd history buff. Facebook is confined to family, friends and locals again with a few interested in koorie history. When I am confronted by a climate denier on twitter my policy is to deny them access. With facebook friends I am much more patient. I try to persuade and inform and am yet to unfriend anyone.

Each day for up to 3 hours I read articles almost solely on some aspect of climate change or renewable energy and then tweet them. At first I thought this process would put a number of rellies offside (almost all facebook friends) but have been surprised by the support from many of them. It is a task with sometimes small gains and advances with twitter talking mainly to the converted but also a worldwide audience whereas facebook is local and probably more important politically.

Recently I read Shawn Otto’s War on Science. I lifted the ‘science pledge’ from his book and asked all the candidates at the last election to sign it (see below). Six did so though unfortunately none were elected. I then wrote a blog on the pledge and tweeted it. Otto has found the tweet and blog, retweeted it, and then followed me on twitter. A pleasant but unintended consequence. Climate activists need to use the social media regularly. It is an important tool in political persuasion.


Pie in the Sky Plans for Hazelwood


Opening the Gippsland Barramundi season
Opening the Gippsland Barramundi season

The State has spent $150,000 on the much publicised Hazelwood Barramundi project. This was obviously planned before Engie decided to close Hazelwood although the writing has been on the wall for a long time. The temperature of the pondage will drop rapidly after the station closes its generators in March which will be the end of this short-lived fishery. Assuming that most of the 5000 fish are caught before the end then each fish has cost us at least $30. This amount of money could have financed an in depth study to utilise the pit and pondage for pumped hydro.

There are a number of options for the pit but most are expensive or grandiose such as the plans for the open cut to become a beautified lake. This lake, it has been suggested, can be filled by diverting the Morwell River for 10 years. This would be an enormous cost to the community and is not going to happen. The option of using the height differential between the pondage and the bottom of the open cut for a pumped hydro, aside from social media and this blog, has not been canvassed or considered seriously. (See article by Dan Caffrey here) There have been a number of objections to these suggestions – there always are. It is possible that there may be problems with the aquifer if a shallow lake at the bottom is needed and obviously this, and all other potential problems, should be investigated.

But much of the work towards a project of this kind could be done within the $70 mil budget for restoration the owners have put aside. It is obviously nowhere near enough and the actual costs of full restoration may be more than 5 times that amount. If the water to fill the mine ‘lake’ for instance was purchased on the open market then even this amount would be insufficient. What is needed is co-operation and co-ordination between the owners and the various interested parties – essential parts of the planning process so evidently lacking.

The priority in the restoration process must be to cover all exposed coal. This does not exclude the pumped hydro project as does the Lake Hazelwood plan. There is also the question of the fate of the power station. To demolish it and remove the asbestos alone is another super expensive project and almost certainly prohibitively so. The more practical, and financially attractive, suggestion is to still use the building. But for what? A museum has been suggested but I like the idea of it possibly housing flywheels to balance grid load in our renewable energy future. In the meantime enjoy your barramundi fishing.

The Conservative Voter and Climate Change

A conservative who understood climate change
A conservative who understood climate change

Since the advent of Abbott leadership in the Liberal Party in 2009 the conservative parties have been under the control of climate deniers. With the replacement of Abbott by Turnbull as PM – a man previously dedicated to common sense on climate – this has become glaringly obvious. Abbott and his followers remain in control of the agenda. Therefore a strategy is required to get a bipartisan and serious approach to climate and to reduce the influence of the climate deniers in parliaments. The former is most unlikely at the moment therefore we should direct our energy towards achieving the latter. A range of options and possibilities are available.

The most desirable way to achieve this would be for the Liberal Party to split into 2 parties leaving a centrist party concerned about climate and hopefully isolating the denialist rump. This is most unlikely despite the current shenanigans of Senator Bernardi. Another more likely option is for sympathetic party members to challenge the deniers in party pre-selections. This is possibly already happening in some states. A single-issue climate party that appeals across the political spectrum (not just to the left) and even a Conservative Climate Party are other possibilities. The latter does not exist and the only registered climate party in Australia – the Renewable Energy Party of which I am currently a member – has failed to make any impression so far. The primary goals of any serious single issue party should be to publicise, to set the agenda, and to draw sufficient votes off the major parties to make them change their policies.

Perhaps the best way to attack the climate deniers is at the ballot box and in individual electorates. To do this climate must be made a major issue and credible alternative conservative candidates must be available. Both the climate deniers and conversely their conservative alternatives must be clearly identified. The issues should be canvassed as widely as possible and in lieu of credible conservative alternative climate candidates independents should be promoted. Conservative How to Vote Cards (HTVCs) should be issued for each state and in the Senate the conservatives numbered from lesser to greater evils. In South Australia for instance Bernardi should receive the last number or none at all. Likewise with Abetz in Tassie!

There are plenty of options but except for the continuing publicity on climate change and renewable energy nothing much is happening so far. What is needed now are some plans for targeting each and every single one of the climate deniers and for someone to organise and issue conservative HTVCs. And we should remember that climate change affects us all regardless of political persuasion.

Privatisation, Planning and Climate Change


One of the many consequences of the lurch to laissez faire capitalism (read privatisation) by our major political parties has been the abandonment of planning. The political party that brought this unfortunate state of affairs upon us is now opposing the necessary steps to remedy the situation. Had the old SECV been in power the transition to renewable energy would have been well under way. This transition has become politically contentious thanks to the power of vested interests and the status quo. The unfortunate consequence of this is that any positive gains are threatened to be undone when the opposition assumes power. This negation leaves the necessary and urgent transition to 100% renewable energy in a sort of ‘no mans land’. It also makes renewable energy projects in this country much more expensive than they should be.

Planning is something we all do consciously or subconsciously everyday of our lives. It enables us to order our activities according to importance, evidence, budgetary limits and desire. We can look to tomorrow or a year ahead and know what we will be doing and how we will be able to do it. But privatisation has meant that the dollar earned today is far more important than that of tomorrow. Thus maintenance of the system and personel are pruned to the bone. The consequences to society are not included in any of these calculations.

We have known about climate change for many years – the CSIRO issued their first in-depth studies in 1989. We have also known for a similar period that the brown coal generators are the worst greenhouse gas polluters. The abrogation of planning by the privatised system has meant there is no clear path for an orderly and fair transition from coal generation to renewable energy. In the 2010 state election I suggested the deployment of the Flannery biochar producers (pyrolysis generators) to use agricultural and urban waste and for a large amount of money to be thrown at geothermal energy under the coal (see here). In 2013 I offered a brief, but slightly more detailed plan (see my Latrobe Valley plan) which sketched a possible transition to 100% renewable energy in ten years.

Parts of this plan are already outdated. Whilst it considers manufacturing of mirrors for a solar thermal plant in western Victoria in the valley it makes no mention of pumped hydro utilising the depths of the Morwell open cut. Nor did it imagine or allow for the massive improvements in cost and efficiency of ordinary solar panels, batteries and energy efficient devices such as heat pumps. On other occasions over the last 8 years I have called for some decent planning for the inevitable transition in the Valley.

Hazelwood is just the first of coal powered generators to close – not by government but by the owner operator. This closure was entirely predictable and evident for some time. As is the future closure of all the brown coal generators in the Valley. Without a rapid phase out of these generators the planet and its occupants, including the residents of the Valley and Gippsland, are doomed to be eventually cooked. Where is the urgently needed planning for an orderly and just transition?


Gippsland Community Energy Projects


Some friends from Bairnsdale recently attended a meeting of the Mirboo North Community Energy Hub – a community energy project. The Hub has been functioning since 2012, is a regular promoter of renewable energy events attending local markets and has an interesting website. The meeting earlier this month was attended by over 100 people and addressed by four speakers including Imogen Jubb from Beyond Zero Emissions.

The purpose of the meeting was to launch a Community Energy Feasibility report funded by the State government. I remain somewhat cynical of such studies and reports having experienced a number of similar consultancies designed to improve the economic situation in the high country that led to miniscule gains. (At one stage my bookshop in the hills had a room full of reports most of which had been ignored by administrators)  In many ways they are ‘reinventing the wheel’ and so this is a waste of scarce resources. I am aware of at least two successful models of community energy projects – the Hepburn Wind Farm (which required a relatively large investment) and Repower Shoalhaven (which operates on much smaller solar projects) – which could easily be adopted or modified.

As well there has been a small group of individuals (including yours truly) in Bairnsdale U3A meeting to discuss the possibility of local community energy projects. The East Gippsland Shire Council has a grant to study the viability of community energy projects and identify the best locations for them. In Mallacoota a group has been active for some time trying to establish a micro-grid to make their power supplies more reliable. I have suggested previously that this could readily be secured with a portable diesel generator and that overtime this could be turned into a power system dominated by renewables and storage. No doubt there are many other projects I have not heard of.

It seems to me that the Repower Shoalhaven is the best model to get projects happening quickly. From an investor viewpoint alone they have the advantage of using your savings locally rather than having them finance an Adani coal mine, a real estate development in outer Sydney or in bonds on Wall Street – and at a very attractive return of 7% on a 10 year investment. These projects can be of any size and because they provide jobs locally one wonders why local governments have not entered the field. Perhaps we need a Repower Gippsland.



Stand Up For Science – the science petition


The science of climate change is being attacked at all levels of government both here and abroad. It sometimes seems as though those governing us have gone completely insane – attacking and rejecting the overwhelming evidence. How are decisions and laws to be made if they are not made on best evidence available? Currently the power of wealth and ignorance is in the ascendancy, as exampled by Gina Rinehart’s Lakes Oil decision to sue the Victorian state government for billions because of their fracking ban. A ban supported by local communities across the region including the East Gippsland Shire.

In the Bairnsdale Advertiser (10/12) propaganda from the Minerals Council of Australia (MCA) has joined in calling the ‘fracking’ ban ‘anti science’- a good example of Orwellian ‘doublespeak’ considering their relentless promotion of the fossil fuel industry. On 5 April I presented a brief outline to the Shire of East Gippsland on how any unconventional gas mining and development will add dangerous greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and gave a brief summary of the physics of the greenhouse effect. More recently during council elections I circulated a ‘Science Pledge’ lifted from Shawn Otto’s War on Science (Milkweed Editions, 2016) to all 39 candidates. Six of them signed the pledge but unfortunately none of the signatories were elected.

As Shawn Otto noted “Science builds on the latest recorded knowledge…and makes and tests bold predictions. Science is our very best tool against prejudice and unexamined attitudes… (p.185) Instead the lies and propaganda of vested interests hold sway. In terms of eventualities it makes no difference, whatever delaying and other criminal activities succeed in the short term, for physics will triumph over politics including the politics of greed and ignorance. In the meantime all life on planet earth suffers.

I certainly could not let the MCA propaganda escape without criticism and so have penned a letter to the Advertiser. I have also signed an American petition by Climate here. Although I rarely sign online petitions (I get overwhelmed there are so many of them) especially without local content, I have made an exception here and I would urge you also to sign the Stand Up For Science petition. It is also beholden upon us to enlighten those who are sometimes persuaded by the denialists, conspiracy theorists, reactionary elements in both the main stream media and legislative bodies, and the fossil fuel vested interests, whenever we are able.

My Gippsland Nightmare


My worst-case near future scenario for Gippsland is as follows:

A wet winter across the region and the mountains with subsequent lush growth is followed by an abrupt swap from spring to summer. The weather changes from warm and friendly to hot and scorching, and the country dries out rapidly with the pastures across the region browned in a week or so. Then comes the first heatwave – three days in a row where the temperatures soar above forty degrees and the winds blow steadily from the north-west.  “Code Red” – formerly catastrophic – fire bans are instituted and the Fire Index sets a new record.

A lull in the hot weather is followed by a series of dry thunderstorms with 10,000 lightning strikes across the Alps and Gippsland with fires appearing everywhere. The CFA and Forestry fire fighters are stretched beyond capacity for any organised fighting of fires. They retreat to defend property and the towns. Even there it is fierce battle with many isolated buildings and farms and structures on the periphery of the towns burning down. Fires are kindled by burning embers falling like rain often miles ahead of the main fire. The open cut coal mines all catch fire and power supplies are cut across the state. The emergency begins with train and other public transport cancellations, road closures and evacuations of vulnerable citizens from threatened localities. But like the old song there is “nowhere to run / nowhere to hide”.

The heatwave returns again with scorching air being fanned out of the red centre by strong north winds. The temperatures are modified by the heavy smoke cover over Gippsland but the fire danger index again goes off the scale. In the large towns residents crowd into supermarkets and theatres with their own power supplies and air-conditioning. The fires eat into the outer suburbs of the city and a number of the larger towns. The number of buildings lost is in the tens of thousands and casualty lists from the fires and heatwaves is well over a thousand. Eventually many of the fires in the east reach the big break – Bass Strait – whilst cooler weather enables the emergency services to gradually control all but the coal mine fires. These, like Morwell in 2014, will burn for months.

This is what awaits us – perhaps this summer, or the next, but probably, unless we are very lucky, within 15 to 20 years. It will be just one of many unpleasant reminders of our failure to act decisively on climate change.