Gippsland News & Views

High hopes for first Phillip Island solar project by Susan Davies*

Ben Stephens at the Phillip Island Early Learning Centre Cowes, proposed for the Island’s first community solar project.

Totally Renewable Phillip Island is seeking support for its first community energy project.

Totally Renewable Phillip Island’s first potential solar project needs your vote! Putting solar panels on the Phillip Island Early Learning Centre in Cowes is listed under the Victorian government’s “Pick My Project” scheme as “Renewing Our Kids’ Future”. It needs locals to vote for it to gain the funds. You don’t have to live on Phillip Island … residents living within 50 kilometres of Cowes with an interest in renewable energy can vote at Pick My Project. Register your name and address, then select “Renewing Our Kids Future” as one of your three preferred projects.

The project aims to install a 30kW solar system at the Centre. It was put forward by a parent, with Energy Innovation Co-operative as project partner. A June public meeting in Cowes heard of other communities in Australia and overseas setting community emissions reduction targets. The meeting voted overwhelmingly to support a “Totally Renewable Phillip Island” target that “Phillip Island will be a carbon-neutral community by 2030 through our collective efforts to use clean, efficient energy, reduce pollution and offset emissions”.

Phillip Island’s large number of groups, individuals and businesses already actively improving the environment, plus its high profile, make it an ideal local leader in working to achieve a community target. In late July, the solar “Renewing Our Kids Future” project was one of around 50 ideas for community action put forward at an open planning forum held at the Phillip Island Community Learning Centre (PICAL).

Representatives from the seven collaborating groups initiating the forum, plus Phillip Island Nature Park, Westernport Water, the National Vietnam Veterans Museum, Bass Coast Shire Councillors and other businesses and individuals, brainstormed ideas which were then “wrangled” into a (draft) basic structure, action plan and priority list.

At present there are five working groups beginning initial activities. This solar project is the first of the “clean energy” projects. Other work groups include transport, education, carbon sequestration, food & waste. Measuring current emissions and monitoring reductions plus communications are central, relevant to all themes.

If you need help to register and vote online visit your library or PICAL for assistance. Visit Totally Renewable Phillip Island’s Facebook page for updates or the Energy Innovation Co-op website. But first we’d like you to register and vote for “Renewing our Kids’ future”!

*first published Bass Coast Post

Inverloch Straw-bale Sustainable House by Catherine Watson*

The walls of Cait and Peter Ghys’s straw-bale house are half a metre thick and it has just received a 10-star energy rating.

As Cait and Peter Ghys approached retirement, they decided to fulfil a long-held dream and build a straw-bale house. Next week they will join more than 200 homeowners nationwide in opening their home to the community as part of Sustainable House Day. They will pass on tips and advice, including on solar power, straw-bale building and design. The house, which was designed by their friend and architect Sue Mitchell, has a passive solar design and is rated at 8.3 stars. It has just been evaluated against the Victorian Residential Efficiency Scorecard, and received the maximum rating of 10 stars.

Peter says the house is not just energy efficient but beautiful to live in. It’s lovely and cool in summer and warm in winter. There’s no cooling other than ceiling fans, and the only heating we have is a wood heater, which we largely use because we like looking at it!

“We wanted to minimise our ongoing costs as we get older – I’m retired, whilst Cait is still working. We also wanted a house that was environmentally responsible.  Some things are easy; correct orientation of the house means the sun does a lot of the hard work in winter to keep the house warm.  Some things are harder, but worth it; the windows and doors are all double glazed uPVC, which were expensive, but wonderful – and I’ll never need to paint them!  We are very proud of the ten star rating that we got recently!

“We started thinking about building with straw bales soon after we met in the early 90s, but didn’t really do anything until we bought our retirement block outside Inverloch. Not sure if you’ve been in a straw bale house, but they are beautiful.  The external walls are around half a metre thick, allowing us to have very deep rounded reveals around the doors and windows.  The walls are lime washed on the inside. This looks really beautiful – sort of like buildings on the Greek Islands, or on the west coast of Ireland.  Being so thick, and dense, they provide fantastic insulation – a big reason why the energy rating is so high.  It’s warm in winter and cool in summer.  I could go on …

“I learned how to do straw bale at a workshop in Natimuk, so it was natural that we would use the same option for our build.  It works well; people pay to come; for this they get accommodation and all meals, plus instruction from someone who knows how to do it.  For the instructor, he/she gets paid for his time.  For us we get the walls erected pretty quickly at minimal outlay for labour.  We had a team of about eight people for the workshop, and got about half the walls done in the week of the workshop.

Cait and Peter’s Inverloch house will be open from 10am to 4pm on Sunday, September 16. Visitors must register to attend at Sustainable House Day to obtain addresses of all open houses.

*edited article first published in the Bass Coast Post

Notes on Hydrogen and Electric Vehicles by Kay Schieren*

A note on electric vehicles. There are at present severely restrictive laws in Australia re electric bicycles. These laws were made ten or more years ago to control the production and sale of electric bicycles. They are based on a Japanese / European model. Things have changed drastically since then – modern, hydraulic or mechanically disc-brake equipped bicycles can stop as well as cars from 60 kph and they now come with sophisticated suspension systems while still being very light.

There are also trikes and quad bikes available now which are just as capable, and far more efficient, than any car or motor cycle. I have five electric vehicles at home – I modified existing bikes and a garden tractor. I often travel 100 of kms in summer on my trike, and have a max daily range of 200 km with a sunny road available. All for under $4000. The current crop of electric cars are far too heavy and powerful to give decent range at low price, and thus to give wider acceptance – they cannot be charged quickly on a domestic power outlet – my bikes can be charged in my off grid situation straight off a solar array via $20 to $60 adjustable voltage boosters / regulators.

There are also light electric cars available which cannot be easily imported or produced here because no categories exist for them in our Australian Design Rules for motor vehicles etc., and our policy makers, and the public are too focused on high-speed, poison-spewing internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicles, as a result of lobby groups and marketing having the upper hand in all spheres of Australian life via the marketing tube and the resulting general public’s fostered suicidal ignorance.

Re hydrogen – I have made hydrogen from water by electrolysis. I have also been working on an attempt to duplicate via basic electronics the process of the first stage of photosynthesis, but have had to put this on hold because of day-to-day time and energy limitations. Even with electrolysis, by using solar power to produce hydrogen on site (coastal salt water regions are good), cooking gas and oxy-acetylene gas replacement can be produced and even be used to run ICE engines. We need to start thinking of these technologies at local levels. It doesn’t have to happen on a massive scale to be very efficient.

Yet people always howl about safety – what safety is there in our current mass suicide pact of fossil fuel abuse? I build / manage all my own power and infrastructure requirements at 70 years of age, and am in great shape for all that – no bits missing yet. Just stay with it in the here and now. Not many people do that today, it’s too scary. The secure comfort zones seem to live in the past, if we start getting realistic about our prospects.

*W Tree resident. More images on his facebook page here.

Drought and the Nationals*

Ensay, East Gippsland May 1998

Thirty years ago the CSIRO published a substantial work (Pearman, G. [ed.] Greenhouse: Planning for Climate Change, 1988) detailing the multiple effects of climate change and proposed actions to combat them. Amongst many effects these scientists predicted climate change would make droughts more common and more extreme in the future. At this time these CSIRO scientists were amongst world leaders in this field. More recently, and most shamefully with the support of the Nationals, the Abbott government downgraded the work of their atmospheric physics department – a clear example of ‘shooting the messenger’.

The science of the greenhouse effect has been known for nearly 200 years. For more than 150 years it has been known that carbon dioxide (CO2) was the major greenhouse gas and that if it was increased the temperature of the earth would warm. For more than 50 years the steady increase of CO2 has been measured at Mauna Loa and more recently at Cape Grim. The obvious, and correct, conclusion is man’s burning of fossil fuels, in particular coal, has caused the warming experienced so far.

In line with these conclusions Gippsland has warmed on average by one degree over the last 50 years and rainfall has declined on average about 100mm. In drought years aside from reduced rainfall there is increased evaporation as a result of the warming and the consequent loss of soil moisture. This may be further exacerbated in El Nino weather events and these trends will continue within the normal patterns of weather.

Our local member, Tim Bull of the National Party, has recently been making noises about the local drought. In the current issue of the Great Eastern Mail he noted the drought areas of NSW were getting all the publicity and that areas of his electorate – Gippsland East – were also very dry. He further noted that a dire shortage of fodder loomed if we did not get decent rain. If the drought continues as predicted and with further warmer and dryer weather enhanced by a possible El Nino, disaster threatens. Mr Bull has been aware that climate change means warmer and dryer weather on average for at least four years and probably twice as long.

To connect the dots for the Nationals (and Mr. Bull) – mankind has increased greenhouse gases which has made our climate warmer and drier. In promoting coal and opposing the adoption of clean energy alternatives, by politicising the science, they have managed to adopt policies the exact opposite of what is required. Their supporters deserve better but perhaps in allowing the science to be politicised they too are partly to blame.

*An earlier version of this letter, without the second last paragraph, was published in the Bairnsdale Advertiser 7.9

The Coming State Election in Gippsland

We will be having a State Election in three months. And the precarious nature of federal politics means that we could actually have a federal election sooner rather than later as well. Currently the conservative, pro-coal National Party controls Gippsland East and South Gippsland. The current Independent member for Morwell is an ex National. Further west the seats of Narracan and Bass are held by the Liberals. Like the Nationals the Libs have no position on climate change and are antagonistic towards renewable energy.

But of all these seats only South Gippsland has been held consistently by the Nationals in modern times. Morwell should be a Labor seat and both Narracan and Bass (formerly West Gippsland) have been held by Labor although Susan Davies later was an Independent. Gippsland East had Independent Craig Ingram prior to the current National incumbent. The current sitting member of South Gippsland won in 2015 against a liberal candidate but required preferences to win. We may conclude from this the current monopoly of ‘safe’ conservative seats is not impregnable.

In a recent survey Sustainability Victoria found the issues of public health and jobs were foremost in Gippsland citizens eyes whilst climate change was down the bottom. Circumstances in the near future may alter this. If, for instance, the current green drought continues up to the election or we have a run of early serious bushfires. Many on the social media and even some farmer’s organisations are now making the connection between climate change and the current drought and noting the absurdity of the Nationals promoting coal yet claiming to represent farmers.

Opposition candidates who accept the overwhelming evidence of the science of climate change and can point out how these important issues are connected to, or influenced by, climate change are urgently needed. It is not necessary for the incumbents to be unseated – just that they be given a shock. It is possible that if strong Labor and Independent candidates are fielded, that the preferences of the greens and other independents flow though to them and there is some media support the election might produce a few surprises. And as the dry continues the odds of this occurring increases.

Every time someone mentions or complains about the drought reply with two words – climate change – and ask them who they are going to vote for.

Get Out of Our Way by Michael Whelan*

Wonthaggi Union Theatre installs 39Kw of PV

(an edited version first published in Bass Coast Post 17.8)

A recent survey commissioned by Sustainability Victoria found that over 90 per cent of respondents believe humans are contributing to climate change and that all individuals should take action. Arguments for climate change action are compelling and urgent but too often the doom and gloom scenario leads to avoidance behaviour rather than action. We need an approach that empowers everyone to act. “Think globally, act locally” is the environmental enabling statement. It means not waiting for the Federal Government to do their job but planning and acting at community level. That’s exactly what’s happening here in the Bass Coast community.

The Totally Renewable Phillip Island project has been created by concerned people who have come together to make Phillip Island carbon neutral by 2030. They plan to pursue this through increasing renewable energy uptake, lobbying for charge points for electric vehicles, supporting locally produced food and eliminating food waste…

Residents at Cowes and Silverleaves concerned about severe coastal erosion have also banded together to agitate for action. The old rock wall built decades ago was never completed, and the gap focuses the wave attack and is causing severe erosion. There has been some band-aid work by Council but there is a need to fill in the “missing link” in the wall. Discussion is occurring between ministers at different levels of government and there is optimism that the State Government will consider a longer-term solution.

People feel they have a voice and there is now open discussion on sea level rise. These groups are empowered by their own actions. They are respectful but determined and will make a difference. I recall complaining about the absence of action from the Federal Government at a Coastal Councils Conference – I was told by another delegate that that’s why we and the community need to be the leading edge of this battle. We should expect leadership at federal level but waiting for that will spell disaster for our children and their children…

Council has introduced environmentally sustainable design for council buildings, an excellent step that needs to be replicated across the whole community. It is also retrofitting solar panels to council buildings, most recently on Wonthaggi’s Union Theatre. While we must urgently cut our emissions, more is required. Scientists are talking about the drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere. Council’s plan requires a 1.5 per cent annual increase in vegetation cover and great progress is being made through groups such as Landcare. Nearly 400,000 plants will be planted in Bass Coast in 2018, increasing the vegetation cover by 1.6 per cent.

On Phillip Island soil sequestration champion Bob Davie has done excellent work on soil carbon storage. Recently Professor Tim Flannery talked about the potential role of seaweed production and deep sea sequestration. A recent program on Radio National’s Big Ideas discussed the emerging role of algae as feedstock, a replacement for plastic and fossil fuels and also to sequester carbon.

Community action is heartening and vital. There is another powerful way the community can assert itself and that’s through the ballot box. The policy around climate change and renewable energy has been clouded and obstructed for 11 years by people with an interest in the fossil fuel industry holding back cleaner, cheaper renewable energy. Councils and communities can see it. They’re not waiting for the Federal Government but are already taking action – for the sake of their children and their children’s children.

*Michael Whelan is a Bass Coast councillor.

Gippsland’s Winter Bushfire

Conran fire (ABC)

It has been a general prognosis of climate change theory for many years that as the planet warms our fire seasons will become longer and we will experience more frequent large and severe bushfires. Clearly these predictions are now being fulfilled.

The fire last week at Cape Conran is the first bushfire of consequence in living memory to occur during winter.  The current bushfire declaration in NSW is the earliest ever and the CFA is issuing warnings that fire bans may be introduced in September. Last year the early November fire at Cann River was itself an extension of the bushfire season and we had the situation of major fires in the northern and southern hemispheres.

This year the fire season ended with damaging fires at Tathra in March. Now we have the fire in August at Cape Conran as the first of our winter bushfires giving an extended fire season of 8 to 9 months. The devastating bushfire in California last December whilst Cann River fire was still burning was the first time the fire seasons of the northern hemisphere and Gippsland overlapped. Now with Cape Conran and a multitude of blazes across the northern hemisphere it has happened again. The tradition of fire fighters from Australia helping western North America during their fire season and reciprocated here during ours may soon be a thing of the past.

An article by ABC journalist Nicole Asher on the Cape Conran fire and the possibility of fire bans being brought in next month noted “the season looked like it would be the worst in a decade” and that fire restrictions will be imposed in Gippsland in September and go through to April. The severe dry conditions in the region are noted but the article does not mention the obvious influences of climate change – warmer, dryer, less soil moisture.

As with the extended fire season the increased frequency of major fires is also becoming obvious. Major fires last century occurred in 1939 and 1983 at about 40 year intervals. This century so far we have had major fires in 2003, 2006/7 and 2009 at so far roughly 6 year intervals and with a very close (and obvious) correlation with the drier times. The largest fires in area recorded have both been this century – 2003 and 2006/7. These fires also burned for the longest period of time – over 2 months. In terms of fatalities Black Saturday is the sad winner followed by Black Friday (1939) and Ash Wednesday (1983).

When coupled with the problem of inertia and the lack of action by governments worldwide we can safely conclude that our fire season will soon be all year round and that fire emergencies and other related problems such as severe droughts, possible food shortages, along with other unknown outcomes will eventually lead to the adoption of climate emergency governments.

Hydrogen, Electric Vehicles and Gippsland

Hydrogen has certainly been in the news in Gippsland the last few months. In this column there have been two articles on the partially government funded coal to hydrogen pilot plant (see here and here ), an article on the chemistry of the process, another  on the Carbon Capture and Storage from the process at Golden Beach, and one on the proposed use of Hastings as a ‘hydrogen port’.

Recently there has been substantial publicity on CSIRO technological advances to convert ammonia to hydrogen. An ABC article highlighted that this would make the hydrogen powered car cycle much safer and user friendly. Another in the Melbourne Age linked this to the Coal to Hydrogen Gippsland Plans. The ABC article made much of the fact that this combustible fuel could now be produced and transported as benign ammonia and converted to the combustible hydrogen at point of use. However there are several aspects of this that the media may have missed.

One is that coal is not necessary to the process, that the ammonia can be readily produced by renewable energy anywhere where it has access to water and air. Long-time advocate of ammonia as a transportable form of hydrogen retired CSIRO scientist Barrie Pittock wrote “It is great news. The technological revolution is upon us. And we will see renewables taking over rapidly. There are already at least two major hydrogen/ammonia projects started in the Pilbara and north of Adelaide. Fossil fuels are rapidly becoming a stranded asset, and just as well! So much for the NEG – it is almost irrelevant now.”

The other question is the relevance of this process is to automobiles. In this instance it would seem that the electric vehicle (EV) has already won the race. The EV has so many advantages over the internal combustion engine (including hydrogen powered ones) such as longer life, reduced maintenance and home and solar charging. And the cost of transporting electrons is miniscule compared to that a liquid or gas fuel.

The hydrogen powered vehicle in which several Japanese car makers have invested so heavily looks to be doomed. That does not mean that the CSIRO technical advances have been wasted. There must be many situations where hydrogen remains the cheapest and most suitable fuel. For example as back-up for medium to large scale generators, some industrial processes and possibly even aspects of transport such as shipping.

Some Gippsland Good News

Despite the tardiness shown by the National Party and our elected members to renewable energy the good news is the region of Gippsland is progressing rapidly with the adoption of solar energy. By exactly how much we are progressing is not known and may not be for some time. There are at least 2 solar farms on the drawing board at Wonthaggi and Maffra, with the former scheduled to come on line next year. As well there are solar bulk buy schemes operating across Gippsland shires the organisation and application of which will extend well into next year.

But it is the behind the meter installations which are making the biggest difference at the moment. The East Gippsland shire has been progressively installing solar panels on their libraries and other buildings. It is unfortunate that due to a Heritage ruling the main library in Bairnsdale is not part of that plan. Hopefully this will be resolved in the near future.

Publicity in the social media by leading Gippsland panel installers Gippsland Solar indicates that the behind the metre installation of solar PV is booming. They have just announced that 1.3 megawatts will be installed on 8 Hospitals and health centres across Gippsland. As well they recently installed 100 kilowatts on Dwyers Toyota in west Bairnsdale. It is behind the meter installations of this sort that are the big unknown and there can be little doubt that as business energy bills climb solar will become increasingly attractive. Solar production is a good match with daytime business.

Unfortunately wind has lagged well behind solar. The Star of the South offshore wind project is currently waiting for various approvals but on its own could offset the loss of one of the valley generators. The project plans at least in part to make use of the valley infrastructure. It seems that the wind projects in parts of western Victoria are being constrained by the carrying capacity of the mains power lines. Those in the valley are underutilised and this remains one of its advantages yet to be exploited. Why for instance couldn’t the Hazlewood Pondage be turned into a floating solar farm along the lines advocated by engineer Chris Barfoot?

The solar revolution is happening now, and will happen quickly, regardless of opposition from certain political quarters. It would even occur more quickly and seamlessly if they were sympathetic or supportive.

Gippsland’s Shifting Climate Belts

The effect of the earth’s climate belts migrating pole-wards as a result of climate change was outlined recently in a publication of this on Australian wheat production. More specifically it has been mentioned by Barrie Pittock in his blog on the Gippsland coast and the entrance to the lakes. The general thesis is that as the earth warms the tropical and subtropical belts expand pushing the temperate zones and in particular the westerly winds further south. We note however there are a number of complicating factors such as El Nino or La Nina events, or our mountain range, that may alter or disturb this.

Barrie Pittock noted “In short it is that the mid-latitude westerlies are moving further South with global warming, and thus the prevailing westerly winds across Bass Strait are weakening and there are more frequent easterly winds there, and waves from the east also.” In terms of rainfall it is the westerly and south westerly winds that provide the regular rainfall in the region although some parts of the district are in rain-shadow. So that we would expect, and probably are already experiencing, longer and more frequent dry spells with this aspect of climate change. This will affect the whole of southern Australia including the west.

Barrie also noted that an increase in the easterly winds and it is from the winds in this quarter, usually as part of a blocking low pressure system, that Gippsland receives it heaviest rainfall and is often the cause of flooding. To this can be added the fact that our ocean is warming, and quite probably being increasingly influenced by the East Australian Current. As well with each degree of warming, roughly what Gippsland has experienced in the last 50 years, a further 7% of moisture can be held in the atmosphere, leading to heavy rainfall.

Thus we are left with the apparent paradox that with our westerlies drifting to the south we will experience more, and more severe, droughts and at the same time experience more frequent and heavier floods. Anecdotally a combination of the two, as occurred in the upper Tambo River in 1998 where floods followed a short sharp drought, can be most devastating. A reverse of this with the heavy rain followed by the long dry will make the district most prone to bushfires.