Gippsland News & Views

The Climate Emergency, Conflict and the Triage System

As I have pointed out before there has always been some conflict in the environmental movement over various issues. The Green party grew out of the campaigns to stop the damming of the Gordon River and the flooding of Lake Pedder – an idyllic setting I visited in 1969. But now Tasmania (along with South Australia) is the ‘leading light’ in low carbon, renewable energy in Australia and that energy is mainly hydro-electric. There is, in short and in this instance, a conflict between no dams and a low carbon economy future.

I was reminded of this conflict following feedback on Paul Treasure’s pumped hydro blog  which required a new dam to be built near the Baw Baw National Park in the headwaters of the Thompson River. The proposal compared favourably with our Prime Minister’s Snowy 2.0 project both financially and in terms of energy stored. Negative feedback that came from several quarters was either opposed to new dams, concerned with the health of the Gippsland Lakes or the survival of the rare Baw Baw frog.

A substantial part of the environmental or green movement either does not understand the basic physics of climate change or they are motivated by narrow and specific aspects such as localism (which, somewhat ironically in most cases I would support and is one of the basic tenets of this blog). Like most of the populace many also fail to recognise the urgency of the problem, the need for concerted action on many fronts and that it is an existential threat to all life. As Julian Burnside noted “If we can’t fix climate, nothing else matters”. In other words we are in a climate emergency.

The triage system was developed during the Napoleonic Wars as a means of maximising the survival of casualties and dealing with the predicament of treating huge numbers of wounded soldiers – deciding who to treat, who had the best chance of survival etc. and so establishing a priority of action. It was designed as a response to an emergency situation. Perhaps triage will eventually be applied to climate solutions – to get the best gain in carbon reduction for the least expenditure of energy and to minimise any deleterious environmental effects of which there will always be some.

Two negative aspects of Paul’s pumped hydro plan are the effect that the plan would have on the Gippsland Lakes and on the endangered Baw Baw frog. No doubt there are other ‘downside’ aspects. This hardly fits the triage analogy and it is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. However it highlights the fact that there will be very difficult choices to make when we tackle the climate emergency. And the longer this process is delayed the more difficult (and more expensive) these choices will become.

Our Pollies Missing Out on Easy Climate Options

Our reactionary, mostly conservative, members of parliament have worked themselves into a corner by their constant and insistent denial of both the science and the actuality of a warming planet. They thus find themselves opposing even the most obviously beneficial changes to society such as the clean energy provided by wind and solar power – changes that the population in general supports. A recent example is the state member for Polwarth’s vehement opposition to the proposed Rokewood wind farm.

Adam Carey writing in the Age noted the proposed wind farm at Rokewood (which would be the largest in the southern hemisphere) had raised the ire of the local conservative member. He wrote: “Local state Liberal MP Richard Riordan said the project was an ideologically driven folly that would scar the landscape and create intermittent energy supply. If this ideological government gets its way it’ll cover my entire electorate in Rialto-sized concrete pylons that would work 20 to 30 per cent of the time,” Mr Riordan said.

“He said his rural electorate of Polwarth already had among the highest concentration of wind turbines in Australia, but residents had been given minimal opportunity to have their say. “If these turbines are so harmless and so pretty to look at, why not put them up in Port Phillip Bay along the Esplanade, or in open spaces in Fitzroy and Collingwood,” Mr Riordan said.

Riordan repeats several discredited myths on wind generation and ignores the money that will be injected into the community – in this case probably more than one million dollars per annum – the work in building and maintaining them and the fact that they are providing clean energy that will help the country meet its Paris agreement CO2 obligations. I have two nephews affected by wind developments in the western district – one whose commercial air agricultural operations are becoming more restricted by them and another one helping build them.

Another example of this reluctance to grab these easy options was sent to me by retired CSIRO climate scientist Barrie Pittock. He wrote: “Josh Frydenberg’s article in Monday’s Age (7.5) re Australia’s fuel security practically coincides with the release of a new report from the Parliament of Victoria on electric vehicles. The clear outcome from the latter is that encouraging private and public electric vehicles would not only save money in the long run, but reduce local air pollution, as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Fossil fuel powered transport is not only expensive but locally and globally polluting. The new all-electric solution is at hand. With local solar power, including from solar panels lining our highways and railways (and acting as noise barriers), we could secure our transport future as well as our environmental future. Let us have electric express buses on our major roads, with feeder buses on our connecting side roads. This would take thousands of private cars off our roads and free up traffic at relatively little cost to us and our environment. We could manufacture electric cars and buses in Australia, and reduce our reliance on imported petrol and diesel fuels. Let us do it!”

To which I might add ‘hear, hear!’


Powering ahead Part 2 by Susan Davies*

New Panels on the Lakes Entrance Library (EGSC)

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

It will help if those bigger new proposals generate a “social licence” as well as electricity. That means working actively with the community as projects are developed. Locals know things about their landscape that technical engineers might miss. They need to be consulted and their interests considered over the long term.

Bald Hills Windfarm provides an ongoing “dividend” to the local communities around the site in the form of community grants. They needed to do that. I hope these new solar farms will do the same, either building in some portion of community ownership, or via a community dividend. The co-op, with its deductible gift recipient status, community energy focus, and commitment to helping community groups across the region, could make this part easy for them. We are always happy to discuss.

Also coming … I keep meeting clever young people who tell me how we will soon be able to use software and new apps to gather together distributed generation and stored energy from solar, wind and battery storage. We’ll be able to send it out when it’s needed, to stabilise the grid and add supply during those critical peak demand times, earning us income as we go. When that can happen easily, everyone will pay less for power, even those who don’t own a house or factory with a solar roof.

For years I have been saying “Our grandchildren will curse us if we don’t act.” By supporting, encouraging and helping guide the developments in renewable power that are coming our way, we are acting.

I want each of those developments to be as directly beneficial to the immediate community as they can be. But I want them to happen, for all of us, wherever and whoever we are.

Encouraging renewable energy generation, with community and business working positively together, including dealing with the changes it brings, are easy small steps towards giving our grandchildren a brighter future with a climate that is settling down.

The momentum is all positive. It’s a very exciting time …

*Susan Davies runs a small mixed farm in Outtrim and was founding chair of the Energy Innovation Co-operative.


Powering ahead Part 1 by Susan Davies *

‘Coal to Green’ video by Tom McNish

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

Wherever I go across Bass Coast and South Gippsland and beyond I see solar panels, not just a lonely single string on a house as in the old days when I put solar on my place, but large roof-covering accumulations of solar panels on workshops, factories, shops, houses and rural sheds. Numbers are expanding exponentially. It gives me hope. We can act. We can make the change that has to happen. Our small, rural and traditionally conservative communities can see the advantages already, even if some of the old political forces are slow to get the message. It is just happening.

Numbers and sizes of solar installations aren’t expanding because of large government subsidies. Households and businesses install solar because it reduces power bills, it’s easy, has a quick pay-back period and is very reliable (provided you’ve learned the lessons of the past and used a quality installer and quality products).

I am part of the Energy Innovation Co-operative. We have been working in this region for nine years, helping to encourage this change to renewables and energy efficiency. The co-op will add in a small way to the regional renewable energy output with the 90 kW to be installed at the State Coal Mine Wonthaggi. Our Southern CORE (Community Owned Renewable Energy) Fund is helping community groups to install solar panels on their buildings.

There are other solar projects to follow, including inviting small investors to help fund a solar installation in return for income or credit on their power bill. And we will keep providing advice and support through community information sessions and social media. But there are more and bigger solar projects coming on.

The proposed 30 megawatt solar farm outside Wonthaggi has begun the permit and community consultation process. I know of at least three other local proposals that are even less developed. They will come, in time. I want this to be seen as a big plus for all of us. Renewable electricity generation is relatively “low hanging fruit” in reducing carbon emissions. Reducing emissions in other areas of our local economy, such as transport and agriculture, demands more effort from each of us personally. Let’s go for the easier ones like power generation where we can.

*Susan Davies runs a small mixed farm in Outtrim and was founding chair of the Energy Innovation Co-operative.


The Chemistry of Coal to Hydrogen by Chas Rose*

A local media frenzy followed PM Turnbull’s recent announcement of a “world-first trial to use brown coal to make hydrogen” in the Latrobe Valley. The Federal and State governments are each contributing $100 million towards the cost of the trial with the final product being shipped to Japan. At the launch at Loy Yang “Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said hydrogen was a fuel of the future.”

Since then during his recent visit French President Macron’s pleaded with the Australian Federal Government to act on Climate Change. He used the key phrase “there is no Planet B” and one can only throw one’s hands in the air for our politicians “still don’t get it!”

The trial is hardly a ‘world first’ as the majority of hydrogen (∼95%) is (and has been for decades) produced from fossil fuels by steam reforming or partial oxidation of methane and coal gasification with only a small quantity by other routes such as biomass gasification or electrolysis of water. The problem with the whole idea is that Japan gets the clean fuel, hydrogen, whilst we are left with the carbon dioxide… an ‘unclean’ product! Where to put it? I understand the temptation… we have squillions of tonnes of brown coal and a lot of money may be earned from it. So why leave it in the ground?

Specifically, hydrogen is produced by first reacting coal with oxygen and steam under high pressures and temperatures to form synthesis gas, a mixture consisting primarily of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. After the impurities are removed from the synthesis gas, the carbon monoxide in the gas mixture is reacted with steam through the water-gas reaction to produce additional hydrogen and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen is removed by a separation system, and the highly concentrated carbon dioxide stream can subsequently be captured and stored. When hydrogen is used in efficient fuel cell vehicles, emissions can be more or less eliminated as water is the main product!

This is what the Japanese get and are prepared to pay for! Clean fuel with clean emissions! To get a lot of hydrogen the coal needs to be “gasified” rather than burned, creating compounds that can then be reacted with water to make hydrogen. Firstly the coal is heated with air. Then the products are again heated with steam. There are impurities such as sulphur and other products that must be removed. However, the bulk of the final product consists of carbon dioxide and hydrogen which must be separated. The carbon dioxide needs to be stored somewhere safely. Some of it (albeit a small proportion) may be used in other industries.

The whole scheme has already been highly politicised in the Latrobe region due to many workers being laid off since privatisation and the promise of new jobs is welcomed. However ‘renewables’ are the way to go if we are to meet our obligations under the ‘Paris Accord on Climate’ to which Australia is a signatory. Hydrogen (plus oxygen) can be made simply by electrolysis of water. This is where a rapid expansion of solar energy may be applied as well as feeding households for electricity demand. In the words of the French President: “there really is no Plan B if we are to avert global catastrophe in the coming decades!”

*Chas is a former Maths/Science teacher at Swifts Creek HS


Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES): another perspective

Paul Treasure’s blog last month on a PHES project adjacent to the Latrobe Valley attracted substantial interest. On the positive side it offered an energy storage that could more than replace Yallourn W – now the dirtiest coal fired electricity generator in Australia. It also made use of nearby Latrobe Valley infrastructure making it far cheaper than the Snowy 2.0 project and perhaps most important of all provided jobs for Gippslanders.

On the downside the proposal attracted some criticism mainly in the form of threats to biodiversity caused by construction of an upper dam adjacent to the Baw Baw National Park. In particular the threat to the endangered Baw Baw frog was mentioned along with other values of this near wilderness areas. It goes without saying that all projects of this sort need to go through the process of a thorough environment impact statement. The critics also suggested there may be other more suitable PHES sites and that improving energy efficiency may be a possible alternative.

Energy efficiency should lead to a drop in demand and ‘demand response’ a drop in high prices during scarcity. Current flat lining of energy demand in Victoria is probably due to improvements of the former but we have yet to make the serious inroads on demand that are needed. I intend to examine aspects of energy efficiency in another blog and have done a brief account of ‘demand response’ – paying consumers to turn off their power at times of peak demand.

Alan Pears writing his column in the Alternative Technology Association’s RENEW stated “the size and frequency of profitable price gaps [for PHES] depend on many factors. If too many energy storage facilities are built before it [Snowy 2.0] starts operating or demand response trims peak demand (when prices usually peak), the price gap will close. If improving energy efficiency drives demand down, it undermines the economics of all supply options by shifting the balance between supply and demand.”

And “Snowy 2.0 won’t be operating until well after the Liddell coal power station closes in 2022, so a lot of new storage and supply capacity and demand-side measures will need to be introduced before then. That will undermine the viability of Snowy 2.0. Given the rapid growth and declining prices of alternatives, Snowy 2.0 may require big subsidies.”

Whilst there are substantial risks with any large scale investment in Snowy 2.0 or a Baw Baw PHES there are far more involved in building any fossil fuelled power station.

Similarly ‘demand response’ is in its infancy and yet to have any effect on high prices. Much of this will be provided by a cost benefit analysis and the fact that we have to move from the high carbon to the low carbon economy as quickly as possible. From the point of view of the climate emergency action should be taken on all fronts to increase supply via renewables and storage and decrease demand by energy efficiency and demand response.

Climate Attribution and the East Gippsland Dry

Reports from across East Gippsland indicate the region is experiencing a (so far) short sharp drought similar to those autumn droughts we experienced in 1983 and 1998. A recent trip to Stratford via Perry Bridge and Strathfieldsaye confirmed this with a large number of farmers feeding out and some paddocks heavily overgrazed. The experience of 1998 is firmly in my mind when in the upper Tambo valley we experienced Easter dust storms which left a millimetre of fine dust spread over our furniture inside our house and small sand dunes formed on the south sides of the hills. There followed in June record floods.

The Weather Bureau (BOM) states East Gippsland has experienced a serious to severe rainfall deficiency over the last 12 months. Much of this century our region has been on the dry side although for most of this decade the seasons appear to have been normal to good. The unusual warmth we are experiencing in April (possibly a record?) appears to be heavily influenced by the warm water in the Tasman Sea.

How much of the drought can be attributed to climate change? For a start is can be clearly argued that climate change has been influencing weather patterns all our lives. However it is only since the 1980s that the increasing temperatures and other effects have become more pronounced and clearly observable. Also science has long predicted that the climate change will increase extreme weather events and make them more severe. Barrie Pittock, for instance, in his Climate Change (CSIRO Publ. Melb. 2005) has more than 40 references to drought.

The science of climate attribution is also growing rapidly and being used to predict how likely an event has been influenced by climate change and whether or not an extreme weather event would have occurred without climate change. The ABC noted “The basic principle behind climate change attribution is comparing the world as it is, with how it would have been without human-induced greenhouse gases”.

Unfortunately it is a fairly slow process and unable to help us with events that have just occurred or still occurring. Some events are easier to attribute climate change influence than others. For example a 2004 study of a heatwave that occurred in 2003 in the northern hemisphere and which caused 35,000 fatalities “found that climate change had more than doubled the risk of such extreme heat” for this event.

We can conclude that as all our weather is now influenced by the increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and that the current dry is also influenced by it though by how much we do not know. Interestingly the BOM forecast for south-east Australia is for above average rainfall for May-July. Perhaps we are due for a repeat of 1998?


A Solar Farm for Wonthaggi? by Catherine Watson

Republished from the Bass Coast Post

Bass Coast is noted for its bracing winters rather than sunshine but that hasn’t deterred a company proposing to establish a 30 megawatt solar farm on the outskirts of Wonthaggi. APR Australian Solar plans to build the farm on the site of the old St Clair abattoir, on the Korumburra-Wonthaggi Road. Company director George Hughes said the $50 million project would produce enough electricity to power 7200 homes, which potentially covers Wonthaggi and Inverloch.

Asked why Wonthaggi rather than somewhere obvious like Mildura, Mr Hughes said that Wonthaggi had several advantages for a solar development. “We looked for a substation with available capacity and a site that’s currently being grazed. Once it’s up and running, it will be grazed again. Cattle are grazing now; it will be sheep afterwards. There is no need for rezoning. “Plus there’s a need for power in the area. Wonthaggi is expanding and there is more demand.”

The private company has several projects underway in Europe and the UK and has recently shifted its focus to Victoria. “We feel there are good opportunities in Victoria; there is good support for renewables.” ARP has also announced plans for similar-sized solar farms at Lang Lang and Maffra and $100 million projects at Morwell and Baranduda.

As for sunshine, Wonthaggi certainly has more of it than the solar farms the company has established in the UK and Europe. “The difference in UK and Europe is the government subsidies. Over here there are no government incentives so it will be based solely on the sale of power.” Mr Hughes said the farm would enhance Wonthaggi’s energy security although the company was not looking at a stand-alone system.

“The power will be 100 per cent exported to the grid. If there is a high demand in Wonthaggi it will be used here first. Where there is surplus capacity it will go to Inverloch then be exported to anywhere.” He said the company was working with AusNet to resolve technical issues of compatibility. All going well, he hopes construction can start in early 2019.

Construction involves installing about 100,000 solar photovoltaic panels onto aluminium supports. The work is expected to take six months and produce up to 100 local jobs. Once construction is completed, the property will revert to a sheep grazing property. Mr Hughes said the local response had been very positive. And he assured the Post that planning was well advanced and the project would proceed. “When we start a project we’ve already put a lot of money into it. We need to do our sums.”

The Water will Come: a review


Gippsland Lakes with .74m sea level rise at high tide. This is well within current predictions for 2100 and more than likely to occur before then. Blue equals inundation but does not encompass any erosion. image

The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell (Black Inc. Melbourne, 2018)* is a book about sea level rise. It is mainly about the USA although it looks at many other parts of the planet including the Pacific Isles and the west coast of Africa. But it is the East Coast of the USA and in particular Florida which, to use an apt cliché, is ‘at the coalface’ of sea level rise.

The book examines in detail various aspects of this complex problem including climate refugees, of the need for an eventual ‘retreat from the coastline’, how the loss of gravity of melting ice effects sea level rise around the globe, of land subsidence and salinity. There is even a small amount of humour when Goodell notes “The best way to save coastal cities is to quit burning fossil fuels (if you’re still questioning the link between human activity and climate change you’re reading the wrong book).” (p.11)

With current average sea level rise around the globe of between 3 and 4 mm per annum Goodell notes that it’s not the sort of thing you can watch and only becomes visible with “higher storm surges, higher tides, and the gradual washing away of the beaches…” (p.12) He adds that “If we can hold the warming to about three degrees Fahrenheit above pre industrial temperatures, we might only face two feet of sea level rise this century, giving people more time to adapt. However if we don’t end the fossil fuel party…all bets are off. We could get four feet of sea level rise by the end of the century – or we could get thirteen feet.” (p.12)

Goodell then rhetorically asks “At what point will we take dramatic action to cut CO2 pollution? Will we spend billions on adaptive infrastructure to prepare cities for rising waters – or will we do nothing until it is too late? Will we welcome people who flee submerged coastlines and sinking islands – or will we imprison them?” (p.14) Questions of vital importance to Gippslanders and Australians generally.

So how does all this apply to Gippsland? Various aspects including subsidence, salinity, beach erosion and the amount and rate of sea level rise are important. A large part of our coastline is vulnerable to erosion and a sea level rise of a metre or more will probably destroy the Gippsland Lakes and make large parts of coastal and lakes towns and villages uninhabitable including Lakes Entrance, Paynesville and Raymond Island. See my somewhat outdated paper The Gippsland Coast in 2100 for more detail.

The time for drastic action to reduce our carbon pollution is now. And attempts by governments and the status quo in the Latrobe Valley to rescue the dying brown coal industry – like the current coal to hydrogen project in the Latrobe Valley – are pure folly. Governments of all persuasions take note.

*copy in the East Gippsland Regional Library


Monaro Climate News by Jenny Goldie

(Monthly Newsletter. Jenny is the President of Climate Action Monaro – fb page )

As if it wasn’t bad enough to have a lump of coal brought into parliament a few months ago, 20 or so Parliamentarians led by Tony Abbott, Eric Abetz, Barnaby Joyce, Kevin Andrews and Craig Kelly, have formed the Monash Group to push for a new coal-fired power station. To his credit, Treasurer Scott Morrison (a wielder of coal in the earlier stunt), declared it was not economic and rejected the idea. The next day, the descendants of General Sir John Monash, who was a civil engineer and an Australian military commander of the First World War, complained about the group using the name Monash for their “anti-science, anti-intellectual” proposal.

Despite Morrison’s rejecting the idea of a new coal power station, the Prime Minister clearly thought a sop to the backbench was in order. He is pushing Alinta to buy the ageing Liddell coal-fired power station from AGL so that base-load power can continue after its planned closure in 2022. PM Turnbull wants another three years or so of it so it coincides with the opening of Snowy 2.0 (pumped hydro). Fortunately, the heroic Andy Vesey of AGL is standing firm and not selling, and using it as a base to develop renewables.

Someone needs to tell the PM that base-load power is not what is required any more, rather dispatchable power is, and old power plants like Liddell do not deliver dispatchable power. And he needs to know that coal-fired power stations caused a surge in airborne mercury pollution, according to a study done in Victoria’s Latrobe valley.

David Spratt, from Climate Code Red, released a report two days ago that finds we will reach 1.5oC warming within a decade, based on a number of recent scientific papers. This of course, was the more ambitious limit of warming (as against 2oC) set by the Paris Agreement. You can read the report here.

One of the world’s leading climate activists, Bill McKibben, is coming to Australia soon [ ]. He will speak in Canberra on May 2 [and Melbourne May 3 ed.] on accelerating climate action. He’s always worthwhile but you have to pay.

Good to see our federal MP, Mike Kelly, standing firm against a nuclear power plant for the South Coast. While nuclear power does deliver carbon-free power once built, building the plants uses a lot of energy as well as the decommissioning.  And as he says, the waste and risk issues have still not been resolved.

Meanwhile, it’s been a hot, dry start to the year. Rather than being a source of pleasure as some news readers would have us believe, for anyone who worries about climate change, it simply provokes anxiety.

For full newsletter see here.