Gippsland News & Views

Journalism and Climate Change

In the 1930s a young Wilfred Burchett was clearing scrub on the family farm at Poowong. He went on to become one of Australia’s most controversial and well known journalists and commentators. He rose to fame with the journalist scoop of the twentieth century in Japan at the end of World War II. Whilst every other war journalist in Japan went with the flow and attended the signing of the peace treaty on USS Missouri, Burchett went against the flow deciding that the real news story was elsewhere.

Following his hunch he made a difficult and dangerous journey to Hiroshima and was the first journalist to witness the destruction of a city caused by a single bomb. Newspaper headlines flashed around the world; everyone who could read now knew about the Atomic bomb and the insidious radiation sickness that followed in its wake.

Like the nuclear age that burst on an unsuspecting world, man-made climate change is in a similar, but different, position in the world of news. It can be seen like that well-worn cliché as ‘the elephant in the room’. Paradoxically climate change is well known but little understood. Vested interests have successfully muddied the waters and distorted the science. People in Gippsland generally, and some journalists, have accepted the distortion that our current climate change is natural and that therefore nothing can be done about it. The priority for the local media becomes the road accident at Briagolong or a drug bust in Mirboo North.

Many journalists and commentators still confuse weather and climate. From Alan Jones down some crow their disbelief every time there is a massive snow storm in the eastern USA (forgetting of course the record hot temperatures in the Arctic) or when there is a record frost in Bairnsdale. Normal weather patterns dictate that there will be both hot and cold records but not in a ratio of six hot ones to every cold. It is also becoming clearer over time that global warming is influencing all weather in many ways from warmer winters to longer fire seasons.

Amongst current mainstream media journalists working on climate Peter Hannam of the Sydney Morning Herald is a standout. Others such as Tristan Edis of News Corp lost his position some time ago as his work was continuously running counter to the political thrust of his organisation. The campaign of opposition, distortion and misinformation emanating from News Corp, the major print media organisation in Australia, is bordering on criminal. The Guardian by comparison is light years ahead.

This then is a conundrum especially for local journalists. How do they write (or present) about climate change? Barring a nuclear holocaust or a major plague (from bacteria released from a melting permafrost?) global warming will be the news event(s) of the twenty first century. Can Gippsland produce another journo of the calibre of Wilfred Burchett to report on this?

Politicians, Dirty Politics and Climate Change

(Andrew Meares)

It is becoming increasingly clear that most politicians don’t understand the science of climate change. Even if they do their actions are governed by gaining or retaining power, and thus using dirty politics, rather than tackling the difficult tasks climate action involves. There are numerous examples on both sides of politics of this situation.

The current conundrum of ALP leader Bill Shorten over the proposed Adani mine in Queensland and Labor’s quest for power means that he ends up sitting on the fence. On the one hand he states that he does not like the proposal to appeal to city based voters and on the other does not veto the project to appease his union base. This is the predicament that he currently faces in this weekend’s by-election in Batman.

It is also a problem for the so called ‘conservative’ side of politics, who when defending big money in the form of coal find themselves in ridiculous situations.  The Lib/Nats attempt at greenwash promoting the dying coal industry is ‘beyond the pale’ and such efforts as passing around a suitably varnished piece (so they would not get their hands dirty) of ‘clean coal’ deserves all the mockery it attracted. And politicians pushing low emissions (or lower) emissions with carbon capture and storage have yet to grasp the urgency of the situation.

In Gippsland the CFMEU, representing coal miners and forest workers, has a substantial amount of power and influence. This is clearly seen with the Labor state government’s purchase of the Heyfield timber mill – another example of pollies protecting their power base instead of grappling with the problem – logging of native forests – that is destroying the State’s most valuable and irreplaceable carbon storage. Each tree that is felled should be replaced by 100 seedlings. Each tree that is felled is another nail in the Labor Party’s coffin. It is also a nail in ours.

There are two separate but related major disruptions happening today. The first is man-made climate change. This is still well down our list of concerns, but in spite of this, requires urgent action. The second is what Tony Seba describes in his book Clean Disruption as the rapid uptake across the globe of solar, wind, batteries, electric vehicles and autonomous electric vehicles. The latter will be hugely beneficial in reducing our carbon emissions and Seba cogently argues that all this will happen very quickly regardless of politics. The rear-guard actions of the Lib/Nats against renewable energy will, aside from delays of a year or two, be pointless.

It is clear many bureaucrats – in Earth Resources for instance or Vicforests – and most politicians do not understand the problem of climate change, nor the urgency for action. For when they do working on mitigating and adapting to climate change will become their overriding concern and dominate their energies and efforts. Dirty politics should disappear and a return to bipartisanship at all levels of politics on this issue hopefully will return. As a starter attendance at Climate 101 classes should be compulsory for them all or at least watching one of Seba’s videos of the disruptions we are now facing.


Fly-ash to Cement: a Latrobe Valley Opportunity

Much has been made for employment prospects in the Latrobe Valley that are not going to occur like ‘clean coal generators’ and ‘carbon capture and storage’. Instead of these dead end strategies industry and government should be concentrating on exploiting some of the natural advantages of the Valley. One of these advantages is, strangely enough, the fly-ash waste that has accumulated over the last 100 years and is still being produced by the current generators.

A publication by independent think tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) entitled Rethinking Cement (2017) recently highlighted the possibilities of exploiting the fly-ash in cement production. The publication is part of their detailed analysis of how industry can move to being carbon neutral over a ten year period. The study notes that cement production is industry’s major carbon polluter causing 8% of global carbon dioxide emission – more that the global car fleet. And the fly-ash waste produced by coal power generation is an environmental problem.

The report stated “Geopolymer cement production does not require a kiln and therefore the set up cost of a new plant is relatively low, at less than 10% of a Portland Cement plant. New plants can be established at or close to sources of stockpiled fly-ash, potentially forming part of transition planning for local communities impacted by the closure of coal-fired power stations.” (p.7)

I am reliably informed there are large deposits of fly-ash in parts of the valley including at the bottom of the Hazelwood open cut. The study suggests that there is enough fly-ash to last for 20 years of cement production. Some years ago the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council expressed interest in such a project and apparently Monash Gippsland (now Federation Uni) Engineering did studies on fly-ash cement products although I have been unable to locate these on the internet.

The study also noted that waste clay can also be used in cement production and “there are large kaolinite deposits left around the Morwell and Yallourn coal mines in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley. This waste material could be the source of metakaolin used in cement.”

The use of fly-ash for cement production has been identified by at least one Morwell resident as a win/win opportunity. The climate emergency necessitates that coal fired power be closed down as quickly as possible and that all other carbon dioxide pollution is minimised, including cement production emissions. Fly-ash to cement production is one obvious step in a just transition and the BZE book* of 95 pages spells out most of the detail!

* all BZE publications are available in the East Gippsland Shire Library or you can purchase them here.

A Court Order and South Gippsland Wind Farm Noise

A tweet on 27 February by ABC journalist Kellie Lazzaro alerted me that the “Court has ordered South Gippsland Shire Council, to conduct an independent assessment of noise from the 52 turbine Bald Hills wind farm.” A Great Southern Star article noted that the order was from the Supreme Court and that the Shire would spend $33,600 to re-examine the noise situation as ordered previously by the court and that there had been complaints in the Tarwin Lower area about the noise.

The South Gippsland Sentinel Times noted “the South Gippsland Shire Council’s failure to properly investigate complaints about nuisance noise levels from the Bald Hills Wind Farm, have continued to dog the South Gippsland Shire Council. Last Wednesday, January 31, the shire’s lawyers, Maddocks of Collins Street, attended a Supreme Court Directions Hearing initiated by lawyers for the affected Walkerville landowners…”

The claims against wind turbines have been examined many times over and this is just another case of ‘reinventing the wheel’ and wasting council funds. Of all the claims against wind turbines the only one that has any credence is the possible damage to bird and wildlife. The Star article noted an advertisement in its pages by the “wind farm said turbines would not threaten the survival of bats and birds of concern, such as the Orange-Bellied Parrot.” Perhaps.

An article in the Conversation noted the “chances of any birds hitting the turbines were vanishingly small”. However the title of a recently released film ‘The Desperate Plight of the Orange-bellied Parrot’ by Dave Neilson clearly summarises the predicament of this critically endangered species.

A general article on wind farm noise (admittedly published by General Electric) noted: “The closest that a wind turbine is typically placed to a home is 300 meters or more. At that distance, a turbine will have a sound pressure level of 43 decibels. To put that in context, the average air conditioner can reach 50 decibels of noise, and most refrigerators run at around 40 decibels. At 500 meters (0.3 miles) away that sound pressure level drops to 38 decibels. In most places… background noise ranges from 40 to 45 decibels, meaning that a turbine’s noise would be lost amongst it. For the stillest, most rural areas… the background noise is 30 decibels. At that level, a turbine located about a mile away wouldn’t be heard.”

In contrast to this I lived beside a small wind generator for 20 years. The distance of the tower from the house was only about 15 metres and yes, at times it was noisy. When a gentle breeze strengthened to about 6 kilometres an hour the generator kicked in with a steady hum. It was a pleasant sound reminding me I was getting free and non-polluting electricity.

‘Pie in the Sky’ or the Coal to Hydrogen Latrobe Valley Project

An article in the Latrobe Valley Express (LVE) on the 12 February noted that the “Japanese giant Kawasaki aims to use Latrobe Valley brown coal to produce hydrogen in a project which would dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions and offer huge economic benefits for the region.”

This is a bit of a ‘puff piece’ excusable for its local interest but not for its misleading claims to cut greenhouse gas. It is also building false hopes for the people in the valley as it is not going to happen. The same article however did note that the project could not proceed without carbon capture and storage (CCS). It is of note that a very similar and far more critical article appeared in the Guardian more than a year ago.

This coal to hydrogen proposal is closely connected to the CarbonNet project which is currently carrying out a seismic survey off Golden Beach to locate suitable sites to ‘store’ or bury the captured carbon dioxide. Part of the problem is that there is not a commercial CCS plant operating anywhere on earth. CarbonNet may locate suitable storage repositories but without capturing all the carbon dioxide created in the process the money spent is wasted. There is also the problem of cost and the problem of time. The use of both coal for stationary energy and hydrogen for cars may already be superseded by renewable energy and storage as the costs and efficiencies of the latter rapidly improve.

As solar and renewables approach ‘grid parity’ – where cost is equal to or below the wholesale price of electricity – there is no reason to use coal power unless it is heavily subsidised. As the price of renewables and storage continues to further decline they approach what Tony Seba calls ‘god parity’ where renewable energy is cheaper to produce than the cost of distribution.  Seba, Stanford University academic and author of Clean Disruption, predicts that these will happen very rapidly. ‘God parity’ will signal the end of coal power generation.

Another article in the LVE  noted that “Carbon capture and storage technology was not a viable option for Loy Yang A, according to AGL Loy Yang general manager Steve Rieniets” yet also “He did not rule out other low-emissions uses for the Latrobe Valley’s brown coal reserves, such as coal to hydrogen, but stressed these options were still in very early stages. The general manager could also not rule out any possibilities of an early power station closure, or workforce restructures”.

We should support hydrogen converted to ammonia that is produced sustainably using renewable energy and water rather than using coal power to convert coal to hydrogen. The climate emergency dictates that it is not just a matter of reducing CO2 emissions but eliminating them altogether.


Gippsland Hydrogen & Ammonia

A recent post on twitter and facebook of an article on renewable energy and hydrogen received some attention and it was suggested that the manufacture of hydrogen for export could be done in Gippsland. The idea being to use abundant renewable energy to split water into its component hydrogen and oxygen and use the hydrogen as a carbon neutral pollution free fuel. Hydrogen can then be converted to ammonia as a means of exporting or safely storing energy.

The production of hydrogen and conversion to ammonia using renewable energy has long been advocated by retired CSIRO scientist Barrie Pittock. His original plan was for this to be employed in suitable areas of outback Australia utilising cheap energy from the sun to produce hydrogen from water and convert the hydrogen to ammonia using nitrogen from the air.

When recently asked about the applicability of this to our region Barrie noted: “The possibilities for Gippsland would be tidal or wind power to generate electricity to connect with the grid via the Latrobe valley, or again to generate hydrogen from water and combine with air nitrogen to give ammonia which could be sent by tanker or pipeline to markets and used in vehicles. It would also be great in future to power airplanes, which are becoming one of the biggest and growing sources of CO2 pollution. Electric cars are of course another great opportunity to reduce pollution, but not for ammonia (unless ammonia is used to regenerate electricity at electric refueling stations).”

There has been some recent publicity of another option – producing hydrogen from brown coal. The article admits that the process cannot work without carbon capture and storage and, as has been pointed out in the blog below, is a waste of time and scarce resources. The CarbonNet seismic survey currently being carried out off Golden Beach appears to be directly related to this proposal. As has been pointed out on numerous occasions there is no such thing as ‘clean coal’. By all means develop the hydrogen and ammonia options but do so with renewable energy using other abundant resources – water and air.

Carbon Capture and Storage in Gippsland and the Longford Meeting

Forum at Longford

A federal and state funded seismic survey is currently being carried out off coast of the Ninety Mile at Golden Beach. The Department of Earth Resources (formerly the Mines Department) stated: “The CarbonNet Project will conduct a marine seismic survey in Bass Strait in early 2018. The purpose of the survey is to gain deeper knowledge of the underlying geology of the area to help confirm the potential for geological carbon dioxide (CO2) storage…Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is being explored as part of a suite of solutions with the potential to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes that CCS can play an important role in helping to meet global emission reduction targets.”

This is a quaint way of saying governments are exploring their preferred option in the ‘suite’ – that of capturing the carbon dioxide produced in electricity generation in the Latrobe Valley – and justifying the expense that it is supported by the IPCC. Simply stated CCS in Gippsland is a ruse to prolong the life of the valley generators. It involves capturing the CO2 at the source, converting it to a liquid, transporting it to a storage location – possibly off Golden Beach – and injecting it underground. This is a project that is inefficient, horrendously expensive and does not work. Taxpayer funds spent on this project amounts to another subsidy to the fossil fuel industry.

A recent critique of CCS by Simon Holmes à Court noted there were only 2 small CCS plants operating on coal generation worldwide and that they “were built as demonstration projects, funded in an era when optimism for CCS was high and renewables costs were two-to-three times dearer than now. The owners of both projects have declined to invest further in the technology, having learnt the hard way that CCS doubles a coal power station’s capital and operating costs and is an outrageously expensive way to cut carbon pollution.”

Rather than sincerely tackling climate change this project is just part of a government, heavily influenced by the Minerals Council of Australia, picking and backing the losing option in their ‘suite’. The Australian National Auditor Office recently condemned government investment in the CCS process. It has been described as “dud investments in clean coal” with $450 million invested so far and “nothing achieved”. The CarbonNet survey continues this process.

Last Saturday a forum to discuss the CCS survey was held in the Longford Hall. An organiser “estimated that there were around 70 people at this first meeting… There were two speakers, Kerrin Schelfhout (a local from Seaspray who played a role in the Lock the Gate campaign against coal seam gas) and Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth… ” For further details contact


Jobs, the Just Transition and Electricity Generation

Morwell Power Station (The Age)

With one or two exceptions political parties of all persuasions appear almost bereft of imagination when it comes to implementing a just transition in the renewable energy revolution. One exception is the South Australian government which has been encouraging widespread investment in batteries, renewable energy and other forms of energy storage.  The Victorian government is trying hard with renewable energy but somehow hasn’t quite grasped the main problem of the transition – that centralised power production in the Latrobe Valley is in decline and being replaced by electricity that can be produced anywhere. Because of the decentralised nature of renewable energy production it appears jobs are slowly being exported, for example, to western Victoria where wind energy has established a strong manufacturing base in Portland.

The valley is now going through the second painful ‘transition’ process it has faced in the last 30 years – privatisation being the first. A recent opinion poll indicates that employment is by far the most important concern for Gippslanders. But the damage done by clinging to the old power system is considerable as the remaining power stations will eventually be closed down in the not too distant future and possibly much sooner than we think. Through lack of planning jobs in the power industry are being exported wherever renewable energy is being developed.

There are many job options that utilise valley resources with Gippsland advantage include offshore wind, energy storage in pumped hydro and floating solar farms. I made a few suggestions along these lines in the previous blog below. There are also a number of possible projects suitable for the valley that involve win/win situations. They include restoration of the Hazelwood open cut and lining the walls with solar PV as suggested some time ago by Dan Caffrey and manufacturing products from the various fly-ash deposits in the valley. I understand that this was considered by the Gippsland Trades and Labour Council and some work on this was done at Monash Gippsland.

The current squabble over the heritage listing of the Morwell Power Station could also be resolved into a win/win opportunity. Is it possible for the asbestos to be removed and then use the buildings for other purposes such as the installation of batteries, flywheels or some other renewable energy component? I hope to look into each of these options in more detail at a later date.

To achieve a ‘just transition’ the State government needs to pour funds (taken from other less important areas) into the valley and create more than full employment in the area. It must be emphasized that this requires government funding – it cannot be done by private enterprise.

100% Renewables by 2030

The aim for 100% renewable energy in Australia by the year 2030 (and much earlier dates) has been around for some time. It was the main platform of the Renewable Energy Party in 2016 and a quite achievable goal. It is a goal that could be achieved on a much faster timescale with strong political support and sound planning. The pioneering report in this area of policy was done by the think tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) who published their Stationary Energy Report in 2010.  This report closely documented how we could get to 100% renewable stationary energy by 2020 and relied on solar thermal plants to provide 60% of the renewable energy and storage required by that time. The first solar thermal plant has only just been commissioned at Port Augusta and the rapid development of photovoltaics plus batteries has probably by passed this option.

Heavily influenced by the BZE report I had my own sketchy outline of how the transition from dependence on coal fired energy to 100% renewables could be done in the Latrobe Valley. This was basically part of my political platform in 2012 and, like most documents of this kind, short on detail. What it did emphasize was the need for planning in this process and to have a “Federal Energy body that will plan, oversee and facilitate the replacement of coal based generation and the rapid uptake of renewable energy.” It also made some suggestions as to how the Valley could utilise its natural advantages. Advantages that include established transmission infrastructure, a manufacturing base, transport and proximity to Melbourne.

Recently there has been a study by the Australian National University  and another by the Alternative Technology Association (ATA) on how to achieve the 100% goal by 2030  the latter based heavily on the former. Contributing author to the ATA report Andrew Redaway summarised their work in the journal Renew (No.142). This summary looked at various aspects of the 100% renewables revolution, including renewable energy capacity, energy storage and energy efficiency. Interestingly, both these reports suggest the drastic increase in energy storage required will come from the Snowy 2 pumped hydro project. Recent remarkable developments in lithium-ion batteries and in particular using the electric car battery as a house battery (known as vehicle to the grid) may be other alternatives.

Where does Gippsland fit in this renewable energy surge coming, whether we like it or not, very quickly. The bad news for the valley and Gippsland is that jobs and big projects such as wind are being developed elsewhere. Our electricity system is transitioning from a highly centralised one to almost the opposite – decentralised to the extent that every house and business can be a generator of power for their own use, for sale, and sometimes to buy from the grid.

Options for Gippsland are only limited by our imagination. Massive rooftop solar installation to houses and businesses, a similar approach with heat pumps, commencing appropriately sited large scale pumped hydro and floating solar projects and expanding the current offshore wind project many times are possible options that come to mind. The transition can be done and must be done. The climate emergency dictates as quickly as possible.


Modern-day Biochar by John Hermans *

John raking up the end product beside his ‘biochar producer’. Nice t-shirt too!

Biochar use has been documented as far back as the Amazonian Indians, who created tera preta or ‘black earth’. These nutrient-enriched soils retain much of their higher fertility, and their char, thousands of years after they were created. Biochar can also permanently lock up carbon to help neutralize our carbon footprint. In this world where governments are largely failing to mitigate a climate catastrophe, this is another path for a ‘bottom-up’ global effort.

Biochar is now commercially available as a soil conditioner, at around $10/kg, but if you are not confined by allotment size, it is quite easy and cheap to make instead. You can also then control what goes into it. In my case, I have been using the sticks and leaves that I would otherwise have burnt to reduce summer bushfire risk.

Making it has also given our household another option for becoming truly carbon neutral, other than planting trees. Biochar means we can now lock up atmospheric carbon in the soil, potentially for thousands of years, rather than have it re-enter the atmosphere when the ground litter rots or is burnt. Once it is added to the soil, it remains mostly inert to oxidation and hence does not re-enter the carbon cycle. At the same time, it increases the soil fertility in our extensive food garden.

When organic matter is burnt in the open air, it nearly all burns to ash, with only very small amounts of unburnt black char. In biochar manufacture it is preferable to use enclosed steel drums to control oxygen delivery. When the fuel is burnt in controlled conditions, gas is converted to CO2. An added advantage is that it is a fairly smoke-free production process— far more neighbour-friendly than open-air fuel reduction burning. But because so many people use this method and will continue to do so, I have describe an option that has little added effort to this procedure.

There are many ways that char is produced commercially or in back yards. A method which I have recently developed allows char to be made from leaves and small sticks that are routinely racked up from under Eucalyptus trees in the spring and summer period. By using a modified rake with the lower section of the handle being made of steel, to avoid being burnt, there is little else required to achieve the task.

A long row of leaves and sticks around a meter wide and 20 cm high is created with a simple leaf rake, and around 6 meters long, the up wind edge is set alight, it is helpful to use an accelerant such as kerosene, to get it all going at once. When the leaves are mostly all alight, you then use the extended handle rake and roll the leaves from below the row over top of the burning leaves, continue doing this for as long and as quickly as you can, and before you know it the flames go out and you are left with nothing but small leaf sized of biochar! This season I ended up with two 200L drums of char using this method.

Reduce atmospheric CO2, reduce wild fire fuel loads, and increase your garden soil nutrition capacity. Happy biochar making!

* an edited version of an article by John that appeared in Renew 124