Gippsland News & Views

Bio-energy – a step towards sustainability or a dirty brown future? (18.6)

waste pyrolysis
Is the Bioenergy Forum being held in the Valley today and tomorrow seeking real solutions to the momentous problems of climate change and sustainability or is it an attempt to rescue the timber industry and the Latrobe Valley generators from oblivion? Two crucial questions that follow on from this are where the feedstock for the process comes from and how it is used.

If the proposal is that the material to be used comes from our forests and is then burned along with coal in the Latrobe Valley generators then this is disastrous. More CO2 will be released into the atmosphere than saved by these methods. Further by burning forest waste in the generators the life of these monoliths – already past their ‘use-by’ dates – will be extended when they should be closed as soon as is practical. Is the clause in the Renewable Energy Target Amendment currently before the Senate an excuse to prop up an ailing timber industry as well?

If on the other hand the material used is true shire and farm waste and is combusted in specially designed generators by the pyrolysis process, then this is a step in the right direction. In the 2010 election I stood as a candidate in Morwell and promoted this process which has been advocated by Tim Flannery. In 2014 I emphasised the need to rapidly phase out timber milling and the need to protect our forests as a carbon store. The pyrolysis process offers the opportunity to produce electricity or liquid fuel from true waste as well as producing a bi-product known as ‘biochar’ or ‘agrichar’.

But if the term ‘bioenergy’ used to justify the destruction of the carbon store in our native forests and send the ailing timber industry a lifeline then the process is not sustainable and the energy is definitely not renewable. The Senate amendment should be opposed.

Planning for Closure of Latrobe Valley Generators (15.6)

Following the surprise announcement that Alinta will close its Port Augusta generators Environment Victoria has called on the Victorian government to urgently “plan for the orderly retirement of coal-fired power stations” in the Latrobe Valley.

Recently an accident at one of the Port Augusta power stations meant that the South Australian grid functioned quite well without any coal fired generation – operating on wind, solar and gas.

Environment Victoria Safe Climate campaigner Nick Aberle said: “With Alcoa also recently announcing the unexpected closure of its Anglesea Power Station, it is clear that the Victorian government needs to fast-track preparations for how and when other coal generators will shut down. 

“The profits of coal power stations are being squeezed by increased energy efficiency, more clean renewable energy sources and their own increased maintenance costs for their aging assets.

“From a climate perspective, we welcome the closure of these highly polluting power stations…The Victorian government should develop plans for the orderly closure of power stations to ensure that adequate replacement jobs are in place to meet the closure timelines. The Latrobe Valley community is particularly vulnerable to unexpected closures and a clear plan will help Victorian coal workers avoid the same sudden fate as those in Port Augusta.

“Transition plans should provide certainty around when power stations will close, ensure full rehabilitation of the sites takes place, and provide a long-term strategy to diversify regional economies to non-polluting activities.”

A just transition requires that there is full employment in the Valley and that replacement industry and job opportunities are well established before any closures take place.

“Jellyfish & Chips”: an artist’s view of acid Oceans 9.6.15

Jellyfish & Chips

Following my article below on the Unidentified Jellyfish in the Gippsland Lakes (7.6) I thought it opportune to give the series by Inverloch artist Ray Dahlstrom on acid oceans a plug. Ray’s “Jellyfish & Chips” series ran in the Chapel off Chapel Gallery last year and comprised of 24 disturbing images.

Ray and his family were burnt out during the Black Saturday bushfires. His home at Steeles Creek and more than 100 paintings were destroyed. After resettling in Inverloch he began a number of climate related works on “Black Saturday” and “Your Carbon Footprint” before beginning his “acid ocean series”. Ray thinks that his “art should have something to say about the effect of climate change on the environment. It’s OK to create pretty pictures, but it’s more important to me now to get people thinking about the big issues which affect all of our futures.”

The “jellyfish & chips” paintings depict an ocean increasingly dominated by the jellyfish family with other species disappearing. Whilst the skeletal images of fish carcases may not be scientifically accurate they depict and predict the extinction of fish species. Some of these images have been printed on T shirts and can be purchased at Ray’s Gallery called Studio 40.

Unidentified jellyfish in the Gippsland Lakes another sign of global warming 7.6.15

A jellyfish collected near Duck Arm more than a year ago remains unidentified. The jellyfish discovered by Ross Scott was forwarded to the CSIRO for identification. CSIRO and Australian expert on jellyfish Dr Lisa-ann Gershwin stated that “DNA testing would take place to try and determine where the Gippsland Lakes jellyfish originated from” and that “the jellyfish was in the Sea Nettle group, so was likely to sting.” Dr Gershwin was retrenched before any positive identification was made.

But the specimen appears to have belonged to a species usually resident in the warmer waters of NSW and southern Queensland. The discovery made the news at the time – as in this informative article by Julianne Langshaw in the Gippsland Times (with photo)

Unfortunately Langshaw made no mention of the species gradually extending its range southwards and that this was a result as the warming ocean.

Elsewhere Hobday and Hartog of the CSIRO (see below) have clearly measured the warming of our coast

All this shows that our knowledge of the lakes, the species they contain, the temperatures and salinity of the waters is strictly limited. Our knowledge of the threats of climate change – of rising sea levels, of acidifying oceans and the migration of species is almost non existent. When will the relevant authorities carry out studies now required for the preservation of this wonderful system?

Bill & Wilma Reid’s NoCSG Sign 5.6.15

CSG Sign

Wilma at the sign

by Deb Carruthers (Gasfield Free Bairnsdale)

On the south side of the Princes Highway near Bomfords Road on the eastern entrance to Bairnsdale you will see a very large sign that was made by Mr Bill Reid, a local sheep farmer in the area.  Bill wanted to make his concerns known about unconventional gas mining by making a large metal sign with the words “CSGas Kills Farms”. Bill said he made the sign because, “I am concerned that unconventional gas mining (CSG) will kill farms and I want to bring this issue to the attention of the community.”

 “Having worked in gas plants I know firsthand about the range of constant loud noises that go 24 hours/day; this will upset the grazing and wellbeing of livestock.” Bill said, “I am worried that gas companies will take all the fresh water and we will be left with contaminated water, full of potentially toxic chemicals, it will be impossible to farm; no one will want to live in a gasfield.” Bill has also made another sign a bit further down the highway towards Bairnsdale. This is a smaller metal sign that says “No CSG”. 

Bairnsdale Bats and Climate Change Again (1.6.15)


The flying fox issue remains active in the local news. One resident who lives near the main colony has kept a log of their comings and goings for the last 20 years. She stated that most of the colony “depart after the first frost and are completely gone by the second frost. The winter of 2014 was the first year that the colony remained.”

It is not clear whether it was the moderate winter or the supply of food (they are primarily nectar feeders) that was the vital factor in the colony wintering over. If it is the former then the gradually warming climate indicates that the colony may eventually become a permanent rather than a seasonal one.

Our source is one of the unlucky landholders on Riverine Street who would like to sell but has been unable to do so because the presence of the flying foxes has severely depressed the property market. However the removal of 10% of the trees they inhabit – about to be carried out by the East Gippsland Shire – may not be a solution if the bats merely relocate further down the river and closer to the CBD.

If the winter presence of the flying foxes is not another indicator of climate change then their (and our) vulnerability to heatwaves almost certainly is. The summer of 2013 saw a number of bat fatalities in the Bairnsdale colony during a brief heatwave where temperatures reached 42 C.(see photo). It appears the flying fox is extremely vulnerable to prolonged heatwaves and 42-3C appears to be the critical temperature threshold. Of recent years there have been substantial heatwave fatalities in SE Brisbane, Casino, NSW and other places where fatalities of five to fifty thousand have been estimated.

Whilst we wrangle over minor issues like relocation the main issue of climate change is all but ignored. And the current heatwave in India reminds us as a species how vulnerable we are.

Mercury studies in Gippsland Lakes begin today 25.5.15

Groups like the Gippsland Environment Group and environmentalists like Ross Scott and health professionals like Dr. Jo McCubbin have been raising concerns about the mercury levels in fish in the Gippsland Lakes for many years.

It has been announced that a “study to assess mercury levels in fish of the Gippsland Lakes will commence  today followed by a broader environmental study into the accumulation of mercury and other heavy metals in the sediment of the Lakes. The first study, which will commence today will involve the catching of 100 black bream and 100 dusky flathead across 10 sites.”

The release added that the ”study of mercury levels in the fish will be conducted in line with research conducted in 1980, 1998 and 2004, each of which found that mercury levels were well within food safety guidelines and safe to eat.” Whilst this may be so McCubbin and Scott have been pointing out that mercury accumulates in the body and even very small doses may be harmful to pregnant women and small children.

The mercury in the Lakes comes from a number of sources including gold recovery operations of the nineteenth century and from the Australian Paper’s Maryvale paper mill. But the major source is probably from the continued combustion of brown coal in the Latrobe Valley. 

The media release concluded: “The Gippsland community, including professional fishers, has been consulted about the research, and the fishermen will participate by catching the fish for the study. Professional fishers also participate in the annual algae monitoring in the Lakes. These studies are joint initiatives of the Department of Health & Human Services, the Environment Protection Authority, Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning, Fisheries Victoria, the Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport & Resources and Primesafe.”

The State government is to be congratulated on this initiative.


Is Pumped Hydro part of a Just Transition for the Latrobe Valley? (16.5)

Pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) is a simple means of storing large amounts of energy. All that is required are two storage ponds with at least 90m altitude difference. When power is cheap and in low demand water is pumped from the low pond to the high one. When power is dear and in high demand the process is reversed producing hydroelectricity. This process is already used in the Snowy Mountains. 

In an article published online this week Tim Forcey and Roger Dargaville of the Melbourne Energy Institute suggest that the coal pits and storage ponds of the Latrobe Valley are ideal for changing to PHES.

They wrote that “many Australians know that Lake Eyre in central Australia, at 12 metres below sea level, is Australia’s lowest naturally-occurring location. However some of the Victorian brown coal mines have been dug as deep as 60 meters below sea level to form the deepest open-air point in Victoria and possibly on the entire continent. These below-sea-level mine pits would serve as the lower ponds for a PHES scheme. Existing cooling water pondages or new reservoirs would be used as upper ponds… a Latrobe Valley PHES facility would have the competitive advantage of being sited nearly beneath the major electricity transmission lines that supply the Melbourne market.”

The use of already made ponds is a large cost advantage as is the fact that the complete reclamation of the mines would no longer be necessary. This must give the Valley companies some financial incentive for an orderly transition to renewable energy.

They concluded that:  “The real extent of the Latrobe Valley pits (hundreds of hectares) plus the 130 meter elevation difference between the upper and lower ponds allow [for] a world-class PHES facility greater than 1,000 megawatts to be contemplated. Such a PHES facility would, in future, help balance the continuing expansion of variable renewable electricity generation (i.e. wind and solar). Retiring Latrobe Valley brown coal plants and rehabilitating their associated coal pits for a future career in renewable energy storage could be key stepping stones on the path to 100% renewable energy.” The full article can be found here

A detailed study of pumped hydro sites in Australia has been done by the Melbourne Energy Institute and is available here.


Bats of Bairnsdale and Climate Change (12.5)


The Flying Fox colony on the banks of the Mitchell River is back in the news again with the East Gippsland Shire recently announcing that they would go ahead with removing 10% of the trees the colony inhabits without waiting for the colony to disperse. Plans to remove the trees last year were upset when the colony remained through the winter.

The gradual warming of the climate – especially in winter and at night time – increases the likelihood of the colony remaining there permanently. The winter stay of 2014 appears to be the first time that this has occurred. To date the colony is approaching two years of continuous occupation.

In a letter to the Bairnsdale Advertiser (8.5) veteran forest campaigner Jill Redwood voiced her concern at the tree removal program and dispersal attempts asking where “the bats will move to when their trees start to be cut down along the river…Will they move to the trees at the hospital next?” She noted that it’s a “shame that the benefits of flying foxes are not appreciated as forest pollinators and regenerators. They are also an easily accessible display of a most remarkable Australian species.” Redwood positively suggests the answer is to promote them as a tourist attraction.

The continuous presence of the bats may be merely an indicator of a warming Gippsland and that this warming has both extended the bats range south and their ability to winter over here. Perhaps their winter presence is a warning (and not just a mild irritant) that most of the other consequences of a warming planet are much worse.

Call for a Just Transition in the Valley (LVE 7.5.15)

In the 2010 state election I stood as an Independent “climate emergency” Candidate in the seat of Morwell with a platform of rapid transition from coal powered generation to renewable energy. This valid call is still ignored and to a great extent – aside from the Hazelwood open cut fire – little has changed.

But it is becoming obvious to everyone except our policy makers and powerful vested interests (and perhaps the drover’s dog) that the end of brown coal generation is approaching fast. This is primarily because of carbon emissions and climate change but there are also a host of other problems associated with brown coal power generation including air pollution, asbestos, mercury contamination in the Gippsland Lakes, subsidence and vulnerability to fire and flood.

The greens and some environment groups have recently renewed their calls for the closure of Hazelwood arguing that mine and power station rehabilitation will provide a boost for employment. The problem is that for any just transition, unlike the disaster of privatisation, the jobs must come first.

What is required now is some forward planning so the transition fro coal to renewable energy is done as seamlessly and quickly (10 to 15 years) as possible. Employment in the Valley can be boosted by starting the transition to renewable energy now and by beginning an ongoing process of negotiating with all interested parties for an orderly and just transition. It goes without saying that any contracting should be sourced as locally as possible.

A good example for starting the transition would be an order from the state government to start replacing every hot water service in state owned buildings with heat pumps from the Earthworker Co-operative in Morwell, conditional on factors like boosted apprentice intake, and increasing local manufacturing.

Another example is geothermal. It has been calculated by the Melbourne Energy Institute at Melbourne University that current generator’s carbon emissions could be reduced by 20% by using geothermal energy just below the coal to assist in the heating process. Why haven’t the power generators done this? Tighter emissions controls may be an incentive for generators to adopt this process.

There are a number of examples of opportunities like this. The transition from coal to renewable energy is inevitable and the question now is how to do this as rapidly and fairly as possible.