Queensland ramps up renewable energy

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Renewable energy – solar lights at Charters Towers-

For some time I’d been harbouring a suspicion that Queensland was a laggard when it came to renewable energy. That may have been the case in the past – wind and solar generation increased only 3% between 2006 and 2016. But a recent national survey by the Clean Energy Council found that eight of the country’s top 10 domestic solar panel users are in Queensland. Bundaberg, which has some 11,060 households with solar panel installations, tops the list.

The Clean Energy Australia report (2018) said that in 2017, more than 1100 MW of rooftop solar power capacity was installed Australia-wide. This has happened despite the winding back of once-attractive subsidies to install solar, as well as a reduction in the amounts paid for selling energy back to the grid.

At the end of 2017, more than 50 large-scale wind and solar projects were under construction or scheduled to start in the near future. This represents more than 5,300 MW of new generating capacity, $10 billion in investment and 5,750 new direct jobs. Queensland’s share of this new infrastructure will generate 2121 MW, a $4 billion investment creating 3,196 jobs. If all of the proposed projects come to pass, they will generate more than 15% of Queensland’s present day electricity needs.

While some regional Queensland towns (Emerald, Charters Towers, Hughenden), are building solar farms, my observations are that the domestic and business use of solar is hit and miss. We visited shopping centres in regional towns that have gone to the trouble of providing shaded car parks for their customers. These shelters usually comprised heavy duty shade cloth over steel frames. If they’d spent more money, they could have their very own solar farm, protecting shoppers from the punishing summer sun and generating their own electricity.

The lights upon the hill

While it may seem relatively inconsequential, outback Councils and mining companies have adopted outdoor solar lighting, the latter to light pathways within mining villages. Charters Towers Council has spent a lot of money dressing up the town’s main attraction (Tower Hill), with picnic tables and a walkway made from recycled plastic leading to the 29 concrete bunkers which were used to store ammunition during WWII. At night, LED solar lights positioned every 20m or so light the steep path to the summit for the nightly amphitheatre show, Ghosts after Dark, a documentary about the town’s history and legends.

Renewable energy’s been on my mind since returning from 39 nights staying in caravan parks, recreation grounds, farm stays and free camps. The latter attract grey nomads and their generators. We were camped somewhere off grid for a few days, so I put our 120W portable solar panel out in the sun, as you do, while my neighbour primed his generator. It wasn’t that intrusive and he did shut it off at dusk, but when there are 90 vans on one large site…

Meanwhile, after three days off grid, our 12-volt lights and marine fan were still working; we charged our phones and my trusty laptop and all I had to do was to keep moving the panel as the sun passed over.

Until recently, we also had a portable solar light, a simple gooseneck lamp, very handy as an extra light when cooking. It has/had a pop-out panel you can hold in the palm of your hand. Alas, I left it sitting on a tree branch (charging), at the last or second-last camp site. We spent a fruitless hour or so traversing Townsville in search of an Ikea (from whence the light was purchased, moons ago). Alas, lackaday, it turns out there is no Ikea in Townsville. The GPS navigated us to the outer industrial suburbs to a warehouse which acts as a distribution depot for online orders (from outlets which so far have no real estate in Townsville).

Just because you have switched to renewable energy, that’s no reason to forget about maintenance. We have eight panels on the roof and a solar hot water system which pre-dates the panels. When the technician came to give the system its 10-year check-up, the part of the system which converts the sun into energy had given up the ghost some indeterminate time before. Which meant our hot water was being delivered via a 240v booster switch. This partially explained why (a) the water was sometimes not so hot and (b) the disparity in our power bill. So this week we hired a plumber who installed two new solar panels to service the hot water system. This cost a bit, but we are confident of once more returning to the world of smaller power bills.

Which brings us to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s recommendation to wind down the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme by 2021.There are varying opinions as to whether that is a good or bad thing.

Lucy Percival of the Grattan Institute says the ACCC concluded that offering subsidies for household solar was a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided policy.

“Solar schemes were too generous, unfairly disadvantaged lower-income households, and failed to adjust to the changing economics of household solar.”

The SRES subsidy did not reduce as the cost of solar installation fell. So a larger proportion of solar installation was paid for by the scheme, as prices fell (from around $18,000 for a 1.5kW system in 2007 to around $5,000 for a 3kW system today).

In addition, premium feed-in tariffs were well above what generators were paid for their electricity production. Historically, solar feed-in tariffs paid households between 16c and 60c per kilowatt-hour, while wholesale prices were less than 5c per kWh.

Not everyone agrees that the ACCC got this right. Joseph Scales, national director of Solar Citizens said that while much of the ACCC’s report was ‘spot on’, the suggestion to slash the small-scale (subsidy) made zero sense.

“Solar is the best way to guarantee energy bill savings. Our governments should be helping more people to take the power back from the big power companies by installing cost-cutting solar.”

By way of example, New South Wales solar owners saved all of the state’s energy consumers $2.2 billion in just one year.

Meanwhile, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) will meet today to decide whether to support the Federal Government’s controversial National Energy Guarantee.

Solar Citizens and other pro-renewable lobby groups have three main objections to what they see as flawed, old-school energy policy:

  • The NEG will allow energy retailers to continue to benefit from energy fed back into the grid from customers’ rooftop solar systems (given that many consumers are paid around 11c per Kw, while retailers charge upwards of 32c per Kw) ;
  • The NEG does not provide incentives for renewable energy but instead props up ageing and inefficient coal plants;
  • The renewable energy target for 2030 is now so low it will be covered by schemes already planned or under construction.

It’s hard to see the NEG fixing the number one issue – the rising cost of electricity. Meanwhile, some three million Australian households have taken the matter into their own hands, installing solar panels. Now we just have to convert the two thirds of households who don’t have solar that it is the right way to go.

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Confessions of a Tree Hugger

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Bob the Tree Hugger, somewhere in Queensland

The derogatory label ‘tree hugger’ is worn with pride by environmental guerrillas, the ones who chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent them being chopped down.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines tree hugger as ‘someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats’. Yes, well, that’s objective.

Although chaining yourself to a tree as a form of conservation protest is more often associated with North America, you’ll find many such tree hugger examples in Australia. In Tasmania’s Tarkine forest, conservationists protested logging by direct action. Suburban tree hugger types arc up when councils decide to fell established trees for public liability or other specious reasons.

Trees, as the occasional crossword question will remind us, are the largest plants in the world. They not only provide animals and humans with shade and shelter, they pump out oxygen, suck up carbon, stabilise the soil and provide homes for native birds and animals. Trees are great for children to climb and big ones often support tree houses and swings. And as anyone who lives in a timber house could attest, once removed from the landscape, trees make permanent shelters for humans. Moreover, generations of young lovers have carved their initials in tree trunks. The latter is not world’s best practice, though, as damaging a tree’s skin (bark) can start a deterioration of the plant’s health.

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Tree hugger paradise – ancient Ooline forest

On our six-week outback trip last month we visited one of the few remaining stands of Ooline forest in Tregole National Park, which only achieved that status in 1995. Tregole’s Ooline forest survives in semi-arid, south-western Queensland, between two of the State’s natural regions, the Brigalow belt and the Mulga lands. As the National Parks website tells us, “the park protects a small but pure stand of ooline Cadellia pentastylis, an attractive dry rainforest tree dating back to the Ice Age”.

Ooline has been extensively cleared and is now uncommon and considered vulnerable to extinction.

In Queensland, a very large northern state of Australia, trees have been under siege and remain endangered by forestry activities and by clearing for agriculture or mining. Only 9% of Queensland is forested, compared to 16% of Australia overall.

​The ABC did a fact checking exercise during the last state election, to verify the claim that Queensland was clearing more timber than Brazil.

Some 395,000 hectares of regrowth and old growth vegetation was cleared in 2015-16, a 33% increase over the previous year. Queensland accounts for more than half of Australia’s total losses of native forests. This dire statistic generated critical editorials in international media.

The ABC fact checkers vindicated the claim by the Queensland Greens that more than one million hectares of native bush and forest was cleared in Queensland over four years.

“Land clearing in Queensland is now on par with Brazil,” the Greens said.

Unhappily, the rate of land clearing tends to increase under the management of conservative governments (voted in primarily by farmers, miners and the businesses that profit from agricultural and mining commerce).  One of the infamous innovations of land clearing was the ‘ball and chain’ method, involving two bulldozers, a giant steel ball and a ship’s anchor chain. The chain was secured between two bulldozers (with a third bulldozer often following on behind to add weight to dislodge larger trees).

The felled trees were swept up into a giant pile and left to dry for up to a year before being torched (in itself an ecological disaster).

Although the use of a five-tonne steel ball has largely been discontinued, many landowners still engage contractors to use the dozer and chain method to clear light scrub and forest. A good contractor can clear 40 hectares a day.

Fortunately, Labor governments tend to block or reverse the worst of the land clearing excesses. Queensland’s Palaszczuk government passed new legislation in May limiting broad scale land clearing. Farmers demonstrated outside Queensland parliament as the bill was being debated.

Meanwhile, the deforestation of Indonesia, South America and other continents and countries continues unabated. The World Resources Institute says that more than 80% of the Earth’s natural forests already have been destroyed, with clearing continuing at the rate of 20,000 hectares per day.

Tane Mahuta and the risk of dieback

If you have visited New Zealand and saw the country’s oldest and largest Kauri, Tane Mahuta, you were indeed fortunate. Two thousand year old Tane Mahuta, held sacred by the Maori, is at risk of infection from Kauri dieback, a disease which has already picked off many old Kauris in the surrounding forest in Northland and elsewhere in NZ.

New Zealand’s once massive Kauri forests were plundered over the centuries for ships’ masts, houses and other buildings and simply to clear the land for agriculture. In the 1700s, Kauri covered 1.2 billion hectares. Today the coverage is less than 4,000 hectares.

Meanwhile in Maleny, Australia, we ‘small c’ conservationists nurture the native trees on our half acre block, which remains well wooded. We rid the bottom of the block of every bad weed known to man or woman, circa 2002, planted several natives and allowed the area to regenerate as native forest.

The downside is a straggly line of giant camphor laurel trees which straddle the boundary between our block and a neighbour. We felled the biggest and oldest camphor as it was too close to the house, its root system undermining the driveway, massive limbs swaying about during storms. We felt bad about hiring someone to remove that huge old weed tree, imagining its psychic pain as chainsaws did their fatal work.

Did you know the term ‘tree hugger’ can also mean someone who physically hugs a tree to become more at one with nature?

“Good morning, tree.”

“Morning, Elspeth, coffee smells good. Ahem, I don’t suppose I could have a glass of water?”

BBC culture writer Lindsay Baker found that the recent emergence of ‘tree literature’ is no new thing, quoting the likes of William Wordsworth (It Was An April Morn), John Clare (The Fallen Elm) and German poet and philosopher Herman Hesse (Trees: Reflections and Poems).

“Trees are sanctuaries,” wrote Hesse. “When we have learned to listen to trees… that is home.”

New age and literary tree-isms aside, ‘small c’ conservationists can do their bit to save trees without necessarily chaining themselves to bulldozers or a Wollemi Pine (critically endangered, according to the Canberra Arboretum, which hosts 31 endangered species).

In 2014, we set ourselves a carbon-neutral cap after towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia. Our carbon footprint for this epic journey was 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. This translated to $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We donated this amount to Barung Landcare, where we often purchase trees, plants and ferns from their native nursery.

Our 2018 outback trip (6,000 kms), which ended on Monday, should cost us around $50 as our version of the ‘carbon tax’. Or we could just wander around the block, hugging trees (hose in hand).

Recommended reading: The Bush – Don Watson, Barkskins – Annie Proulx, The Hidden Life of Trees – Peter Wohlleben.

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Caravan maintenance and the art of journaling

No 6 in a six-part travelogue.

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Theresa Creek Dam at sunset. Caravan maintenance and the art of journaling.

As we start out on the last six days of a six-week caravan adventure, now is the time to dig into my journal for publishable insights and ironies. We found quite by accident an oasis in the outback called Theresa Creek Dam, 22km south west of Clermont. The dam was built here in 1985 by Blair Athol Coal to supply Clermont with drinking water.

It’s a tranquil lake spanning some 8,100 acres with abundant birdlife and a special kind of light. The dam is also an angler’s paradise, stocked quite recently (2015-16) with 14,200 barramundi and 34,147 golden perch. There’s also jewfish, saratoga and red claw. All kinds of boating is allowed, but you must have a licence to go fishing.

So after some hard driving across the flatlands of central Queensland, known for beef cattle and abundant reserves of coal, we took time to sit by the cool waters and reflect on the journey. We also did some running repairs on car and caravan. I say ‘we’ advisedly, as I am the sort of impractical bloke who will try three ways of doing something before the fourth and correct way.

This trip has not been without its mishaps, starting with the realisation, three days out, that the three-way caravan fridge wasn’t working. It cost $230 for a fridge mechanic in Charleville to tell us the bad news, that the fridge, given its age and resale value (nil), was not worth fixing.

So it’s had a good innings, this fridge, which the mechanic said was still working on gas, or at least it was until we took the van on dirt roads. She Who Plans Ahead Even When Being In The Moment reckoned it would cost $500 just to get the old fridge removed and a new three-way fridge (about $1200) installed.

The alternative, we figure, is an upright 12-volt fridge which will also cost about $1,100 but the installation will be a piece of cake. It can then run off the car battery when driving, the van battery when camped and the solar panel can keep the latter topped up. (Meanwhile, we pretend we’re in the 1920’s and use the fridge as an icebox, replenishing ice every couple of days. Ed)

In other on-road adventures, we bought a new car battery in Clermont. The old on failed once at Mt Surprise for no real reason other than to suspect the original Ford battery (four years old) was about to cark it. We got a ‘low battery’ warning a few days ago when starting the car, so got it tested in Clermont by the local RACQ approved repairer.

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Handy Mandy and the art of caravan maintenance

The other challenge was the caravan wardrobe door, which fell off while we were bouncing our way across the dirt road shortcut between Hughenden and The Lynd. Fortunately, the mirror on the inside of the door remained intact. Not so the hinges, which apart from matching all other hinges in the van, proved a curse to replace. Uncle John, who is possibly more handy than She Who Screws With her Left Hand (make of that what you will), tried three different hardware stores on the Atherton Tablelands and came up empty. He suggested a hardware store in Cairns which (a) was hard to find) and (b) couldn’t help us anyway. Persistent as always, SWSWHLH found a set of offset hinges in a caravan supplies shop in Townsville. But there were only two to (the only) packet. Not to be deterred, SWSWHLH took a hinge off a back cupboard, replacing it with the damaged one off the wardrobe, figuring that it ‘would do’ as it is not load bearing. So yesterday, with my assistance, She hung the wardrobe door and what do you know, it closes and locks. Yay. Estimated cost $4.86.

Anais Nin and my 40-year journaling habit

All of these little challenges are detailed in my journal, a long-running series of notebooks which contain not only factual observations, but also fiction and my interpretations of life as it progresses. It’s hardly the erotic adventures of Anais Nin, but as any good psychologist could tell you, it can be cathartic and even helpful to pour one’s feelings out in a journal that will hopefully never be read by anyone else. My executors have their instructions.

My journal contains sentiments which could be misinterpreted in the context of a loving relationship spanning many years. For example, Ms Acronym is apt to interrupt my sudden brilliant flashes of creativity, encouraging me to go birding, walking, do the laundry, work out what we’re doing tomorrow etc just when the small kernel of a new song has started rattling around in my head.

And as she no doubt caustically observes when scribbling in her own book, when travelling I tend to get dazed and confused in the late afternoon, readily confusing left and right and north and south. I grant that one’s spouse could find that exasperating, as I so often insist my way is the right way (when it is abundantly clear it is not).

She Who Keeps A Journal While Travelling has another writing exercise where she is supposed to spend 10 minutes writing down her feelings and then burn the paper. I apparently blundered into this exercise, rummaging around in the fridge (kept cool with ice boxes), saying “Honey, where are the carrots?” (My riposte was milder than you might suspect. Ed.)

Other minor mishaps on this escapade were usually due to somehow getting lost, which we either found amusing (or not). On leaving Glenmorgan for Surat (we’d been at Myall Park, a fascinating botanic garden in the bush), our GPS told us to turn left and continue down a corrugated dirt road which, half an hour later, had not yet met a bend. As my journal now tells me, some weeks after we stopped being annoyed about it, if we had not taken this road less travelled we would not have seen a mob of wallabies, a Bustard, a feral cat, four dead dingos hanging from a tree and a drover on a horse, durrie hanging from the corner of his mouth, who gave us a puzzled look and a laconic wave as if to say ‘are youse lost or something’. Later we deduced we had taken a local access road through various pastoral properties, emerging some 120 kms later at Surat.

We share equal blame for mishaps and forgetfulness. Someone left the van step on the footpath in Augathella while we went to take photos of murals. “Maybe someone nicked it,” I said, in an attempt to be charitable.

We drove on to Morven, planning to have a leisurely meal at the pub then watch State of Origin II. Alas, the pub burned down two years earlier so we ate canned stew and watched the game on the Ipad. I believe it is called finding strength in adversity.

My best act of dazed and confused was going into the ladies loo at Morven Recreation Ground. I came out of the shower wearing only a towel to find a woman about my own age looking less than excited to find a paunchy, near-naked old man in the ladies’ loo. “I think you’re in the wrong place, mate,” she said, in that charming understated outback way, adding “Ewes means girls, mate.”

Related reading:

Cape York or bust

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Cape York or bust

No 5 in an outback series

On the last day of Queensland’s school holidays, a steady line of dusty 4WD’s returning from Cape York are queuing up for the Daintree River ferry crossing. Many of these road-beaten vehicles are rentals from Cairns. You can tell the real deal 4WD by the snorkel (a vertical exhaust above the cabin – designed for crossing creek and rivers without killing the engine).

Kids or even adults have written epitaphs on the dusty windows including “Cape York or bust” “Been there done that” and “still driving”.

(And my very favourite one-“Capey McCapeface”.Ed)

The bitumen road peters out just past Cape Tribulation in the Daintree rainforest. Intrepid travellers with appropriate vehicles can take the scenic Bloomfield track to Cooktown then loop back along a sealed road to Lakeland, where the 582 kms journey to Weipa begins. After Weipa, the route becomes a 4WD dirt road with a few sealed sections, all up 908.4 kms, a 28 hour drive to the northernmost tip of Australia. Last time a survey was done, between 60,000 and 70,000 people had made the arduous trek every year. Those are small numbers compared to the volume of tourists visiting Uluru or Kakadu National Park, but in the context of a wild, undeveloped frontier, it’s a lot of traffic.

Some take organised 4WD tours, some fly/drive; others take a boat to Cape York and come back by road. If you do decide to drive from Lakeland, you have an estimated 15 and a half hour journey to Weipa (averaging 37 kmh). By contrast, the bitumen road from Cairns to Lakeland is a three hour drive (250 kms).

You might know that our outback travelling is constrained by the limitations of a six-cylinder rear-wheel drive vehicle and a 30 year old caravan. It’s a high-set van, but as recent journeys on unsealed roads have shown, the suspension is not built for corrugations. We call the 271 kms short cut from Hughenden to The Lynd, which has sealed sections and some rough stretches, ‘The Road that Broke the Wardrobe Door’.

So our adventures north of Cairns were limited to a day trip from Newell Beach to Cape Tribulation and back, via a cruise on the Daintree River, two hikes in the rainforest and the extreme disappointment that arose from listening to the Broncos getting thrashed by the Warriors (well may you scoff and say, ‘what’s that about being in the moment’?).

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Daintree River croc – Cape York or Bust

Despite the high tide, we saw three crocodiles on the (highly recommended) one-hour Solar Whisper cruise, including a 3m croc known as Scooter who decided to swim along the mangrove-lined bank a few metres from the boat. John the skipper pointed out a few birds including an Azure Kingfisher, a Papuan Frogmouth, a Rufous Night Heron and Radjah Shelducks. (There are photos on my camera, but the downloading process is rather primitive. Ed)

As for Cape York or bust, I can only repeat what authorities will tell you: take extra fuel, water, tyres, vehicle spares, a jack or two and a shovel. Always give way to wildlife. Note to those who are tempted: there is no mobile reception in much of the Cape region and satellite phones do not always work.

Nevertheless, Cape York or bust is a major bucket list item for the intrepid traveller; some ride trail bikes, others mountain bikes and more than a few walk the track, carrying their food and shelter on their backs.

Tourism is just one part of the Cape York story, a tussle between pro-development lobbyists (remember the Spaceport?), the mining industry, pastoralists, the traditional owners and increasing awareness that this pristine wilderness has to be protected for all time.

Even on the relatively tame Mossman to Daintree road there are decisions for the risk-averse. We don’t often take guided tours, but when it comes to croc-spotting (that’s Scooter on the left) on the Daintree River, go with an expert. I told our skipper about Paddy McHugh’s chilling song, Dan O’Halloran. He’d not heard of it, but I said he should look it up but maybe not share with his passengers. Not to spoil a good story song, I’ll just give you the chorus line: “Nobody knows what happened to Dan O’Halloran except me, and it makes me shiver”.

As we drove back along the narrow, winding but sealed road from Cape Tribulation, I wondered if (in the future) I had a Cape York or bust trip in me, and, when I did, would it be a sealed highway by then.

Successive governments have made efforts to upgrade the road from Lakeland to Weipa, which in 2014 still had 380 kms of dirt road, impassable after rain.

The Federal and State governments co-funded work to seal sections of road between Lakeland and Weipa, on the Cape’s west coast. Weipa is the site of a major mining operation and a deep water port. So there are commercial imperatives involved with sealing that road.

But it is a slow process, at about 30 kms per year on average between 2014 and 2018. The slow pace of the project was used as an election issue in 2017.

The numbers of tourists visiting the region fluctuate according to economic conditions and extreme weather events. Studies have concluded that the majority of Cape York adventurers are self-contained, so their contribution to the local economy is negligible.

As the Federal Government’s Wild Rivers report observed, Cape York is large and underdeveloped and only accessible for eight or nine months of the year. The region comprises 15% of Queensland in area, but accounts for only 0.3% of the State’s population. Cape York’s residents are amongst the most disadvantaged in Queensland. More than half (54%) of Cape York people aged 15 years and over have a gross weekly income of less than $400 per week.

While sealing Cape York’s main road and also minor roads to Aboriginal communities might be a good thing for locals (less wear and tear on their vehicles and all-weather access), one ought not to make the trek too easy. Cape York has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site (near neighbours, the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland Wet Tropics, are already listed). But as the University of Melbourne’s Jo Caust recently wrote in The Conversation, some World Heritage listed sites are being loved to death and authorities need to exert some control over visitor numbers.

When you read about the impact of mass tourism on Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Vietnam’s Hoi An, a coastal town that escaped the ravages of war, perhaps it’s a good thing that mass tourism is unlikely in Queensland’s rugged and remote top end.