Renewable energy vs climate sceptics

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Renewable energy – Mount Majura solar farm, ACT (image courtesy Climate Council)

Have you ever noticed, after giving your dog a bath, how it will head straight for the nearest patch of renewable energy? Ours has a favourite sunny spot next to the dining room table where he will happily bask, while our solar-powered camping lamp, calculator and torches are recharging on the window sill.

Free sunshine – what’s not to like? As it happens, we have been preparing our little caravan for a weekend music festival in the bush. The 160 watt portable solar panel slides snugly under the bed. At $159, this has proved to be a worthy investment for our outback and bush music weekend adventures. It means you can keep topping up the caravan’s battery (if the sun is shining) and go to bed early if it’s not.

We are not expecting rain. No-one is expecting rain.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed the winter just past was the hottest since records began in 1910. It was also the 9th driest winter on record. The average maximum temperature was almost 2 degrees above the long-term average.

Meanwhile, Texas is suffering unprecedented flooding courtesy of Hurricane Harvey, the reporting of which has somewhat overshadowed devastating monsoon flooding in South East Asia. So far, in the latter disaster area, 1,200 people have been killed and almost two million children were unable to get to school.

As we ironically say in the privacy of our own home – “Just as well there’s no such thing as climate change, then!”

Now all, some of, or only a small part of these extreme weather events could be ascribed to global warming/climate change, which, 97% of scientists agree, is mostly caused by human activity.

Despite this consensus on behalf of an apparently overwhelming majority of scientists, sceptics disagree. I happened to read that former Prime Minister Tony Abbott is set to deliver a speech, “Daring to Doubt,” at an annual climate sceptics group meeting in London on October 9.

You might remember Tony Abbott – his reign as PM at one year and 361 days (cumulative terms), was longer than that of Harold Holt and Billy McMahon, but not by much.  Abbott the Climate Change Sceptic is infamous in some quarters as the man who canned the government-funded Climate Commission as part of a Budget cost-cutting exercise.

The Climate Commission bounced back as the privately-funded Climate Council. A new report by the Climate Council concludes that the individual States are going their own way, with mixed results.

South Australia is a clear leader in the renewable energy field, the stakes raised by the government’s decision to replace ageing coal-fired power stations with a 150 megawatt solar thermal power plant.

FOMM foreshadowed this in 2014, when the SA government was trying to negotiate the future of the coal mine which fed its Port Augusta power stations. Now, after five years of lobbying and debate, the SA government is aiming to invest $650 million in renewable energy.

It hardly seems worth mentioning that 1,900 kilometres away, the Queensland Government, in a contrarian move, remains committed to the country’s largest Greenfield export coal mine. The Carmichael mine, which includes a dedicated railway line to take coal north to Abbott Point, is deeply unpopular among environmental groups because of the potential damage it could cause to the Great Barrier Reef, both by the number of ships traversing the narrow channels, and through coral bleaching as a result of human-induced temperature increases.

On the other hand, Queenslanders’ love affair with domestic solar panels is demonstrated by the fact that  32% of households are covered in 2017. Lobby group Solar Citizens (almost 100,000 members), welcomed last week’s decision by the Queensland Government to increase the regional feed-in tariff (FiT) program. This will allow solar systems up to 30kW to receive 10.1c per kWh – six times more than what was previously agreed.

Solar Citizens has an ambitious target of one million solar roofs by 2020.

“Queenslanders know a sensible idea when they see it – with 520,000 solar homes, our State has the highest rooftop solar uptake in the country,” a spokeswoman said.

However, critics of domestic solar energy say the flaw is that those who can afford to become self-sufficient do so, and those who cannot end up paying disproportionately more for energy.)

This week, the Climate Council presented its annual ‘state of the States’ renewable energy report. CEO Amanda McKenzie said the State survey showed a major step up from last year. All States and Territories (apart from WA), have strong renewable energy or net zero emissions targets. South Australia is building the world’s largest lithium ion battery storage facility, and over 30 large scale wind and solar projects are under construction across Australia in 2017.

“The good news is that many States are surging ahead and doing the heavy lifting for the (Federal) government.”

Last week, the Victorian government flagged new legislation which would increase its renewable energy target to 40% by 2025. There is also an intermediate plan to lift Victoria’s clean energy target to 25% by 2020.

So yes, it does seem as if individual States (and Councils) are setting their own renewable energy policies, in the absence of clear leadership at a national level.

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington did not miss an opportunity to talk up his region’s commitment to solar panels. Noosa Shire, which de-merged from the larger Sunshine Coast Regional Council (SCRC), claims 9,000 households in Noosa Shire have solar installations, which is better than the State average. Cr Wellington told the Sunshine Coast Daily Noosa’s goal was to be ‘carbon neutral’ by 2050.

Not to be overshadowed, the SCRC opened a 15 megawatt solar farm in July. The SCRC was the first local government in Australia to offset 100% of its electricity consumption with energy from a renewable source.

But what can humble citizens do, as pro-coal lobbyists clash swords with the solar and wind farm warriors? The go-it-alone mentality arises from a failure on the part of our Federal Government to stimulate investment in the renewable sector. Australia has already promised, under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% on 2005 levels by 2030. But Tony Abbott’s call as PM to reduce the renewable energy target (and now he advocates scrapping it altogether), was unhelpful.

Whatever way you judge it, a former PM addressing the Global Warming Policy Foundation is not a good look. The last Australian PM to do so was John Howard in 2013 (when he claimed global warming had stalled and was sceptical about the possibilities of an international agreement on climate change).

There have already been reports in the UK media which seized on old quotes by Mr Abbott referring to climate science as ‘bullshit’ and recycling his coal is ‘good for humanity’ comment. 

As readers will know, we spent a week out at Carnarvon Gorge in July, a time of year when it is common for the temperature to dip below zero at night. We packed accordingly, then spent four nights kicking off the doona and keeping each other awake as the mercury stayed above 15.

It should be cool at night for the Neurum Creek Folk Festival, but I packed my shortie pyjamas, just in case there is such a thing as climate change.

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Not good with crowds

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Photo by Laurel Wilson: Chilling out in Kowloon Park, Hong Kong.

It was the sight of the  crowds – 83,625 screaming footie fans at Sydney’s ANZ stadium that set me thinking, looking at that roaring sea of blue – it’s the last place on earth I’d want to be. Players interviewed after the Cronulla Sharks beat the Melbourne Storm 14-12 said they could not hear the referee’s calls, could not hear players calling to them and had tinnitus for hours afterwards.

I’m not good with crowds or noise. So I should have known better than to pick a four-day stopover in Hong Kong last time we travelled overseas. On the third day I went in search of a quiet place with as few people as possible around me. Luckily, our hotel was close to Kowloon Park, a 13 hectare green space with public gardens and aviaries, surrounded by some of Hong Kong’s most striking 19th century British buildings.

I found a spot under a tree, its leaves dripping with humidity and lay down for a spell. On a lawn near me 30 or so older Asian people spread themselves out for a spot of Tai-Chi. You could still hear and feel the city hum and strum, but the impact was muted by the tranquillity of this well-tended spot; well-tended because there is almost full employment in this island nation, now governed by mainland China. People have all kinds of jobs and walking around with a pole spiking trash and wind-blown leaves and putting them in a garbage bag is just one of them.

Those who have visited the former British protectorate (returned to Chinese rule in 1997), will know what it is like for an Aussie to visit Hong Kong, where 6,400 people share every square kilometre.

Some of the land has been reclaimed from the ocean; to build a new airport, but also to build yet more apartments in this vertical city.

Hong Kong apartments on average comprise 14.86sqm of living space. Compare that with your standard Aussie ‘McMansion’ with its five or six bedrooms, three or four bathrooms and two or three-car garage (around 241.54sqm).

So if being one of over 83,000 people doing the Mexican Wave in a tiered stadium gives you the jim-jams, don’t have a holiday in Hong Kong, Singapore, London or Manhattan.

One thing world travel does to a man brought up in the sparsely populated and wide open spaces of Australasia is to appreciate how quiet things are when you come back from New York, London or Tokyo. As my pal Ed said, on returning from a three-month stay in Mexico City: “The air here is so sweet and fresh – hey, do you know a place that does good burritos?”

So where do you go if the weight of people is getting to you?

The least populated country on earth is Greenland, though that may change as arctic ice keeps melting and exposing more living space. Greenland’s ice-free population density is 0.03 persons per square kilometre, which is about one person to every 3,350 hectares, if you really needed to know.

As it happens, Australia also ranks among the least densely populated places on earth, but as in many such examples, this is misleading. As we know, the majority of Australia’s population live in a narrow coastal belt between Cairns and Melbourne. Some also live in Tasmania.

All sorts of anomalies and oddities arise when you start looking at the world’s most densely populated countries in terms of people per square kilometre of land area. The World Bank’s list (as of 2015) ranges from Greenland 0.03, Australia 3, New Zealand 17, China 146 and Japan 348, to Bangladesh 1,247 and Hong Kong 6,958.

Small island nations like Malta (1,348) and the Maldives (1,264) suffer from a lack of physical space rather than too many people. The most crowded of all is China’s 25.9sq/km gambling mecca, Macau, with 19,393 people to the square kilometre.

Those who have spent a splendid week or two roaming around the sparsely populated South Island can attest to the southern half of New Zealand’s population density of 7 (not counting sheep). Stewart Island (0.4 persons per sq. /km) is also nice at this time of year.

Seriously, though, the world’s population distribution is seriously out of whack. The herd mentality takes over when humans move about.

The Chinese government spent billions creating vast new urban cities in the interior where they planned to resettle people, taking the pressure off Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Officials created the “Dubai of northern China” in Ordos, northern Mongolia in 2010 (Ordos is 700 kms from Beijing). The city has a capacity to house 300,000 people yet only 20,000 to 30,000 people have moved there, hardly a satisfactory return on a $161 billion investment. The answer according to this blog is that the government has failed to persuade people to move there.

Amid many such examples, China’s population remains concentrated in three key cities the population per square kilometre being: Beijing (11,500), Shanghai (13,400) and Shenzhen (17,150). Capital city population densities in Australasia look well contained by comparison: Sydney (2,100 per square kilometre), Auckland (2,000), Melbourne (1,500), Adelaide (1,350) and Brisbane (950). The above figures are a few years old but they still paint a vivid picture.

Our most under-populated state is South Australia, with 74% of its 1.67 million people (including 8 FOMM readers), living in Adelaide. SA’s population density is just 1.62 people per square kilometre.

South Australia is dry, flat and exposed to the elements. The state is surrounded by the 100km-long Bunda Cliffs (the Great Australian Bight), the Nullarbor Plain and the Simpson Desert.

If you really want to get away from it all, becoming a Jackaroo or Jillaroo (ranch hand), on one of SA’s vast cattle stations (up to 24,000sq/km) is the way to go. The climate is unforgiving in the interior, however, so much so that many residents of outback mining town Coober Pedy live underground.

No doubt their air-conditioning packed it in when last week’s storm event (SA Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis equated it to a category five hurricane), took out 22 electricity transmission towers. The ensuing seven-hour state-wide power outage (some lost power for up to three days), should hardly have been a surprise. Some politicians used the crisis to give renewable energy a good kicking although exactly why has not been satisfactorily explained.

Australia does not have a national electricity grid as such and much of its transmission business has been privatised so there is a user-pays mentality.

After the SA crisis, Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt called for a “more integrated system of providing consumer and investment security”. In an Australian Financial Review column Mr Hunt said: “This means that the states will have to consider new or upgraded interconnectors between Tasmania and the mainland, and South Australia and the eastern states.”

As always, the squeakiest wheel gets the most oil. The New South Wales government has invested $30 billion in energy infrastructure to ensure its 7.54 million residents can keep their porch lights on. Meanwhile, the SA Government, knowing the Port Augusta coal-fired station had just been decommissioned, made an ironic decision in the July State Budget.

Tucked away in the $209 million provided for infrastructure was this lone item for energy: $500,000 towards a feasibility study to explore options for greater energy inter-connection with Eastern states to allow for more base load power. A necessary part of the equation, but not much help when the transmission towers (and the lines between them), are out of action. Any electricity experts out there with a theory?