Pumped hydro: schemes, rhetoric and confusion

There’s plenty of talk around pumped hydro, but so far it’s only adding to the confusion.

GRAPHIC: Australian Renewable Energy Agency

GRAPHIC: Australian Renewable Energy Agency


Politics and commerce are all about negotiation, but man-made climate change is essentially non-negotiable. When they come together, a mess is all but inevitable.

Science has determined a “safe” warming limit and the world’s nations including our own have committed to actions to help that to happen. But our leaders are locked in furious argument about what that commitment looks like. If they’re confused, imagine how the rest of us feel.

The Turnbull government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee scheme is designed to be all things to all people, which means it pleases nobody. It will probably pass Parliament because the major party leaders understand the need for a price signal and this is all that’s on offer.

That’s a whole other story, for another time. But the Coalition’s chronic division over this scheme reflects confusion across government – in states and territories as well as Canberra – about how to deal with the climate-energy conundrum. For confusion, read absence of leadership.

Take Tasmania, for example. Fifteen months ago a study by energy bureaucrat John Tamblyn, jointly funded by the federal and Tasmanian governments, questioned the economic viability of a second Bass Strait interconnector.

Tamblyn concluded that a second interconnector should only go ahead when certain conditions were in place, such as the Australian Energy Market Operator identifying a long-term market or South Australia becoming more integrated into the National Electricity Market.

In February, the Hodgman government announced it intends to leave the NEM by mid-2021 to help keep retail prices down. So it does not want prices determined by the marketplace, but still wants Tasmania to take advantage of that market by exporting power into the national grid.

Similar mixed messages are coming from Canberra. Does the Turnbull government support more coal power or more renewables? No-one knows. Poorly articulated, constantly shifting positions around electricity generation further destabilise an already-uncertain market.

Investors in renewable power crave a firm government position on Australian carbon emissions, which are now at their highest level since records began in 2002. The nearest Malcolm Turnbull has come to a firm position was his enthusiastic backing of pumped hydro schemes last year.

Pumped hydro is a way of enhancing hydro’s energy storage value by getting water to produce electricity not just once, as in conventional hydro-electricity, but many times using two impoundments at different levels.

Water released from the upper storage generates power at times of high demand. It is then held in the lower reservoir until it can be pumped back to the higher reservoir during times of low power demand when prices are lower. Excess wind or solar power can serve this purpose.

The idea of pumped hydro is old, dating from the 19th century. It has never been implemented here, but at both federal and state levels it has now become the go-to policy position for conservative MPs wanting to display renewable credentials.

Soon after spruiking pumped hydro for the Snowy Mountains early last year, Malcolm Turnbull did the same for Tasmania. The Hodgman government heartily endorses the idea and the slogan that comes with it, “the Battery of the Nation”.

Last month we got the first glimpse of what the nation’s battery might look like when Hydro Tasmania released an analysis, funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, of how Tasmania could generate pumped hydro power and export it into the National Electricity Market.

The report listed 14 possible pumped hydro sites at eight locations, mostly in the West and North-West. But the big surprise was that getting maximum benefit from exporting pumped hydro power would require as many as four more of those expensive Bass Strait interconnectors.

Hydro Tasmania asserts that even with the new interconnectors its pumped hydro option would still be far cheaper than the multi-billion dollar Snowy proposal. If so, and if the scheme can deliver as promised, it could only be good for Tasmania’s economy and we should all get behind it.

It’s gratifying to see pumped hydro, which I first reported on in 2012, now getting such attention from politicians. But these same politicians have pointedly ignored less spectacular, much cheaper and eminently sensible responses to the challenge of getting emissions down.

For instance, while enthusiastically promoting pumped hydro, energy minister Guy Barnett has shown no interest in encouraging household solar by improving the meagre 8.5c per kilowatt-hour feed-in tariff, despite a promise it would be reviewed immediately after the March election.

Nor has the government yet done anything of substance in over four years about the major source of Tasmanian emissions, road transport, apart from taking a belated interest in electric vehicles.

Climate change calls for real actions with verifiable outcomes. Instead we get little more than grand schemes, grand rhetoric and grand confusion.

Posted in Australian politics, Beyond Zero Emissions, bureaucracy, business, investment, employment, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, carbon pricing scheme, climate politics, electricity networks, energy, future climate, hydro, investment, leadership, solar, Tasmanian politics, wind | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

President Trump and American greatness

America is a great country, but that has nothing to do with President Trump

Trump at a campaign rally in Nashville in May 2018. PHOTO Mark Humphrey/AP

Trump at a campaign rally in Nashville in May 2018. PHOTO Mark Humphrey/AP


Donald Trump’s signature commitment to Make America Great Again continues to resonate, here as well as in the US. Which raises this question: if America is not currently great, when was it?

Interviewed by the New York Times as a presidential candidate two years ago, when he didn’t seem to mind mainstream media, Trump identified two periods in US history which he most admired.

The first was the early years of the 20th century, which he said he liked for its “wild” entrepreneurship. It was an era dominated by President Theodore Roosevelt.

The second was straight after World War II and in the 1950s, when Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were in charge. Trump said he liked this period because “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody”.

That’s one idea of greatness – US commercial and military power projected on to the wider world. But greatness is not just muscle, and there were other aspects of the US story in those times that should have given him pause for thought.

While Teddy Roosevelt liked to wave big sticks at other countries, he was also passionate about nature conservation. He stared down powerful land interests to lock up huge areas of the American West in many national parks and monuments, bird reserves and national forests.

In sharp contrast, Trump’s interior secretary Ryan Zinke has moved to allow oil, gas and metal extraction on reserved lands, while Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt is on a mission to free business of environmental responsibility.

In the mid-20th century a nuclear-armed US was “respected by everybody”, but it was also a strong voice for international cooperation. America’s generous Marshall Plan helped a war-ravaged Europe get back on its feet; by contrast a feature of Trump’s presidency is hostility toward Europe.

There is another difference. In the 1940s the US led the push to establish the United Nations and provided its New York headquarters, and has since broadly supported the world body both financially and by adhering to agreements and protocols.

Last year Trump announced that he was pulling his country out of the UN’s landmark ecological agreement in Paris in 2015 – the first time all the world’s nations had agreed on the common goal of stopping global warming. Though far from fatal, the US withdrawal was a big setback.

Trump’s 18 months at the helm have been devastating for his country’s hard-earned reputation as a friend of liberal democracy and an enemy of tyrants. He has taken America in the opposite direction, making friends with repressive regimes while alienating democratic allies.

America’s founding fathers saw fit to build checks and balances into its constitution, such that all power could never reside in the president’s hands. Congress was one of those checks; the judiciary another. Another essential arm of liberal democracy is the press.

Every democracy needs independent news media ready and able to call out misbehaviour by powerful interests, including governments and their agencies, and that has never been more crucial than today. Yet at his rallies Trump has persisted in calling them “enemies of the people”.

He surely would have been rethinking this attitude in expressing concern about last week’s shooting of five people at a Maryland newspaper office. We must hope so.

Every leader in every election in every democracy promises that the swamp will be drained, corruption stopped, promises kept. Trump grabbed attention because he was a newcomer with a stage presence and no political past.

Trump is clearly not what my mother would have called a “nice man”, but Americans didn’t elect him for that. They were fed up with leaders who broke campaign promises while doing nothing about corruption. Some felt that as he was already wealthy he wouldn’t be open to bribes.

But life is not so straightforward. It was a mistake to think that Trump could fix things, just as it would have been for Barak Obama, or for that matter Malcolm Turnbull. Government is about many things and many people, and no amount of charisma will alter that.

Not being a scholar and barely even a reader, Trump understands little about checks and balances, separation of powers and the overarching authority of the US constitution. Like many who voted for him, he seems to assume that being president means everyone must do his bidding.

He chafes over opposition from US academics, scientists and the news media, and his failure to bring justice officials and the FBI to heel. But good democratic government needs independent institutions. It takes multiple viewpoints to deal with our complex human world.

For all its many and glaring faults, the US deserves our gratitude for its past and continuing contribution to global order, to democratic process and the rule of law, to science, technology, environmental awareness, literature, performing and visual arts and much more.

America is great not because of Trump but in spite of him, and it will still be so long after he and his presidency have become a distant memory.

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Confronting a shameful past

Our inability to come to terms with some dark events in the history of European settlement diminishes us as a nation, and we need to deal with it.

Inside the memorial to US lynching victims. PHOTO National Memorial for Peace and Justice

Inside the memorial to US lynching victims. PHOTO National Memorial for Peace and Justice


Two months ago a memorial dedicated to victims of white supremacy opened in Montgomery, Alabama, in the heart of America’s Deep South.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (informally known as the National Lynching Memorial) and its accompanying Legacy Museum explore the confronting history of violence against black people since the Civil War officially ended slavery in that country.

The memorial is dedicated to the victims of lynch mobs, mainly in southern US states from 1877 to 1950, whereby local groups of white people took it on themselves to condemn and execute, and sometimes to torture and dismember, black people whom they believed had stepped out of line.

The monument’s principal feature is 805 steel boxes which hang above the heads of viewers. Each box represents a US county in which one or more of the over-4300 documented lynchings in the US occurred. The name of each victim is inscribed on the relevant county box.

The memorial, brainchild of a slave descendant, Bryan Stevenson, is a simple, moving statement about the experience of black people, former slaves and those coming after, who continued to endure crippling discrimination long after slavery was supposed to have ended.

Black people remain a disadvantaged minority in the US. They have a lower standard of health and a higher rate of alcohol and drug use than white counterparts, tend to be targeted by police, and suffer imprisonment at a rate vastly out of proportion to their total numbers.

A similar fate overtook indigenous North Americans: slaughtered, dispossessed of their land, deprived of its resources and shunted into reservations.

Does all that seem familiar? According to the Bureau of Statistics, indigenous Australians are far more likely to suffer unemployment, poor health, and drug and alcohol addiction than other Australians, and about 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-indigenous people.

Specifically excluded from the Federal Constitution, Aboriginals won voting rights in 1967, but that has made little difference to the way they are seen and treated. Governments still place them in a distinct category, separate from everyone else, and the rest of us prefer to think of other things.

So it was when European humans settled Australia 230 years ago. They took over this continent on the basis of a legal fiction called “terra nullius” – land belonging to nobody – which deemed the 800,000-odd dark-skinned beings who lived here to be nobody, another species, not human at all.

That absurdity survived because it made eliminating these unwanted people so much simpler. The leading scholar in this field, Henry Reynolds, has calculated that up to the 1920s the number of indigenous people killed approached 30,000.

Most of these deaths were not documented, but events around them were well enough recorded for us to know they happened everywhere that Europeans settled. The victims died without ceremony. To the killers these people were anonymous in life, irrelevant in death.

That, of course, was false. Each victim had a name and an identity, and each was important to someone, as sister, brother, father, mother, daughter, son, community member, leader. The victims were elders, breadwinners, carers and children: a people’s past, present and future.

The fact is, those who took over this country in 1788 had no knowledge of the society they set out to destroy. The bigger shame is that – at least until science revealed the richness, resilience and astonishing longevity of indigenous Australian culture – they never sought to know.

Mona has proposed a memorial on Hobart’s Macquarie Point to enable Tasmanians, in the words of Greg Lehman, to “respectfully mourn the outrages of our colonial past, and [celebrate] 400 centuries of Tasmanian history”. That surely deserves highly visible public recognition. But this is a national issue that merits a national response.

The War Memorial says Aboriginal deaths in defence of their land is not its responsibility. To its credit the National Gallery commemorates Aboriginal deaths in the frontier wars with an exhibit of 200 hollow log coffins from Arnhem Land. But this is not enough.

An inspired aspect of the US National Memorial is the way it approaches the question of local responsibility. An exact duplicate of each of the 805 county boxes has been made. Any US county can have the Memorial send it the relevant duplicate as a basis for a local lynching memorial.

The hidden war against Aboriginal people destroyed communities and desecrated sacred places. We need to acknowledge and identify those connections with place, as we do for our war dead, whose loyalty and loss in their nation’s name is honoured at local cenotaphs across Australia.

The seeds of racism lie deep within every individual and every society. It stems from everyone’s need for community and belonging, and fear of the other, the stranger from somewhere else. But this country of many races must find a way to rise above such base instincts.

Our nationhood is undermined and diminished by our failure to acknowledge the full story of our indigenous people. Confronting that past, bringing it into the light of day in the places where dark crimes were committed, would be a significant step toward reconciliation.

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