Malcolm Turnbull’s latest pulp fiction

The PM’s take on Australia’s energy management just doesn’t stack up.

Liddell (right) and Bayswater power stations, near Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley. PHOTO The Australian

Liddell (right) and Bayswater power stations, near Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley. PHOTO The Australian

We all carry with us a narrative that gives shape to our lives. From time to time we might adjust our story to meet changing circumstances, but no-one does it like Malcolm Turnbull

The narrative he took on in opposition was about being a champion of strong climate action. When he toppled Tony Abbott as prime minister in 2015 he dropped that in favour of innovation. Two years on, he now has another story. It goes something like this:

“All the problems we face in the energy market today are the fault of my political opponents. In their zeal to convert us to renewables they forgot about keeping lights on and power prices down.

“Blackout Bill and various incompetent colleagues in South Australia and Victoria are entirely to blame. Their ambitious targets for windmills and solar panels caused coal power stations to shut down, while they locked up gas supply in foreign contracts and blocked new gas exploration.

“Coal used to be a problem because of climate change, but my government’s climate target has all that sorted. Coal is now fine, as are the old power stations that rely on it, which must be kept running at whatever cost. Emissions are of no consequence.

“My government’s innovation credentials were on show in March and April this year when I announced plans in the Snowy Mountains and then in Tasmania to pump water uphill so it can make more renewable electricity.”

A little incoherent, but that’s as near as I can get to Malcolm Turnbull’s story today.

The story has a small cheer squad within the Coalition, but most Australians seem to think it doesn’t stack up. Those to Turnbull’s right think it doesn’t do justice to coal. The rest of the country says it’s self-serving, technically flawed, anti-business, wrong and/or just plain dumb.

The rest of the country is right, and here’s why.

The Rudd-Gillard Labor governments made mistakes in their oversight of the National Electricity Market, but they were not alone. They were part of a long, sorry saga of mismanagement that goes back decades and includes the four years of Abbott and Turnbull governments.

The sale of energy utilities to private companies from the 1990s was done with reckless neglect of the need for close regulation of this strategically-vital industry – a failure both of the states involved and of successive national governments, including Turnbull’s.

Since the NEM was set up in 1998, the Australian Energy Market Operator has papered over cracks but failed to deal with inherent weaknesses.

Apart from the fact that it excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the NEM is not really a national grid at all, but a cobbled-together patchwork of previously-separate state power systems linked by a few interconnectors over state borders and under Bass Strait.

Poor interstate connection became critical a year ago when a huge windstorm took out long stretches of South Australia’s transmission system and a Victorian interconnector failed. Reviews have found that consumers also suffered from gas-power spikes driven by market manipulation.

In blaming South Australia’s many intermittent wind and solar generators for the state’s blackouts, the Turnbull government skated over the whole point of the NEM – a grid sufficiently large and connected to iron out uneven supply by moving power across borders when needed.

It also blamed renewables, especially wind, for high power prices, but as ANU energy analyst Hugh Saddler has pointed out, wholesale prices turn out to be consistently lower during high wind generation. The dominant price factor today, he finds, is the high wholesale cost of gas.

Which brings us to coal. Like gas and hydro, coal provides baseload power because it can be used economically to meet a minimum continuous demand. Unlike gas or hydro it is not readily dispatchable to meet peak demand because it takes hours to get a coal-fired turbine up and running.

The new Turnbull coal thesis falls at another hurdle – hard-nosed business. “We can’t allow this to happen” was his response to AGL’s plan to close a Hunter Valley power station, Liddell, in 2022.

The AGL timetable can’t have been a surprise to the PM. Now 46 years old, Liddell rarely operates at full capacity, and last summer two of its four turbines failed during a heatwave in NSW. AGL had earlier plans to close it this year, but in 2015 pushed this out five years, to 2022.

The cost to AGL of keeping it open for yet another five years, as Turnbull is asking, could be huge. The WA government spent over $300 million on refurbishing a smaller station of similar age only to see it limp along at just 20 per cent of its original capacity. The station was closed last week.

As for pumped hydro, although not in itself renewable it could work if driven by wind or solar power. But there are legitimate questions about financial and environmental cost, as Chris Harries outlined in the Tasmanian Times last week.

There are questions, too, over its use in tandem with coal-fired power, which would pump water uphill and in return draw on hydro for peak demand. Its principal role as conceived by Malcolm Turnbull is likely to be to enable coal to stay in the energy mix. Hardly an innovative solution.

Finally, the matter of emissions. Turnbull says with a straight face that we are meeting our targets, but avoids any detail. Hugh Saddler’s quarterly reports tell us that actual coal emissions had been rising until held in check this year after the closure of Hazelwood brown coal power station.

My take on the 2017 edition of Malcolm Turnbull’s story? Pulp fiction.

Posted in Australian politics, carbon emissions and targets, climate politics, coal-fired, electricity networks, energy, fossil fuels, gas-fired, hydro, solar, wind | Leave a comment

Going where governments fear to tread

Party politics is making it impossible to get traction on climate policy at higher levels of government, but others are stepping up.

Tasmanian energy policy and sustainability go hand-in-hand. IMAGE Tasmania_From_Space/Sustainable Living Tasmania

Tasmanian energy policy and sustainability go hand-in-hand. IMAGE Tasmania_From_Space/Sustainable Living Tasmania

The modest attendance at a Hobart Town Hall event last week belied the significance of the occasion: the launch of a major new community bulk-buying program for energy-efficient products and services.

Residents in all southern Tasmanian municipalities – Derwent Valley to Glamorgan-Spring Bay, Central Highlands to Huon Valley – are now eligible to join a bulk-buy of heat pumps, insulation, low-wattage lighting, rooftop solar panels and energy-efficient hot water systems.

With bulk buying’s economies of scale combined with the state government’s $10 million Tasmanian Energy Efficiency Loan Scheme (TEELS), announced earlier this year, this is an unprecedented offer to households and businesses to join the battle for a more sustainable future.

Ahead of last week’s launch the authority’s chair, Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey, said it aimed to make emission reduction cheaper and easier. “We wanted to help home-owners reduce their energy use and we knew if enough homes did this there would be a big sustainability benefit,” she said.

Bulk buying was behind an earlier arrangement between Sustainable Living Tasmania (SLT) and Tasmania’s venerable No-Interest Loans Scheme, or NILS, adding bulk-buying advantages to NILS subsidies enabling households to buy and install energy-saving hot water and space heating.

Now the idea has returned bigger and better than ever. Home Energy Bulk Buy is a partnership between SLT and the Southern Tasmanian Councils Authority, representing local government across all of southern Tasmania.

SLT executive officer Todd Houstein is enthusiastic about its prospects given the large range of products and services on offer and the many organisations behind it.

We shouldn’t overstate the impact of such initiatives on fossil-fuel emissions. Most Tasmanian home energy is generated by renewable hydro power, so home energy efficiency has little direct effect on emissions here compared to states where energy comes mainly from coal.

But councils are right to highlight the need to cut emissions. Being energy-conscious is an essential step on the way to becoming more sustainable, and efficient use of energy, no matter how it is generated, strengthens this mindset.

When energy minister Matthew Groom announced the TEELS initiative in May he could have mentioned climate change in these terms, or just the important underlying issue of developing community resilience. Instead he focused solely on enabling Tasmanians to save money.

Both Groom and his leader, Will Hodgman, have reason to be proud of the scheme, and previously declared a firm position that we need to act on climate change. But they keep playing it down because at higher levels of government partisanship has made climate change hard to talk about.

But with party politics largely absent from the local scene in Tasmania it’s possible to set ideology aside and just get on with smaller-scale, practical steps to improve both energy use and emissions.

Some cities have gone for ambitious targets, but Katrina Graham, Hobart’s environment and climate change officer, highlights the city’s incremental approach, steadily ticking off on practical steps like improving buildings’ energy performance and generating energy from landfill.

That said, there’s no substitute for the heavy-lifting capacity of higher levels of government. Building codes are mostly determined at state and national levels. Tasmanian local authorities don’t run major energy infrastructure and can do little about transport, the state’s main carbon polluter.

Federal government cuts to grants for voluntary environmental organisations two decades ago had a devastating impact on groups such as Sustainable Living Tasmania, which suddenly had to put a huge effort into funding its basic running costs.

With further federal and state funding cuts since then, a dedicated supporter base and a lot of hard work by staff and volunteers have kept SLT afloat, enabling it to continue its basic advocacy and information work while also winning support for programs like home energy audits.

These grass-roots organisations exist because of basic needs in local communities. Their work in the public interest would otherwise fall to government, at much greater public cost.

So we have to ask why they have found it so tough, over so many years, to have their contribution recognised and supported by government. The answer is to be found in party politics.

Sustainable Living Tasmania, the Environmental Defender’s Office and some other similar bodies that have suffered funding losses want their community to be conscious of natural values and to make an effort to minimise their environmental impact.

In the case of SLT and its municipal partners in the bulk-buying deal, that plays out in making it easier for people to board the sustainability train by subsidising the cost of home and business improvements that in the long run will enhance the bottom line.

There’s nothing inherently political in this. It’s what any good citizen would want to see happen.

But politics is about taking sides. The Greens set themselves up as the party for the environment, so their political opponents have chosen to align environmental organisations with the Greens – even when there is no connection between the two. The inevitable victim is good public policy.

FOR INFORMATION on the home energy bulk buy scheme, see here. On the Tasmanian Energy Efficiency Loans Scheme, here.

Posted in Adaptation, Australian politics, built environment, carbon emissions and targets, cars, climate politics, climate system, community action, energy, energy conservation, energy efficiency, environmental degradation, fossil fuels, leadership, local economy, local government, planning, social and personal issues, social mindsets, Sustainable Living Tasmania, Tasmanian politics, transport | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Houston, we have a problem

Despite Harvey’s battering, US political and opinion leaders are holding fast to the idea that extreme events are unrelated to man-made climate change.

Downtown Houston and its not-so-free ways. PHOTO

Downtown Houston and its not-so-free ways. PHOTO

Deluged with news from Texas, we can be forgiven for thinking that Hurricane Harvey was the worst global weather event ever.

Measured in lives and livelihoods lost, it didn’t come near last week’s monsoonal flooding across Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh that has crippled food production over vast acreages and killed over 1200 people.

Many other recent rain events in (among other places) southern and eastern Asia, the Philippines, central and South America and Africa – too many to list here – have had a more devastating impact on lives and economies than Harvey. But they weren’t in a developed western country.

It’s a sad reality that global news puts far less focus on poor places than rich ones. Houston is a big, bustling, wealthy city, supported by one of the biggest ports in the US and large chemical and research industries. That made Harvey very big news.

Nearly all of Houston’s Fortune 500 companies (it has more of them than any US city except New York) are involved in some way with oil and gas. Needless to say, they’ve so far had nothing to say about whether their industry might have contributed to the storm that wrecked the city.

It’s true, as many people are keen to point out, that human-induced climate change and weather events are different phenomena, and that rain events have always happened and will continue to do so regardless of what we put into the atmosphere.

In 2005 Al Gore pointed out that a warmer world breeds stronger storms, believing that the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina might alert his country to dangerous climate change. He thought the same of ex-Hurricane Sandy when it smashed into New York in 2012.

But the only lesson learned from these events seems to be that people and governments don’t like to dwell on bad memories. Many senior politicians, including the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, have claimed that big wind and rain events have no connection with climate change, man-made or not.

Recent events like Typhoon Haiyan (which killed over 6000 people in 2013) and our own Cyclones Yasi (2011) and Monica (2015) had an apocalyptic feel to them. But while not always reliable, old records have turned up a few storms in the distant past that seemed comparable in size.

Commentators like me have learned to be wary of attributing big weather events to changing climate. I’ve found it useful to avoid such discussion while focusing on the bleeding obvious – higher average temperatures, melting polar ice sheets and the like.

The social and political tensions in play during storm events inhibit talk about attribution. Raising the topic of man-made climate change when homes have been inundated and people drowned (or when wildfires have incinerated homes and people) is, as they say, playing with fire.

But scientific method finds a way around inhibitions. Since Hurricane Sandy, various studies have identified extended polar jet streams as a major reason for storm systems staying stalled for long periods, allowing them time to take up more water from the sea and to dump more of it over land.

Add to that very warm, energising Gulf waters along with warm air above (warm air can hold more moisture) and you have a recipe for Houston’s third “500-year flood” in three years, and by far its most damaging wind-and-rain event on record.

A 2015 US-Korean study found that while warmer ocean water inhibited formation of tropical cyclones overall, leading to fewer storms, it also increased the intensity of those that did form. In the same year a European study found a 12 per cent rise since 1980 in record-breaking rain events.

Across the continental divide in California at the weekend a crisis of an entirely different kind was playing out, the biggest forest fire in memory besieging the city of Los Angeles, while up the coast San Francisco baked in its hottest day on record. It was the opposite face of the same stalled weather systems that caused the Houston floods.

Unlike devastated parts of south Asia, Houston is a rich city in a rich country. But with nearly 200,000 homes damaged or destroyed, 80 per cent of which lack flood insurance, the damage bill may be as high as $150 billion, far ahead of any past natural disaster in the US.

Add to that the economic cost of closing 10 Gulf coast refineries accounting for about 17 per cent of US refining capacity, and it’s unsurprising that governor Abbott is calling for more national help.

In the past, Abbott has taken out law suits against federal climate regulations, and when campaigning to be governor in 2014 he railed about “political demagogues using climate change as an excuse to remake the American economy.”

Harvey, which is having a fair shot on its own at remaking the economy, ought to change Abbott’s mind about climate change, but that’s unlikely given the powerful resistance across southern US states to identifying underlying causes of extreme weather events.

“I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor,” said widely-syndicated conservative commentator Ann Coulter on Twitter last week. “But that is more credible than ‘climate change’.”

She offered no basis for her bald assertion. I suggest it’s based on faith alone bolstered by 1.7 million Twitter followers, and with numbers like that behind you, who needs facts?

Posted in atmospheric science, business interests, business, investment, employment, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coastal management, contrarians, economic activity, economic threat from climate, extreme events, international politics, leadership, meteorology, planning, science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment