Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Climate Tasmania is the new voice of climate advocacy in Tasmania, an expert body committed to lifting the profile of climate change across both government and business sectors.

Labor recharges its climate policy but ditches a champion

There’s a good chance that climate policy will determine the next election, but unfortunately Lisa Singh won’t get the reward she deserves. [28 July 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The complaint at the weekend about Labor’s recharged climate policy, that we can’t afford it and are too small to matter anyway, was as predictable as it was wrong.

Bill Shorten puts his case at the Labor National Conference PHOTO Guardian Australia

Bill Shorten puts his case at the Labor National Conference PHOTO Guardian Australia

Global warming is happening faster than anyone predicted. This month the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration revealed that Earth was even warmer at its surface in the first half of 2015 than in the same period last year, the warmest on record.

Last week a research paper by a large team of world-leading scientists said that the current international warming limit of 2C above the preindustrial level was “highly dangerous”. The study, led by veteran climatologist James Hansen, concluded that continued warming of deep-ocean waters resulting from today’s high-emission trajectory would probably cause “large scale ice sheet disintegration”.

Every day, new scientific findings add new urgency to calls for deep cuts in global emissions within a few years, and for all the world’s major and mid-level nations, including Australia, to get to work to decarbonise their economies. Yet we keep hearing it’s too expensive.

But what would be the cost of hundreds of millions of coastal-dwelling people being displaced and coastal infrastructure destroyed if events turn out as the Hansen paper asserts: that “multi-metre sea level rise [is] practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century”?

Against this backdrop, at his party’s national conference on Friday Bill Shorten said a Labor government would have renewables generating half Australia’s electricity by 2030.

The ambitious target, said Shorten, would see more solar panels on Australian rooftops, more high-tech batteries storing solar power, more wind turbines on farmland and more support for a sector expected to attract $2.5 trillion in investment in the Asia-Pacific region in the next 15 years.

Having seen Labor’s two previous carbon pricing schemes bite the dust, Shorten has yet again put the “market solution” of emissions trading back on the table, tapping into a global market of “a billion people and more than 40 per cent of the world’s economy”.

A defiant Shorten said his party would not be intimidated by “ignorant, ridiculous scare campaigns”, declaring “we will win this fight.”

There’s a lot still missing here. We don’t know how Shorten plans to get solar, wind, wave, tidal and other renewable energy technologies up to the scale required to meet the target.

And Labor still hasn’t had its say about post-2020 national emissions targets. If it follows the lead of its own Environment Action Nework it will support the Climate Change Authority’s recommended targets of 30 per cent below 2000 levels by 2025 and 40 to 60 per cent by 2030.

A Labor emissions policy couldn’t rely on lower electricity demand, as the present government has done in pursuit of a 5 per cent emissions reduction target. The 2030 targets will demand multiple measures to deliver big cuts to fossil fuel use.

Senator Lisa Singh

Senator Lisa Singh

Labor is staking a claim to represent people genuinely concerned about climate action, but all this is still just talk. Apart from the small matter of winning government, the party has a distance to travel before Australians can feel confident that this is a credible position.

The party would have more credibility had it found a way to retain the services of a true climate champion, Tasmanian Senator Lisa Singh. Instead it has relegated the party’s climate spokesperson in the Senate to an unwinnable position on the ballot paper for next year’s election.

Union legend Bill Kelty wanted the national conference to get rid of the undemocratic rule that gives unions extra voting power to get their chosen people into office regardless of the performance of sitting senators, but not even he could sway his colleagues.

So Singh will be forced out after just one term. She will be especially peeved if the big global issues she’s been wrestling with turn out to be front and centre in the next election.

But that’s just what looks like happening. With climate firmly on Australia’s political agenda, policies to cut carbon emissions may actually determine our next government. That would be a welcome development.

The government ramps up its war on windpower

Joe Hockey claims his aversion to wind turbines is an aesthetic issue, but it’s clearly ideological. [21 July 2015 | Peter Boyer]

“I find those wind turbines around Lake George to be utterly offensive” (Joe Hockey, May 2, 2014)
“Not only are they visually awful, but they make a lot of noise” (Tony Abbott, June 12, 2015)

We all see things differently, I know, but I just don’t get how the prime minister and his treasurer could have such distressing aesthetic problems with wind farms.

“Utterly offensive” wind turbines, Capital Wind Farm on the shores of Lake George, near Canberra. PHOTO Alan Farlow/Leumeah

“Utterly offensive” wind turbines, Capital Wind Farm on the shores of Lake George, near Canberra. PHOTO Alan Farlow/Leumeah

Wind turbines are big and there are more of them than in times past, and I accept that their simple design, smooth curves and uniform whiteness may not appeal to some.

But amid the vast array of ugliness that industrial societies have produced, what would cause anyone to single out wind turbines as “utterly offensive”? It makes no sense. There’s something else in play here.

Our quest for truly renewable energy – energy harnessed directly from a natural source without depleting that source – is now moving predominantly along two pathways, wind and rooftop solar. Both technologies are now ubiquitous throughout the world.

Solar panels are passive instruments, using unseen photovoltaic wizardry to turn sunlight into electricity. But we can see wind turbines at work. Their huge blades moving in the breeze – ancient technology for a new age – are the most potent of symbols for the renewable era.

This gets to the heart of the matter. Joe Hockey claims that he doesn’t like wind energy for aesthetic reasons, but protracted vilification of the industry by key government figures says otherwise. This isn’t aesthetics. It’s ideology.

Last week, Joe Hockey and finance minister Mathias Corman said the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – another target of government wrath – had been instructed to stop funding wind projects, along with rooftop solar.

Environment minister Greg Hunt explained this as returning to the CEFC’s original purpose, which he described as “to finance only genuinely innovative renewable energy technologies”. He made special mention of large-scale solar enterprises.

But the CEFC act makes no mention of innovation. The CEFC is charged with providing a return to the government from investment in renewable or low‑emission energy and energy efficiency.

Previously, the government also instructed the CEFC to improve returns on its investments, which would suggest that innovative technology is out of the frame. So what does the government want: innovation or better returns? As any investor knows, it can’t have both.

Wind and photovoltaic solar have consistently given the best investment returns of the renewables, well ahead of solar thermal (generating electricity from the sun’s heat) and such outliers as geothermal, wave and tidal energy. But the past couple of years have seen wind power projects struggle to get investor funding in the face of market uncertainty driven by unrelenting opposition from government and some cross-bench MPs and senators.

The loss of CEFC funding is going to be a heavy blow. To add to the industry’s woes, the government has said it will instigate yet another study of claims that wind turbines make people sick. This is despite the fact that not one of numerous scientific studies over the past decade, here and overseas, have found any evidence for this.

Tristan Edis of Climate Spectator suggested last week that money is a factor in the government’s current attitude, claiming it was a response to pressure from party supporters with large-scale solar interests, anxious to see their projects get some traction.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (the arm of government which unlike the CEFC really does have responsibility for renewable innovation) lent some credence to this with last week’s announcement that large-scale solar was a funding priority.

Greg Hunt sees this as good strategy, and indeed we do need more large-scale solar to help wean utilities off coal. But it’s worrying that overall investment in renewable energy in Australia is going nowhere while globally it’s rising sharply.

The government’s manoeuvres last week came after many months of uncertainty over the renewable energy target resulting from the the Warburton inquiry and repeated accusations from government circles that renewable energy was too expensive.

It’s clear that the government wants to halt the forward progress of renewable energy. In the context of Australia’s clear and pressing need to cut carbon emissions, that is grossly irresponsible.

Our unique energy opportunities: nettles waiting to be grasped

Tasmania has a lot going for it in the brave new world of renewable energy, but the Hodgman government is missing in action [14 July 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Jack Gilding is a real achiever in the cause of renewable energy, having led the establishment of Australia’s first community-owned wind farm in Victoria. Now he’s executive officer of the Tasmanian Renewable Energy Alliance.

A “solar carport” at a whole foods business in Brooklyn, USA, featuring electric vehicle chargers, wind turbines and solar panels. PHOTO: Urban Green Energy/Ecowatch

A “solar carport” at a whole foods business in Brooklyn, USA, featuring electric vehicle chargers, wind turbines and solar panels. PHOTO: Urban Green Energy/Ecowatch

Natural beauty aside, it’s not surprising people like Gilding find Tasmania attractive. With nearly all our electricity coming from hydro, wind and solar power, we’re an ideal proving ground for carbon-free energy systems. But it’s far from smooth sailing.

In a time when overall power charges have risen, Gilding points out that the feed-in tariff – the financial return to rooftop solar owners for putting power into the grid – has dropped three times in two years. It’s now less than a quarter what it was two years ago.

Seven years after enacting its climate action laws, Tasmania continues to depend on power from Victorian brown coal. In 2014-15, says Gilding, we spent $34 million more on this dirty power than we got in revenue from exported hydro and wind power.

This has a back-story: hydro storage was depleted in 2012-14 as we took advantage of the carbon tax windfall by boosting clean power exports. That worked then and it will again; the government is right to support a second Bass Strait power cable.

But losing carbon tax revenue is no reason to penalise solar. Our clear skies make us a better solar platform than hazy northern Europe and much of Japan, China and the United States. The technology is disruptive, but that’s life. We have to make disruption work for us.

Tasmania’s installed hydro gives it a head start to becoming a renewable energy powerhouse. Unlike coal-fired power, hydro can be turned on or off with a flick of a switch, making it a perfect match to fill gaps in intermittent solar and wind generation.

Transport energy in Tasmania is another story. All of it comes from imported oil products, which is a failure on two counts, self-reliance and carbon emissions.

All expert scientific and economic advice, including from the Climate Change Authority, is that to make a fair contribution to the global effort Australia must halve emissions by 2030. If Tasmania takes its share of responsibility, its only real option is to do something about land transport.

Of all possible technologies for powering wheeled vehicles, including hybrid electric and hydrogen fuel cells, the plug-in electric option currently seems most likely to replace fossil fuels. With electric cars, Tasmania’s renewable energy really can deliver emission-free transport.

Electric cars are coming of age. Most major global car makers are investing in the technology, the most advanced of which belongs to the US manufacturer Tesla, with two models in the market and two more in the pipeline. The revolution is poised to happen, probably well within a decade.

Driving the transformation is evolving battery technology with rapidly-improving efficiency, durability and charging speed. The best lithium-ion packs now being produced can drive a car 500 km on a single charge and come with a guaranteed eight-year life.

Electric car prices are dropping, but they’re still much more than internal-combustion equivalents. Against that is a dramatic saving in fuel and maintenance costs with far fewer moving parts to wear out – plus the option of using the cars’ battery power as backup during a home outage.

Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation has just announced a $50 million asset finance agreement with Firstmac, a leading non-bank lender, to help private buyers switch to electric and low-emission vehicles or invest in solar and energy efficient equipment.

With all this going for Tasmania, it’s more than passing strange that the Hodgman government’s two-month-old energy strategy, while mentioning that solar energy and electric cars could have an impact on our energy mix, says nothing about how they might be helped along.

Climate change and renewable energy aren’t favoured conversation topics in government circles in Canberra, that city of blighted hopes, but surely Will Hodgman and his environment minister, Matthew Groom, wouldn’t allow that to silence them down here in Tasmania?

It’s never too late to grasp the nettle. It remains open for Hodgman and Groom to marshal business and community resources and get us moving to an all-renewable future, and if they do I’ll be the first to say thanks. But they need to get a hurry on.