Community energy: an idea whose time has come

The big gap in our arsenal to expand renewable energy – between home systems and power utilities – can be filled by community energy, and it can’t happen too soon.

Locals take pride in their handiwork at Hepburn Springs community wind farm.

Locals take pride in their handiwork at Hepburn Springs community wind farm.

In humanity’s greatest challenge – to survive and thrive without screwing the planet – two key ingredients are renewable energy and leadership.

0We all know in our hearts that we need radical changes in the way we energise our lives, on a massive scale. So far this hasn’t happened, but big changes are in the air. Quite soon –maybe even this year – absolutely everyone will know the process of transformation is under way.

Crucial pieces of the jigsaw are now falling into place as the public at large, ignoring anti-renewable rhetoric, acknowledges the clear trend to cleaner energy. People are voting with their wallets as they see the long-term cost-benefit from installing solar panels.

The figures tell the story. With panel costs dropping rapidly as grid power gets more expensive, the number of installed solar panel systems in Australia increased 40 times between 2009 and 2016.

In 2017 installed capacity rose by nearly 20 per cent, putting the total generating capacity of solar panels well above 7000 megawatts across Australia, with numerous commercial plants and over two million home systems in place.

Renewable energy market analyst Ric Brazelle predicts that photovoltaic solar in Australia this year will outshine every other year, adding over 3500 megawatts to installed capacity including some utility scale plants of unprecedented size.

The obvious fit with solar panels, commercial and residential, is battery storage, enabling power generated in daylight to be used at all hours. A small but growing proportion of solar power purchasers also buy batteries, and that proportion will increase with every rise in power bills.

A panel-battery system now costs between $10,000 and $20,000, depending on capacity and location (Sydney is cheaper than Hobart). Prices continue to drop, but this level of cost puts home generation beyond the reach of many, perhaps most Australians.

Enter community energy. It’s an ancient idea, dating back to when people first huddled together for warmth, but one whose time has definitely come. For the energy revolution to happen quickly and equitably – both are important – we must find a way to get everyone involved.

Occupying the big gap between home solar and power utilities, community energy projects come in many forms. A community cooperative is one option, like Hepburn Springs in Victoria in which local residents pooled resources to set up their own four-megawatt wind farm.

Another model is the Tasmanian disability enterprise Tastex. Its new solar array, bought with crowd funding and an interest-free Corena Fund loan, cuts $6000 a year from its electricity bill.

A third is the Victorian city of Darebin’s ingenious “solar savers” scheme, which allows 300 local pensioners to get rooftop solar at no extra cost. They pay for it with each council rates bill, but only up to the amount that their new solar panels are saving them on their electricity bills.

The idea of community energy is spreading rapidly, assisted by groups like Melbourne-based Embark, which aims to make the community energy sector “a proven and financially viable model capable of attracting large-scale investment”. That’s leadership at work.

So is the Community Power Agency, set up in 2011 by two dynamic young women, Nicky Ison from Sydney and Jarra Hicks from Melbourne. Drawing on models in North America, Europe and India, CPA helps communities navigate the complexities of setting up their own renewable projects.

Now there’s a move afoot in Tasmania, drawing on CPA experience and expertise, to set up regional energy hubs – one in each of the state’s three regions – “to engage communities, support community energy projects and facilitate investment”.

Anton Vikstrom, Sustainable Living Tasmania’s energy program manager, and community energy consultant Jack Gilding are drivers of this initiative, which also involves Nicky Ison. It comes soon after the Victorian government announced it would fund trials of three community energy hubs.

Its model is the 25-year-old National Landcare Network, whose 56 regional organisations support thousands of volunteer land and coastal care groups. The idea is to start with a Hobart-based hub serving the entire state, with officers in each region, building to full services in all three regions.

The positive outcomes from a well-resourced network of community energy activities are many and varied, including the practical and economic value of generating additional clean energy.

But the biggest benefit is a social one. For by-passed towns, suburbs and regions suffering chronic unemployment, this idea offers everyone – not just those who can afford home systems – a chance to build and manage assets yielding long-term financial return.

Like all new paradigms, the idea of a community stake in energy generation will take some getting used to, especially for government institutions and commercial interests already feeling pressures in the rapidly-changing energy market.

But the push for community energy isn’t going to disappear, and one day we will wonder why it took so long to catch on. Politicians can choose to ignore it, but the smart ones will embrace the idea and get behind it.

Posted in Australian politics, batteries, business, investment, employment, carbon emissions and targets, community action, economic restructuring, electricity networks, energy, investment, local economy, renewable energy, social and personal issues, solar, Tasmanian politics, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The awesome challenge of coastal inundation

A significant increase in Antarctica’s contribution to sea-level rise raises the prospect of a 1 metre to 1.8 metre sea level rise within a human lifetime. That should be raising alarm bells among authorities and planners.

Roches Beach has been losing sand steadily since about 1980.

Roches Beach has been losing sand steadily since about 1980.

A giant is stirring to our south. It will be centuries before the giant is fully awake, but when it is people will wonder why this massively important event took so long to register.

The giant is, of course, Antarctica, or more specifically the Antarctic ice sheet, which contains over two-thirds of the world’s fresh water and over 90 per cent of its ice.

In its latest scientific report four years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calculated that most of the estimated half to one metre of global sea level rise by 2100 would come from melting on Greenland. Antarctic ice melting would add just a few centimetres.

But since then a lot has happened. A 2015 paper in in the journal Nature supported the view that the IPCC conclusion was too conservative, and that business-as-usual emissions would cause melted Antarctic ice to add as much as 39 cm to sea level by 2100.

A 2016 Nature paper projected that continuing today’s emissions trend would cause enough melting of Antarctic coastal ice cliffs and buttressing ice shelves to trigger their disintegration.

In that case, about 80 years from now with atmospheric carbon dioxide about double today’s level, Antarctic ice would have added as much as a metre to sea levels, making global mean sea level about 1.8 metres higher than today and continuing to rise at an increasing rate.

Addressing the 2017 Antarctic Treaty meeting in Beijing, leading New Zealand glaciologist Tim Naish said new modelling showed that keeping industrial-era warming below 2C would help protect coastal Antarctic ice shelves and keep Antarctica’s sea level contribution to less than half a metre.

Which means that the best possible outcome at the end of an average Tasmanian lifetime, starting now, is that seas will be about a metre higher than they are today, while unabated emissions will see a 1.8 metre rise. Either way, this is an awesome challenge to good governance and planning.

After being relatively unchanged over 2000 years, for the past 100 years global sea level has been rising at an increasing rate. In the 20 years to 2014 global sea level rose at an average rate of 3 mm a year, but the present rate is about 3.4 mm a year.

These are difficult things to study. Distinguishing normal ebbs and flows from the baseline shifts that mark a sea change requires painstaking analysis of multiple forces – not just tides, waves, currents and winds, but also vertical movement of land and even gravity itself.

Sea level looms large in the lives of University of Tasmania specialists Christopher Watson and Chris Sharples, whose otherwise quite distinct academic careers coincide on the question of how our dynamic world’s oceans are changing land-sea boundaries, or coasts.

Watson is a geodesist, studying Earth’s size, shape and gravity field. This is a moving target. As he explains, “all parts of the Earth system are constantly in motion; mountains are still being formed, continents are being reshaped, and the oceans are transporting heat all over the globe.”

His main research focus is on more accurately measuring the Earth system and by these means better understanding sea levels and how the massive exchange of water between the oceans, atmosphere, continents and ice sheets is responding to continuing warming.

Sharples came to the matter of rising sea levels as a geomorphologist, studying the changing forms of land and sea floors. A longish lifetime in Tasmania has given him special insight into how this island responds to the assaults of water, wind and living things, notably humans.

While honing his skills over decades in the field, Sharples never got round to acquiring the formal prerequisite for an academic career, a doctorate. He is now doing just that, with the much-younger Watson as a supervisor. I suspect they teach each other.

The question Sharples asks in pursuing his PhD is whether we can yet see physical responses to sea level rise in Tasmania’s soft coastal landforms, made mainly from sand, soil and erodible rock.

His project involves identifying coast types that have changed most in the past 70 years and ascertaining the cause of that erosion. In particular, he is looking for any sign that rising global sea level is a factor in shoreline retreat.

Sharples has found evidence of Tasmanian beaches responding early to sea-level rise, including Ocean Beach on the West Coast and Roches Beach in the South-East. In each case storm events are reaching steadily higher on the beach because its sand is being transported elsewhere.

He has identified another class of “early responder”: soft-rock shores in swell-sheltered waters, such as Barilla Bay in Pittwater, whose clay-based shore has been retreating since about 1980.

Until the trend toward general shoreline retreat becomes clearer, the insights of Watson, Sharples and scientists like them are our best guide. In the meantime our future coastlines are already being determined by the amount of carbon dioxide we’re releasing into the air.

Which leaves two obvious policy imperatives: plan for coastal inundation and – to prevent this from becoming a disaster along with many other things including human health – cut carbon emissions.

Four weeks from Saturday Tasmanians will choose a new government. Saying climate change ought to be front and centre in the campaign is surely stating the bleeding obvious.

Posted in Antarctic, carbon emissions and targets, changes to climate, climate politics, climate system, coastal management, economic threat from climate, glaciology, governance, ice, local government, marine sciences, modelling, oceanography, planning, science, sea level, Tasmanian politics, temperature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Imagining a future where justice prevails

Elite sports have many options to deal with climate change not available to most. A Hobart conference looks at how we deal with climate injustice.

Gael Monfils suffered in what he believed to be “risky” heat above 40C in Melbourne. PHOTO Andy Brownbill, AP.

Gael Monfils suffered in what he believed to be “risky” heat above 40C in Melbourne. PHOTO Andy Brownbill, AP.

How much heat and humidity should halt tennis matches? When temperatures pass 40C should cricketers take the field, or should bike racing be cancelled?

There’s a question of fairness at play in this. Grizzled players from times past talk of “softness” creeping into the game, as if that’s all that needs to be said. But it isn’t.

Imperceptibly but irresistibly, conditions are changing. The heatwaves of today are stronger than they once were, and today’s young people are being asked to perform in conditions that will soon be pushing against the limits of human health.

Questions about the dangers of active sport in summer heat are becoming common. The death of an athlete from heatstroke in one of our big sporting events would put another kind of heat on event authorities, so they’re putting a lot of money and effort into trying to stop it happening.

I don’t know how this will play out. Cricket and tennis matches are perhaps most manageable in that players can cool off during breaks in play. Endurance events on land, like running and cycling, may eventually have to be moved to cooler seasons, or relocated to Tasmania.

Unlike the elite sports, the world’s poor have no resources to draw on to relieve their discomfort. But they are or will become the real victims of extreme heat and other outcomes of climate change, including drought and flood, crop and fishing failures and rising seas inundating coastal lands.

Ironically, these developments can be sheeted home to greenhouse emissions mainly from activities by wealthier countries and their people, one of the glaring injustices that have been exercising some of the world’s best ethical and legal minds.

The people of Hobart have the opportunity to hear outcomes of such contemplation in a public conference next month titled “Imagining a different future: Overcoming barriers to climate justice”.

When you think about it, questions of justice, or fairness, creep into pretty well everything we are faced with in dealing with human-induced climate change.

Is it fair, for instance, that a whole generation of lawmakers in our parliaments has ignored the imperative to prepare infrastructure, governance and economic resources to deal with the predictable stresses that climate change will impose on future generations?

Is it fair that when, more than ever, we need considered decisions and stable institutions supported explicitly and implicitly by the public at large, key players seem to have decided that anything goes in public life?

Is it fair that the same governments that are putting ever more resources into policing individuals’ behaviour are handing over power to private interests responsible to no-one except their shareholders, while denouncing the “red tape” that allows us to scrutinise and regulate them?

The populism that pervades politics today has brought to the fore questions about the capacity for independent thought among those in authority. We need more than ever politicians and bureaucrats with knowledge and imagination, able to think outside the square.

With an election coming up to decide Tasmania’s government for the next four years, there couldn’t be a better time to bring the best and brightest thinkers about justice and ethics to Hobart to challenge assumptions and pose the questions that politicians and the rest of us need to be asking.

“Imagining” will be looking at the many barriers that stop necessary changes from happening, in government, law, business, economics and energy, and how we utilise science and technology. And beneath all this, the psychology behind our responses to climate change.

Ethical issues affecting disadvantaged countries, divestment, technological interventions and human rights and climate change litigation are all being examined at the conference, which will also involve the work of artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians engaging with climate change.

Augmenting a large array of Australian thinkers, lawyers, and scientists presenting at the conference will be international luminaries including Marcus Duwell, a leading European ethicist, Catriona McKinnon, a UK specialist in political theory and climate change, and Steve Vanderheiden, an acclaimed US expert on climate ethics and politics.

The University of Tasmania is to be congratulated for giving its strong backing to the conference and community events and for supporting the Law School’s Peter Lawrence and Jan Linehan in their outstanding effort to get it happening.

For funding a community event at the end of the conference led by 2017 Senior Tasmanian of the Year, Margaret Steadman, in which ordinary Tasmanians can have their say, the Hodgman government gets a pat on the back. It would make eminent sense if some in its ranks took part.

“IMAGINING a different future” (8-10 February at the Medical Science Precinct, cnr Liverpool and Campbell Streets) is open to the public. Register at

There are also two free public events. Steve Vanderheiden will speak about climate ethics at 7.30 pm on 8 February at Hobart Town Hall, and a forum at the Medical Science Precinct on 10 February (1-5pm) invites Tasmanians to explore how climate justice might improve our future.

Posted in adaptation, Adaptation, climate politics, climate system, education, extreme events, extreme events, future climate, human behaviour, leadership, psychology, science, sea level, Tasmanian politics, temperature | Leave a comment