High-speed rail debate: Cut the fat

Researchers say the federal government’s study on a high-speed rail link contains a lot of “fat” which, when cut out, can drive down construction costs by more than $40 billion. By Marion Lopez.

Australia’s 30-year debate on high-speed rail is raising more questions than answers. While most, including government, agree the project would improve traffic fluidity and national productivity by taking close to 84 million passengers off the country’s roads and out of the airports each year, some are still unsure whether spending $114 billion to achieve this is the best option.

Also not in its favour is the suggested timeframe for completing the rail link.

According to the federal government’s recently released $20 million study on the project, building a 1750km high-speed rail link connecting Melbourne to Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane would require 15 years of planning and 45 years to build.

The announcement of these figures raised a lot of eyebrows including those of Gerard Drew, high-speed rail researcher for climate solutions think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions, who said they were an insult to the Australian construction industry.

“Forty-five years is laughable and 15 years of planning is just outrageous really. The notion of $114 billion is questionable, to say the least,” Drew said.

“Much has been made of the technical and logistical challenge but we must get some perspective. Australia is, in large part, flat and vacant – a luxury that no other country operating high-speed rail can boast. While there are some challenging points on the alignment, such as from Sydney to the Central Coast, a high proportion of the route is flat fields.

“Spain and China have been rapidly constructing high-speed rail in order to reduce the huge cost to those countries of imported oil and have completed 3000km and 15,000km of track, respectively, in the past decade alone.

“Indeed, these findings are an insult to the capability of Australia’s construction industry.”

Let's power ahead with solar options

AUSTRALIA'S energy mix is at a crossroads - and neither political party is helping properly, writes Dan Spencer.

AUSTRALIA'S energy mix is at a crossroads.

Nowhere is this better seen than in Port Augusta, where the town's ageing coal-fired power stations are coming to the end of their life and the community, backed by people across the state, is campaigning for a solar thermal replacement.

The recent debate around the Clean Energy Finance Corporation means this crossroads has a major roadblock. As September 14 nears, politicians and Australian voters need to remember whose future they are shaping at the polls: that of young people and future generations.

Sadly, one of the issues being most politicised this election will directly impact on the lives of young people: how we choose to act on climate change. Not only is support for action on climate change increasingly divided along party lines, there is a stark gap between old and young.

Polling released in the past few days by Essential Research made this divide clear. Among under-35s, 52 per cent of people support carbon pricing and only 25 per cent oppose it. This is remarkably resilient majority support for a policy that has been consistently denigrated since it was introduced.

Sadly, this level of support is not reflected in people over 55, where only 39 per cent support carbon pricing, with 56 per cent opposed.

Graphs: Can high-speed rail cut air travel emissions?


Australia’s domestic air travel (and its associated greenhouse emissions) has grown markedly – especially in the last 10 years, as this graph illustrates.

Air travel (passenger km) data from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics

We have calculated emissions using the short-haul average emissions per passenger-kilometre as used by the UK government. This takes into account radiative forcing effects of combustion at altitude, nearly doubling the climate impact of the emissions compared to Australian government estimates.

Australia’s first solar towers are not yet built, but they have a name

The construction of what could be Australia’s first stand alone solar thermal power station has not even been agreed, but it has been named.


Solar campaigner dies

Joy Baluch the mayor of South Australia's Port Augusta, who campaigned for solar energy for her city has died but not before South Australia's take-up of rooftop solar has risen to double the national average.

Transcript (ABC TV Lateline)

TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Joy Baluch, the legendary mayor of South Australia's Port Augusta and fierce campaigner for a solar energy future for her city, died overnight.

Her death came only hours after the Federal Budget revealed deep cuts of more than $650 million to renewable energy funding and efficiency programs.

South Australia now leads the world in wind generation and its take-up of rooftop solar is double the national average.

Joy Baluch's beloved Port Augusta was leading the way in solar energy. She campaigned until her dying breath to use the energy from the sun to convert the city's struggling coal-fired generators.

Kerry Brewster has this exclusive report.

Solar warrior, Port Augusta mayor Joy Baluch dies, age 80


Port Augusta’s long-serving mayor, Nancy Joy Baluch AM, died in hospital on Tuesday night, after a long battle with cancer.

Baluch, who would have turned 80 on Wednesday, was mayor of the South Australian city for 29 years over three separate terms – a large part of which she spent fighting to have the town’s polluting coal-fired power stations replaced with a concentrating solar thermal plant.

Need to cut carbon urgent

By Kris Keogh

LAST week, for the first time in human history, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were measured at more than 400 parts per million at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the world's oldest continuous CO2 measurement station.

This little fact, without any context, doesn't seem all that important.

To understand why CO2 levels matter, let's first run through the basics.

Large amounts of CO2 are emitted into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels.

This CO2 stays there for thousands of years, trapping heat from the sun, slowly raising the temperature of our planet. A temperature increase of even a few degrees can drastically change how and where we can grow food, work and live.

A level of 350ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere is where many scientists believe we can stop the runaway affects of climate change. Unfortunately, we passed 350ppm in 1988. In the past decade the CO2 level has risen by an average of 2.1ppm a year.

Today's rate of increase is more than 100 times faster than the increase that occurred when the last ice age ended.

To cut a long story short, climate change, due to our continued use of fossil fuels is very, very real.

Governments across the world have paid lip service to this issue for the past two decades, with very little actually being done.

We need real action, fast. We need to end our use of fossil fuels so the CO2 level can start to drop.

Unlike Australia, some countries have already become powered by 100 per cent renewable energy. Iceland generates all of its energy by geothermal and hydroelectric means.

Last year, our Federal Government commissioned the Australian Energy Market Operator to examine the feasibility of Australia going 100 per cent renewable.

Their recent report found it to be possible at costs almost identical to a business-as-usual model. Other institutes, including The University of New South Wales and Beyond Zero Emissions have also published studies with similar outcomes.

Zero emissions power is possible, and we know what it will cost

By Roger Dargaville

To avoid 2 degrees of climate change, global carbon emissions will need to be reduced by at least 50% by 2050. For developed countries such as Australia with higher carbon emissions this will mean cuts closer to 80%: it essentially implies decarbonising the stationary energy sector in Australia. Several studies have now tackled the question of how to achieve this, and despite different approaches and different assumptions they’ve come up with rather similar results.

The cost of changing

Current wholesale electrical energy costs are around $60 per megawatt hour (MWh).

Previous studies from Beyond Zero Emissions and the Centre for Energy and Environmental Markets at UNSW report a range of between $100 and $173/MWh, depending on a range of technology-cost assumptions.

This week the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) released their draft 100% Renewables Report, costing the system at between $111 and $133/MWh across four scenarios with different timelines and cost projections.

Each of the above studies has its own drawbacks and none can claim to be all-inclusive, but they all cost their 100% renewable systems at between $100 and $170/MWh. Current wholesale prices are around $60/MWh so this represents an increase of between $40 and $110/MWh.

For retail customers this is the same as an increase of between 4 and 11c/kWh. As most customers currently pay around 25c/kWh this would be an increase of roughly 16 to 45%, a modest number when we consider that retail energy prices have gone up by around 30% since 2008, due mainly to increased transmission and distribution costs.

There are two ways of presenting this result. First that the cost of producing energy will increase by up to a factor of 3. Or second that the increase is in line with the recent increases, which while unpleasant did not result in the end of the world for most of us.

Interview: Ash Grunwald On Coal Seam Gas Mining

By Michele Lockwood

I have had the pleasure of speaking to musician Ash Grunwald this week about his passionate stance and involvement in the anti-Coal Seam Gas movement that is ever-present in our area of Northern NSW. Ash speaks honestly about his apathy in the past, his ‘unlikely ally’ in Alan Jones and his heartening commitment to seeing an end to the drilling of the land and the destruction of our waterways.

If you have any doubts about the dangers of CSG mining, please view the links and read Ash’s poignant words that follow. Make an educated decision about the motives of this greedy industry and the tragedy it has brought to places where with it sets down drills.

Doubtful Creek Protest, Kyogle, Northern NSW February 23

"I remember reflecting on the way home from the protest, that I just feel so lucky that my profession happens to be one where people say, ‘Thanks so much for coming and that we really needed that boost, we really appreciate it.’ And I’ll I’m thinking is that I really hit the jackpot in the job that I do that that happens to be the case. I don’t see it that way; I am just turning up playing some music and just trying genuinely trying to lend my support. I was really thinking that it was a really uplifting thing to be a part of and it was an amazing experience.

And I do think maybe there is some law in the universe that you need adversity in order to have those positive experiences. It really brings people together. From the Aboriginal elders doing the ‘Welcome to Country’, to the old farmers up there and then the range of different musicians with slightly different politics.

And we’re all there together and that is a positive feeling. It is a shame that has to come up as the silver lining to a very, very dark cloud; but nonetheless you still get the reward for fighting the good fight, as some people would say.

This is very different to say of logging of old growth forests in Tasmania or what Sea Shepherd does for example, it’s an ethical thing. You back it and people are out there putting themselves at risk and to me I respect them so much because it is an ethical thing. But the thing with CSG is that it goes beyond ethics, I mean it is ethics but it is also pure self-interest. It’s me thinking about my daughter and my baby coming along and all the innocent people and the people affected by it.

I’ve never felt so called to any movement as the anti-CSG movement. There have been untold environmental catastrophes all my life but there has been never been anything so close to home ever.  We are fighting something way bigger than we can see right now, it is hard to imagine that in 20 years there could be drill sites everywhere. I guess that could explain why some people are fence sitting."

High-speed rail should cost less

Climate solutions think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions have done their own study on the high-speed rail link from Melbourne to Brisbane route in partnership with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). Their research, which will be published in full in May, indicates that the chosen HSR route could be built for under $70 billion, a lot less than the $114 billion quoted in the latest government study.

‘I suspect the stretched timeline adds considerably to the financial challenge, as well as the gold plating, which is evident in their cost estimates. The $114 billion price tag is questionable to say the least,’ said BZE researcher Gerard Drew.

The BZE-DLR analysis makes significant savings by avoiding the most difficult terrain. A kilometre of track in a tunnel can cost more than ten times that on level ground, so every little bit adds up to big savings for a 1700km alignment.

‘We have mapped out our own route based on the limitations of high speed trains, and our analysis indicates that with this limited flexibility we could reduce the civil works cost of the rural sections by nearly 40 per cent of the government’s Phase 1 estimates, with negligible increases in journey time,’ Drew said.

Syndicate content