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.

Earth to moon in 8 years, Melbourne to Brisbane in 45

By Gerard Drew

When John F. Kennedy saw a challenge worth taking he decided to get on with it as quickly as humanly possible, and in eight years Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. On the other hand, our federal transport minister would have us believe building a high-speed railway from Melbourne to Brisbane will take 45 years.

The economic windfall which high speed rail will deliver to Australia has finally been recognised by the federal government, and that's a good thing. But political delay and gold-plating could leave this as just a dream for another two generations of Australians.

Forty-five years is laughable.

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 HSR (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 HSR in order to reduce the huge cost to those countries of imported oil and have completed 3,000km 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.

High Speed Rail. Image Source: Better Nation

Beyond Zero Emissions has done its own study on the HSR route in partnership with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). The research, which will be published in full in May, indicates that the chosen HSR route could instead be built for around $70 billion.

On Board With High-Speed Rail: But Will it Really Cost so Much?

By Justin McGar

The release of the final report of Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese’s High Speed Rail (HSR) Study has been strongly supported by many sectors, but some have argued the project can be delivered quicker and cheaper than the Government thinks.

The proposed high-speed rail network would run between Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, significantly improving the long and medium-distance transport capacity for Australia’s east coast.

Engineers Australia chief executive officer Stephen Durkin said HSR would demonstrate a “clear commitment to Australia’s economic prosperity” and provide the engineering profession with significant opportunities in the planning and delivery of this major infrastructure project.

“As Engineers Australia alerted to in the release of its National Infrastructure Report Card Series in 2010, there has long been a need to expand Australia’s rail networks to enable access by a larger proportion of the population across urban areas. The proposed high-speed rail network would demonstrate a clear commitment to sustainable transport options,” he said.

“An efficient high-speed rail network for Australia’s eastern seaboard will encourage commuters to choose rail as their preferred method of transport, helping to ease road and airport congestion. This is imperative in light of the ongoing political indecision surrounding a second airport for Sydney.”

While the Federal Government has promoted the economic benefits of the planned high speed rail extending from Melbourne to Brisbane, Labor has yet to fully commit to the project, which is expected to cost around $114 billion and take more than four decades to finish.

High Speed Rail. Pic: Reuters/Jason Lee

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), an independent climate solutions think tank and high-speed rail supporter, has said however that Albanese has got things wrong when it comes to the anticipated high costs and the 45-year timeline.

Electricity prices fall: renewable energy deserves merit

By Dylan McConnell

Dylan McConnell is a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne

Let’s be honest: the relationship between renewable energy and the electricity market is complex. So what does the latest report from Australian energy research firm RepuTex tell us?

Well, for a start, coal-fired power has reached a ten-year low.

The report, widely covered in the media, shows coal now makes up 74.8% of the National Electricity Market (NEM), down from 85.8% in 2008-2009.

At the same time the contribution of other energy, and renewable energy in particular, has risen. Hydro power makes up 8.7% of the market, with wind making up 3.8%, both record highs for these energy sources. This leads to the conclusion that greenhouse emissions in the NEM have also reached a ten-year low.

The RepuTex report indicates that both increased renewable energy generation and weaker demand is putting a “squeeze” on traditional generation.

This is ultimately reducing the market price of electricity as renewable energy competes with coal and other traditional energy sources. But, as said, the relationship between renewable energy, competition and market prices is complex.

Does renewable energy lower prices?

In 2011 the Victorian Auditor-General reported that the brown coal industry was concerned that the 10% renewable energy target would deliver too much too quickly which would reduce wholesale electricity prices and impact on brown coal generators.

We looked back and modelled the hypothetical impact of distributed solar photovoltaics (PV) on electricity prices in 2009 and 2010. Lowering the wholesale cost of electricity might offset the costs of renewable energy support schemes.

Using the model we estimated introducing 5,000 megawatts (MW) of solar would lower the market price of electricity by more than A$1.8 billion over 2009 and 2010. When we completed this analysis there was a minuscule 385 MW of solar in the electricity market. Now there is already 2,500 MW, making our estimate look conservative.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) forecasts 12,000 MW to be installed by 2030 in their “moderate” scenario. The impact of PV on market demand is already starting to show on the market.

The average wholesale electricity prices for 2011-12 were the lowest (in real terms) since the market commenced in 1998. Even with the carbon tax, prices are not much above the long-term average of about A$50 per megawatt hour (adjusted to 2013 dollar terms). Recently, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) reported that wind generation is moderating wholesale electricity prices in South Australia, and when there is less wind, prices are higher.

True size of solar subsidies exaggerated, researchers say

By Peter Hannam

The true cost to consumers of subsidies to solar energy has been “somewhat exaggerated” because regulators have excluded the full benefits of solar photovoltaic panels, according to energy researchers.

While feed-in tariffs and upfront rebates have been criticised by officials and fossil-fuel fired generators for increasing consumers' electricity bills, a peer-reviewed research paper by researchers including Mike Sandiford at the Melbourne Energy Institute and Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions, found those costs are partly offset by lower wholesale power prices.

“By not considering this value, the cost of both feed-in tariffs and (Small-scale Technology Certificates) is somewhat exaggerated,” the paper, to be published this week in the Energy Policy journal, said. The contribution from solar in pushing down wholesale prices is "not recognised by the wider public”, the paper concluded.

The influence on wholesale electricity prices works via the so-called merit order effect. Under the National Electricity Market pricing scheme, the cheapest source of power gets preference. As more wind and solar energy gets added to the network, their negligible cost of production helps drive down prices across the network - a result that should benefit consumers.

"The question is whether we see that (saving) in the retail prices," Professor Sandiford said. "In an efficient market, we'd expect that to flow through."

Gas – is it a natural fit for buildings?

By Richard Keech

(Note: This article has been updated to correct leakage rate that cause the net climate effect of gas to double. The leakage rate is 2.6%, not 1% as originally published)

According to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency website, old electric-element-style hot water systems (that about half of households still have) “produce up to three times the greenhouse gas emissions of low emission technologies such as gas, solar and heat pump systems.”

The website recommends, that “changing your electric water heater for a low emission gas, heat pump or solar system, you can reduce your energy consumption, cut your greenhouse gas emissions and save money on your power bills.”

As far as heat pumps go, and electric or heat pump boosted solar, it’s hard to argue. But for fossil gas appliances, that “low emissions” tag is plain wrong. Now, we could just criticise it by asking whether “low emissions”  is good enough. Many think there’s enough scary climate science reports to mean that “low emissions” halfway measures are not good enough.

It’s true that at the point of combustion, fossil gas produces about half the emissions of coal for the same amount of energy. We could debate about whether the emissions cup is half full or half empty at this point, but that would be a diversion. In truth, if you look past the point of combustion, the cup is overflowing.

Previously, Beyond Zero Emissions have pointed to the fugitive/migratory emissions from coal-seam gas as a big question for just how low the emissions of future (and some current) gas supply will be. This concern is now gaining mainstream attention, as evidenced by the ABC TV Four Corners program last week. It’s a serious worry, given that CSG is the fossil gas industry’s future.

Beyond Zero Emissions’ Buildings Plan researchers have put together a short briefing paper drawing on the available research into the various problems of using gas, and conclude that gas use should be phased out (in buildings in particular) – based primarily on its climate impact.

The key reason is that all gas networks leak, not just at the well head. The only question is how much. There is some limited data out of South Australia that suggests the gas networks’ leakage there is in the order of 7%, whereas official government figures put it at around 1.5% nationwide. In reality, in most areas, it’s probably somewhere in between.

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