Life After Coal: The South Australian City Leading The Way

The Guardian

It was a coal town, predicted to be wiped out by the closure of two ageing power plants. Now Port Augusta has 13 renewable projects in train

The largest solar farm in the southern hemisphere lies on arid land at the foot of the Flinders Ranges, more than 300km north of Adelaide. If that sounds remote, it doesn’t do justice to how removed local residents feel from what currently qualifies as debate in Canberra.
As government MPs and national newspapers thundered over whether taxpayers should underwrite new coal-fired power, mauling advice from government agencies as they went, residents of South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf region have been left to ponder why decision-makers weren’t paying attention to what is happening in their backyard.
What’s happening here is going to be happening on the eastern seaboard in the next 10 years.
Sam Johnson, mayor of Port Augusta
In mid 2016, this region was on the brink, hit by the closure and near collapse of coal and steel plants. Now it’s on the cusp of a wave of construction that investors and community leaders say should place the region at the vanguard of green innovation – not just in Australia but globally. There has been an explosion in investment, with $5bn spread over the next five years. There are 13 projects in various stages of development, with more than 3,000 construction and 200 ongoing jobs. The economy of this once-deflated region has been transformed and those who live here are starting to feel hopeful again.
The Port Augusta mayor, Sam Johnson, a 32-year-old former Liberal member, is continually surprised at how resistant some are to the idea that the energy environment has changed. “You might choose to ignore what’s happening here now because we’re out of sight, out of mind, but the reality is that what’s happening here is going to be happening on the eastern seaboard in the next 10 years,” he says.

In simple terms, the Upper Spencer Gulf transition story goes like this. Port Augusta was a coal town, home to the state’s only two lignite – or brown coal – plants, Playford B and Northern. Playford B, ageing and failing, was mothballed in 2012. Northern, the larger and younger of the two, closed in May 2016 when owner Alinta Energy decided it was no longer economically viable. The Leigh Creek mine that supplied it, by then offering up mostly low-quality coal, shut at the same time. About 400 workers at the plant and the mine lost their jobs. Roughly a third retired, a third found other employment locally and a third had to leave town to find work.
At the same time, further around the gulf, the steel town of Whyalla was teetering precipitously after the owner, Arrium, put the mill in voluntary administration facing debts of more than $4bn.
A worker, Ben Williams, inspects the interconnector under construction to service the Lincoln Gap wind farm. Photograph: The Guardian 
 Yet as the doom hit, there were also rays of hope as several clean power projects were mooted for the surrounding area.
Two years on, the Port Augusta city council lists 13 projects at varying stages of development. And Whyalla has unearthed a potential saviour in British billionaire industrialist Sanjeev Gupta, who not only bought the steelworks but promised to expand it while also spending what will likely end up being $1.5bn in solar, hydro and batteries to make it viable.
Gupta says the logic behind his investment in solar and storage is simple: it’s now cheaper than coal.
Johnson says he expects the Upper Gulf region to receive $5bn in clean energy investment over the next five years. “My gut feel – and I’m an optimist – is that they will all go ahead,” he says. “They are different technologies and they are playing in different markets, so they are not competing for power purchase agreements.”
By any measure, the Bungala solar power plant is vast. Once its second stage is complete, 800,000 photovoltaic modules will cover an area the size of the Melbourne central business district. The scale is neatly summarised by Chris Rowe, the plant’s operations manager and, with maintenance officer Andrew Bartsch, our tour guide around the site. Both men recently returned to Port Augusta after working away to take up positions with Enel Green Power. One day Rowe decided to stroll back from the 275MW farm’s outer edge, weaving in and out of the rows of panels as he went. By the time he got back to his office, he had covered 12km. “At that point I thought, ‘gee, this is really something’,” he says.Bungala is nearing completion, with work on the $425m plant expected to be finished by January. Its first section started feeding into the national electricity grid in May. Further west, ground has been broken on the 59-turbine, 212MW Lincoln Gap wind farm, though progress has temporarily stalled after developer Nexif Energy discovered unexploded ordnance from historic military testing on site.

Australia's renewable energy capital
Some major projects under development or proposed for the Upper Spencer Gulf 

As Guardian Australia visited the region, the South Australian Liberal government gave final approval for a $600m hybrid wind-and-solar energy park on the south-eastern edge of Port Augusta that proponent DP Energy says will be the largest development of its kind in the country. A second stage with more solar and a 400MW battery is slated to follow.
At Cultana, just north of Whyalla, Energy Australia is investigating building the country’s first saltwater pumped hydro energy storage plant. It would draw water from the Spencer Gulf, pump it uphill when energy is plentiful and cheap, and convert it to hydro electricity at times of high demand. A decision on the project is expected in 2019.
All are potentially agenda setting, but none are as anticipated as the Aurora solar thermal power station. It is the culmination of a push that began in 2010. A research paper by advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions formed the basis for the creation of Repower Port Augusta, a community group that built widespread support for bringing the developing technology to the region among councils, business and unions
US developer SolarReserve took notice. It plans to use a field of mirrors to heat a molten salt system inside a 234-metre tower. It will both generate electricity and store eight hours of energy that can be sent out when the sun isn’t shining. The company says the $650m plant, to be built at the Carriewerloo sheep station about 30km north of Port Augusta, will be the world’s largest solar tower with storage and provide 5% of the state’s energy needs.
The planned Aurora solar thermal plant will both generate electricity and store eight hours of energy that can be sent out when the sun isn’t shining.
 The SolarReserve vice-president, Mary Grikas, stresses the plant will operate “just like a conventional coal or gas power station, reliably generating electricity day and night – except without any emissions”.
With the increasing emphasis on “firming” power to back up variable renewables, solar thermal is seen as a potentially major player in filling the gaps, along with other fast-starting options such as pumped hydro, lithium-ion batteries and peaking gas. The 150MW Aurora plant is underpinned by a 20-year power supply contract with the South Australian government, but the company is still to finalise a $110m concessional loan with the federal government, the result of a deal with former senator Nick Xenophon in return for his support for company tax cuts.
Dan Spencer worked on the solar thermal campaign as an activist with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Solar Citizens, relocating from Adelaide for six months to help build local support. Now a campaigner with the Australian Services Union, he is still pinching himself that it is set to become a reality. “The transition from coal hasn’t been perfect, but in a couple of years we will be seeing this incredible project that people not that long ago thought was just pie in the sky,” he says. “The local community really deserves the credit.”

Aurora is not the only solar-thermal project linked to the region. Port Augusta is already home to a small concentrated solar-thermal plant owned by Sundrop Farms that it uses to run a hydroponic greenhouse that provides Coles with tomatoes.
Also on the horizon, and just as unique design-wise, is a proposal by Solastor, chaired by former Liberal party leader John Hewson. It promises new graphite-based technology to capture solar energy and store it in a load-shifting battery. Hewson says it will be a world-class project. “Solar thermal will take the market, there’s no doubt about that,” he says.
Why are developers choosing the Upper Spencer Gulf? Investors say it has several things going for it: great sunshine; a history of electricity generation that left strong connections into the national grid; nearby industry – particularly mine developments – demanding reliable energy; strong facilitating support from the Weatherill Labor government that has continued under the new Liberal premier, Steven Marshall.
Ross Garnaut is a former Labor climate policy adviser who is now the president of Zen Energy, a solar and battery firm that has projects in the region and is 51% owned by Gupta.
“The Upper Spencer Gulf happens to be a very good place to start,” Garnaut says. “Some coal generation regions have good renewables and others don’t, and no others have them as good as Port Augusta. [But] the Port Augusta developments could be replicated in any region that has good solar and wind resources.”
The inclusion of solar thermal is crucial as it means jobs on a semi-industrial scale. Wind and solar photovoltaic plants bring plenty of jobs in construction, but few in operation. Solar thermal has more in common in operation with coal, using steam to spin a turbine. SolarReserve expects to have a 50-strong permanent workforce at the Aurora plant.
It is an important point. While enthusiasm about the new projects in the gulf is high, the shift away from coal has not been seamless – less a transition than a period of loss followed by rebirth. There remains significant disappointment, in some cases anger, about what some consider the unnecessary pain caused by a failure to plan for life after coal.
‘My advice is: learn from the Port Augusta experience. I wish the federal government would,’ says Port Augusta mayor Sam Johnson. Photograph: Che Chorley for the Guardian 
Gary Rowbottom is a case in point. A mechanical technical officer at the town’s power stations for 17 years, he joined the Repower Port Augusta campaign in 2012 and became the public face of the campaign. He was persuaded that solar thermal was the future and hopeful Alinta would be persuaded to embrace the technology to replace coal. He says he was naive about how easy that would be. When the company announced Northern’s closure earlier than expected, he was 55 and left hunting for work.
Fifty job applications and 11 interviews later, he was still looking. After about 18 months he left town to take a position on a coal plant in central Queensland. He now sees his wife, Debbie, only every couple of months.
“It’s not been ideal,” he says. “I did my best to get a job that would have kept me home. I guess it was hurting me financially, watching my redundancy steadily getting eroded away, and I had a growing sense of failure. I worry that others are going through the same thing.”
Rowbottom is buoyed by the developments under way at home, and hopeful the Aurora solar thermal plant will provide his ticket back. “It’s great it is happening. We just wish it could have happened a bit sooner,” he says. “What is hard for many of us to understand is why the closure couldn’t have been organised as a proper transition.”
Johnson, who ran unsuccessfully for Xenophon’s SA Best party at the state election, says Port Augusta is set to be the renewable energy capital of the country, with more ongoing jobs if all proposed projects in the Upper Spencer Gulf go ahead than at the former coal plant.
But he says both the former Labor state and current Coalition federal governments failed to offer the community the support it needed when the coal plant closed. The ramifications of the rapid closure were significant. Some small businesses and shut. Dirt and coal ash continue to blanket Port Augusta when the wind blows from the south-east because the former coal plant site was not properly rehabilitated. Wholesale electricity prices across the state increased more than they would have had more significant replacement generation been readied earlier.
“I’d love for people to learn from what’s happened here [about] what not to do when you’re closing a power station,” Johnson says.

Whyalla seems to have fewer issues in the wake of Gupta’s arrival in July 2017. Seeing a business opportunity that governments and publicly listed companies did not, he promised to initially spend $1bn to double the steel mill’s production and convert it to a “green steel” model he has applied in other countries. This includes using more recycled steel and investing heavily in clean energy close to the plant. He is spending $700m building two farms of solar panels, a cogeneration plant to convert the waste gases from steel production into electricity, the country’s largest lithium-ion battery and up to three pumped hydro plants in disused mining pits in the Middlebank Ranges. He says more will follow.
Both Gupta and Johnson say the message for the rest of the country is: embrace change.
Gupta says: “Be braver. Be more entrepreneurial. Take risks … It is very difficult to change things in Australia. Everyone is too stuck in their ways.”
Johnson says: “You can resist change as much as you like, but the reality is, if you’re in a community that has a coal-fired power station, its days are numbered. The market is dictating that change whether we like it or not.
“My advice is: learn from the Port Augusta experience. I wish the federal government would.”


Judge Throws Out New York Climate Lawsuit

New York TimesJohn Schwartz

A federal judge has dismissed a suit brought by the city that would have forced fossil fuel companies to pay for some costs of climate change.
A power plant in Brooklyn viewed through the Manhattan Bridge. A judge ruled that climate change must be addressed by the executive branch and Congress, not by the courts. Credit Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock
A federal judge has rejected New York City’s lawsuit to make fossil fuel companies help pay the costs of dealing with climate change.
Judge John F. Keenan of United States District Court for the Southern District of New York wrote that climate change must be addressed by the executive branch and Congress, not by the courts.
While climate change “is a fact of life,” Judge Keenan wrote, “the serious problems caused thereby are not for the judiciary to ameliorate. Global warming and solutions thereto must be addressed by the two other branches of government.”
The 23-page decision is a second defeat for local and state governments seeking to use the judiciary to address problems caused by climate change. The first was in a case brought by San Francisco and Oakland that was thrown out last month by Judge William H. Alsup of Federal District Court in San Francisco.
The cases, which have generally been considered long shots, rely on the area of public nuisance under state common law, which allows courts to hold parties responsible for actions that interfere with the use of property.
Earlier attempts to use nuisance claims in lawsuits about climate change have been brought unsuccessfully under federal law in cases like American Electric Power v. Connecticut. In a unanimous 2011 decision, the Supreme Court said that the Clean Air Act displaced the federal common law of nuisance and gave jurisdiction over the issues to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The cases brought by New York, San Francisco and other governments around the country have taken a different route, pursuing nuisance doctrine at the state level. The cases argue that state common law has not been similarly displaced.
In Thursday’s New York decision, Judge Keenan ruled that the city’s federal common law claim was, in fact, displaced by the Clean Air Act, and he rejected the notion that state law could be used to address the issue, writing that it would be “illogical” to allow the claims under state law “when courts have found that these matters are areas of federal concern that have been delegated to the executive branch as they require a uniform, national solution.”
Using domestic courts to litigate issues of international greenhouse gas emissions, he wrote, “would severely infringe upon the foreign-policy decisions that are squarely within the purview of the political branches of the U.S. government.”
Judge Keenan sounded skeptical in a hearing about the case last month, arguing with a lawyer for the city, Matthew Pawa, over the role of users of fossil fuels in causing climate change — including, the judge stressed, the city itself.
“I mean, aren’t the plaintiffs using the product that is being the subject of the lawsuit and haven’t they been using it and aren’t they continuing to use it?” he asked. He cited the city’s tens of thousands of police cars, sanitation trucks, fire trucks and more. “If you go out the door and over to Foley Square,” he said, “you’re going to find police cars.”
The companies did not deny in their filings that climate change is occurring or that humans are to blame, and Judge Keenan’s opinion reflected this scientific evidence. He acknowledged that “climate science clearly demonstrates that the burning of fossil fuels is the primary cause of climate change.” He also noted that the industry knew the risks of climate change from the 1950s onward, but “engaged in an overt public relations campaign intended to cast doubt on climate science.”
Theodore J. Boutrous, Jr., the lead lawyer for Chevron in these suits, said “Judge Keenan got it exactly right.Trying to resolve a complex, global policy issue like climate change through litigation is ‘illogical,’ and would intrude on the powers of Congress and the executive branch to address these issues as part of the democratic process.”
In addition to Chevron, the defendants in the case were BP, ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
This is not the end of the line of cases. San Francisco has announced that it will appeal Judge Alsup’s decision.Other local governments around the United States have filed similar suits, and Rhode Island this month became the first state to begin litigation.
Seth Stein, a spokesman for the New York City, said: “The mayor believes big polluters must be held accountable for their contributions to climate change and the damage it will cause New York City. We intend to appeal this decision and to keep fighting for New Yorkers who will bear the brunt of climate change.”


National Farmers Federation Says Electricity Best Place To Make Emissions Cuts

FairfaxNicole Hasham

The National Farmers Federation has taken a veiled swipe at the Turnbull government's signature energy plan, suggesting proposed emissions cuts in the electricity sector lack ambition and may have unfair consequences for agriculture. 
The comments add weight to criticism that the National Energy Guarantee shifts the burden of climate action to other parts of the economy where emissions reduction is more expensive and difficult.
The new national energy policy would set emission caps and and reliability standards for electricity retailers. The government says this will reduce the risk of blackouts, curb dangerous greenhouse gas emissions and deliver lower electricity prices by encouraging more investment and supply.
The National Farmers Federation has suggested emissions reduction imposed on agriculture could have unfair consequences. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer
It would impose a 26 per cent emissions reduction target on the electricity sector by 2030, based on a 2005 baseline.
In submissions to the Energy Security Board, which devised the policy on behalf of the government, the Farmers Federation acknowledged that the target was in line with Australia’s international obligations.
But current and future conditions meant emission reductions in the electricity sector “will be larger than 26 per cent by 2020 and that further reductions in the electricity sector are likely between 2020 and 2030,” it said.
“The [federation] urges governments to be guided by the many credible and independent studies on what is likely in the electricity sector,” it said.
Reputex modelling has concluded the National Energy Guarantee will allow coal to continue its market dominance and drive up prices. Photo: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg
“Given the current trajectory of the electricity sector, opportunities for further emission reduction are available, provided they continue to meet the reliability and affordability thresholds that headline the NEG.”
Agriculture emissions largely stem from livestock and manure, and the release of nitrous oxide from pastures and crops through fertiliser use. Reducing such emissions is considered challenging and costly.
The federation’s submission said the government "should appreciate the agriculture sector has taken significant steps in reducing its carbon emissions footprint".
It said a robust emissions target “is about fairness” and the electricity sector represented “the most cost-effective ways to reduce our emissions”.
“Other sectors of the economy, such as farmers and small businesses, are price takers and would not be able to pass on the cost of an imposed emissions reductions scheme,” it said.
The federation stopped short of calling for more stringent emissions cuts for electricity but said 26 per cent “should be the minimum target”.
The Agricultural Industries Energy Taskforce echoed the concerns, saying when emissions targets were set “it is important that appropriate consideration be given to outcomes which do not unfairly shift the burden of reductions onto other sectors”.
The taskforce comprises prominent agriculture bodies including the National Irrigators Council and Cotton Australia.
Labor's spokesman on climate change and energy, Mark Butler, said the NEG would place an unfair burden on other sectors. Photo: Joe Castro
Labor’s climate change and energy spokesman Mark Butler said the 26 per cent target ignored the fact that electricity emissions had fallen since 2005 due to the renewable energy target, while other emissions in other sectors had risen.
“Under the government’s approach, the electricity sector - which has the opportunities for the least cost pollution cuts - does 10 times less than sectors like agriculture and manufacturing, that don’t have many cost effective options to cut pollution,” he said.
“This is not only unfair, it is economically irresponsible and even the electricity sector itself is calling for more ambitious pollution cuts.”
Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said the 26 per cent target was “a pro-rata contribution out of the electricity sector as part of our overall Paris agreement”.
“We have a strong track record on meeting our international emissions reduction targets,” he said, adding that required emissions reductions to meet the 2030 target fell by 60 per cent over the past two years.
Meantime, analysis by energy market consultants Reputex, to be released on Friday, claims coal will continue to dominate the electricity market under the national energy guarantee and the 26 per cent emissions reduction target will not lower power prices.
The modelling, commissioned by Greenpeace, also found that the 45 per cent target proposed by Labor would imply a constraint on coal-fired emissions and encourage renewable investment, pushing wholesale prices down.



Local, County And State Governments Are Suing Oil Companies Over Climate Change

The Conversation*
  • Local governments are suing big oil companies, alleging that higher sea levels brought about by climate change are a public nuisance.
  • California, Washington state, and New York City are hoping lawsuits will force these companies to foot the bill for the effects of climate change. 
  • Rhode Island became the first state to take this step, when it sued 21 oil and gas companies "for knowingly contributing to climate change and the catastrophic consequences to the State and its residents, economy, eco-system, and infrastructure."
  • Several researchers have concluded that sea level rise and a warming ocean played a major role in making Superstorm Sandy so catastrophic.
Superstorm Sandy wrecked these Rhode Island cottages in 2012. AP Photo/Steven Senne
Thanks to climate change, sea levels are rising and storm surges are becoming more costly and frequent. Since most American state and local governments are cash-strapped, cities and counties fear that they won’t be able to afford all the construction it will take to protect their people and property.
So some communities in California and Washington state, as well as New York City, are suing oil companies in a bid to force them to foot the bill. Recently, Rhode Island became the first state to take this step, when it sued 21 oil and gas companies “for knowingly contributing to climate change and the catastrophic consequences to the State and its residents, economy, eco-system, and infrastructure.”
Does it make sense to hold the industries responsible for global warming liable for the price – in dollars and cents – that everyone will have to pay to adapt to a changed climate?
As a scholar of environmental law, I believe climate liability cases like these have merit.
Chevron, one of the five oil majors being sued, objected to San Francisco and Oakland's claims of nuisance law, and sought to transfer lawsuit to a federal district court. Jonathan Bachman/Reuters 
A public nuisance
Superstorm Sandy caused over $60 billion in damage along the New Jersey and New York coasts. Lucas Jackson/Reuters 
The local governments asking the courts to intervene allege that higher sea levels brought about by climate change are a public nuisance. That may sound odd at first, but I believe that is fair to say. It is also the legal basis on which similar liability lawsuits have been filed before.
The sea level along California’s coasts may have risen about 8 inches in the past century. Scientists project that they may rise by as much as 55 inches by the end of this century.
That worst-case scenario would put nearly half a million people at risk of flooding by 2100, and threaten US$100 billion in property and infrastructure, including roadways, buildings, hazardous waste sites, power plants, parks and tourist destinations.
Superstorm Sandy caused over $60 billion in damage along the New Jersey and New York coasts. Several researchers have concluded that sea level rise and a warming ocean played a major role in making that storm so catastrophic.
The Trump administration has released a national climate change assessment, confirming that extreme weather events – storms on steroids – are becoming more frequent and intense.
If anything, characterizing these catastrophes as a public nuisance is an understatement.

A question about jurisdiction
Oakland and San Francisco both sued five of the world’s largest oil companies in state court, asserting claims based on California’s own nuisance law. They are seeking billions of dollars for an abatement fund.
But Chevron, one of the five oil majors being sued, objected and sought to transfer the San Francisco and Oakland lawsuit to a federal district court, where Judge William Alsup recently dismissed the case.
Still, it wasn’t a clear win for oil companies.
Alsup accepted the scientific consensus that the defendants’ line of business is driving climate change and therefore poses a clear and present danger to coastal communities and others. But in his ruling, he also questioned whether it’s “fair to now ignore our own responsibility in the use of fossil fuels and place the blame for global warming on those who supplied what we demanded.”
And while the judge also acknowledged that federal courts have the authority “to fashion common law remedies for claims based on global warming” he opted to “stay his hand in favor of solutions by the legislative and executive branches.” In other words, he said it’s up to Congress and the White House to figure out whether oil companies ought to pay to, say, move San Francisco’s airport to higher ground.
Even if prospects for federal action on this front are next to nil for the foreseeable future, given the Trump administration’s warm embrace of oil, gas and coal, this is no legal dead end. I believe that Oakland and San Francisco will surely file an appeal to the 9th Circuit, which could rule differently.
Even more importantly, there is another case pending that is taking a different course. The counties of Marin and San Mateo and the City of Imperial Beach, California, are also suing oil companies with similar climate liability claims. Judge Vince Chhabria sees things differently than Alsup and ruled that state law, not federal law, should prevail.
He has ordered that case back to state court, a move that Chevron, BP, ExxonMobil and the other oil company defendants are trying to prevent.
In addition to coastal communities concerned about rising sea levels, several Colorado counties filed their own climate liability cases in April 2018. Those lawsuits allege that oil companies should be held responsible for the higher temperatures now reducing the state’s snowpack. Getting less snow is jeopardizing Colorado’s agriculture, water supply and ski industry.

Several legal precedents
The oil industry has reportedly known for 60 years or longer that burning fossil fuels would eventually overheat the planet. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid 
I maintain that these cases do belong in state court because there are many relevant legal precedents.
U.S. courts have repeatedly held manufacturers liable for the damage their products wreak, especially when those companies knew full well that their products, used as intended, would cause that harm.
The biggest precedent is the tobacco industry’s 1998 settlement with the states, which called for companies to pay out $246 billion over the next 25 years.
In addition, there have been many judgments against oil companies and other corporations responsible for manufacturing a potentially cancer-causing chemical called MTBE that used to be a common gasoline additive and has contaminated public water supplies.
And a panel of California judges ordered paint companies to pay more than $1 billion to help get lead out of housing that remains contaminated decades after the government banned lead-laced paint. The companies are vowing to take the case to the Supreme Court if they can.
Currently, another new kind of liability lawsuit is emerging against opioid manufacturers. Ohio and at least six other states are seeking damages to help cover the expense of dealing with widespread addiction from the allegedly irresponsible marketing of prescription painkillers – which it says the companies should have known were being abused.

Exxon knew
As for the oil industry, it has evidently known for 60 years or longer that burning fossil fuels would eventually overheat the planet, with monumental consequences.
Rather than alert the public and engage in good-faith discussions to address the problem, oil majors like Exxon sought to mislead and deny what they knew about the risks of fossil fuels. Furthermore, the fossil fuel industries have sought to block any meaningful federal climate response by donating vast sums to the political campaigns of candidates who promised to oppose the requisite policies.
In a perfect world, the nation’s elected leaders at all levels of government would be hard at work passing laws and establishing programs to confront the existential threat of climate change and to help communities prepare for the unavoidable impacts that are already baked into the system.
Alas, that is not the case. The courts are the last line of defense in this epic struggle to deal with the effects of climate change – including the astronomically expensive costs of moving housing, businesses, schools and other structures out of harm’s way.

*Professor Patrick A. Parenteau, formerly director of Vermont Law School's Environmental Law Center and of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, is recognized for his expertise regarding endangered species and biological diversity, water quality and wetlands, environmental policy and litigation, and climate change. The courses he currently teaches at Vermont Law School include Climate Change and the Law, Extinction and Climate Change, Water Quality and Environmental Litigation.


Tender Will Allow Coalition To Dig Its Way Out Of Coal Hole

FairfaxJohn Hewson*

The federal government desperately needs a cut-through strategy on energy policy. The divisions within the Liberal Party, and between the Liberal and National parties, won’t go away, even though they are costing them electoral support and may ultimately cost them government.
Perhaps the most direct and effective mechanism for the government to cut through, and demonstrate the authenticity of its claim to be “technology agnostic”, would be to announce a tender to meet its future, carefully specified, power requirements, establishing a genuine competitive process, encouraging all parties to give it their best shot.
Illustration: Matt Davidson

This could be the simplest and quickest mechanism to end the faux coal vs renewables contest, and should be seen as a genuinely conservative solution.
This would certainly be an effective fact-check, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of the multiplicity of claims and counterclaims and providing the most effective base on which to consider the recent ACCC recommendation that the government consider supporting and facilitating the development of new base load electricity capacity.
The detail of the various positions within the government debate tends to move around. Some just seize on virtually any argument or event to disrupt, while others claim an affinity with what they like to call an ideological position, or our national economic advantage.
Much of the debate turns on prejudice rather than analysis, expressed as preferences for particular resources and technologies. For example, the pro-coal/anti-renewables group makes several points. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal; it is a significant industry in terms of jobs and growth; burning coal to make electricity is cheap and provides reliable, 24/7, base load power. They pose the question: “Why should we sacrifice our global competitive position and source of 'cheap' and reliable power – indeed, why don’t we seek to exploit it further as our industrial and export base?"
They argue that we have been sacrificing all this by subsidising renewables, with the result that electricity prices paid by households and businesses have soared and reliability has been seriously compromised - that wind and solar can’t provide stable and dispatchable 24/7 base load. Indeed, that they have introduced an intermittency problem, being unable to consistently meet the morning and evening peaks in demand. They claim the business model for renewables hasn’t been proved in the absence of the subsidy from the renewable energy target.
Coal loading facilities at Port Waratah in Newcastle. Photo: Nic Walker
Mostly, this pro-coal group ignores the climate challenge. Indeed, some of its members would have us withdraw from our Paris commitments on emissions reductions. They make a multiplicity of sub-points - Australia is only a small emitter by global standards, so our emission reductions won’t make much difference against the big emitters in the United States, China and India; if we don’t burn our coal, others will; others are continuing to build new coal-fired power plants.
Of course, such points ignore our position as near-to-the-highest per capita emitter and any global responsibilities we may have as the world’s third largest exporter of fossil fuels and the largest coal exporter.
To the extent that coal advocates acknowledge the need to reduce emissions, they pin their hopes on technologies such as carbon capture and storage that "promises” to catch the gas emitted from electricity generation, liquefy it, transport it and store it – even though this technology has not been demonstrated commercially, at scale, despite billions having been spent globally on its development. Ironically, carbon capture and storage might need a carbon price in excess of US$100 a tonne to be commercially viable.
What is most surprising is how resistant the coal industry and their political supporters have been to alternative technology solutions which would allow them to sustain coal more effectively through the transition phase.
I have worked with technologies that are Australian owned and proven (in one instance by the US government, at scale, in the 1980s) to clean up coal – all consistently eschewed by coal companies over the years that insist their business model is to “just dig and ship”.
Resistance to conversion technology has been, to say the least, odd, in a coal-rich country with dangerously low fuel security.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating such technologies, just making the point as to the blinkered absurdity of many in the pro-coal lobby who simply don’t want to acknowledge the need for any change.
The coal lobby also choose to ignore the rapidly mounting resistance of the finance community to finance or insure new coal-fired power plants – hence, they hope to push government to underwrite it.
The key point is that these transition arguments have become much less relevant as the unsubsidised cost of renewables and effective storage has dropped significantly so they can now deliver cost competitive, reliable and dispatchable 24/7 base load electricity, driving an effective transition to a low emissions industrial and societal base.
The proposed tender process would cut through all these claims and counterclaims and allow the government to be genuinely technology neutral. It would be able to avoid having to make some sort of side-deal on coal, sacrificing its neutrality, to get party room support for the National Energy Guarantee.
This would require the government to amalgamate its power and technical requirements, specifying magnitude and time profile and other desired network services, while being consistent with its Paris commitments. This would be the most effective way to have those who are advocating new ultra super critical coal-fired solutions demonstrate their bona fides against solar thermal, or wind/solar photovoltaics with effective storage.
A well specified tender process would force all sides to put up and shut up, hopefully once and for all.

*John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.


Renewables Will Replace Ageing Coal Plants At Lowest Cost, AEMO Says

The Guardian

Forecast by energy market operator is a blow to Coalition MPs campaigning for new coal-fired generation
Some 30% of coal power plants will be decommissioned in the next 20 years and it will be cheaper to replace them with renewables than with new coal plants, AEMO says. Photograph: Josh Wall/Guardian Australia
Australia’s energy market operator says the future of power generation in Australia will be renewables with storage, and gas, with those technologies able to replace the power currently supplied by coal generators at least cost.
A new forecast by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) notes 30% of Australia’s coal generators will approach the end of their technical life over the next two decades, and it says it is important to avoid premature departures if the looming transition in the national energy market is to be orderly.
But while some in the Turnbull government have been campaigning to bolt new coal-fired power into the system, backed with government subsidy or underwriting, AEMO is clear about where the future lies, and it is not with coal.
It says the future of power generation in Australia is renewables with storage, pumped hydro and flexible gas-powered generation.
The market operator says in a forecast to be released on Tuesday that when existing coal resources retire “the modelling shows that retiring coal plants can be most economically replaced with a portfolio of utility-scale renewable generation, storage, distributed energy resources, flexible thermal capacity, and transmission”.
While some in the government have sought to portray new coal generation as a low-cost option for consumers concerned about high power prices, AEMO’s new forecast completely debunks that argument.
It says the lowest-cost replacement options for retiring coal plants “will be a portfolio of resources, including solar (28GW), wind (10.5 GW) and storage (17 GW and 90 GWh), complemented by 500 MW of flexible gas plant and transmission investment”.
The energy market operator concludes that mix of generation can produce 90 terawatt hours of energy per annum, “more than offsetting the energy lost from retiring coal-fired generation”.
It says the increasing penetration of rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources is having a profound effect on the power system, and it says a growing proportion of supply will come from this form of generation rather than baseload.
The new assessment also suggests Australia’s electricity transmission infrastructure will need to be reinforced to ensure the grid performs optimally after the shift.
It says targeted investment in new transmission “will minimise the overall cost and support consumer value by making better use of existing plant, including distributed energy resources, lower fuel and operating costs and operating risk by a more inter-regionally connected system, and provide system access to the least-cost supply resources that can replace the retiring coal plant”.
The forecast says the cost of replacing the retiring generators with new assets is “significant and unavoidable” – somewhere between $8bn and $27bn, depending on assumptions made around economic growth and rate of industry transformation.
But it says targeted investment in transmission infrastructure, rather than power generation, would create efficiency gains, with cost savings between $1.2bn and $2bn, as well as creating a more robust, resilient, flexible and adaptable network.
The report lays out a three-stage program of investment. A failure to invest in transmission infrastructure would increase consumer costs and risks, AEMO says.
AEMO’s chief executive, Audrey Zibelman, says Australia’s energy market is experiencing “an unprecedented rate of change”.
“We are witnessing disruption across almost every element of the value chain,” Zibelman says. But she says the looming transition will require careful planning “to manage this transformation in order to minimise costs and risks and maximise value to consumers”.


Climate Change Is Behind The Global Heat Wave. Why Won't The Media Say It?

Los Angeles Times*

The sun rises over Burbank on a triple digit day. (Richard Vogel/Associated Press)
Last week’s heat wave brought record temperatures to Southern California. Hot winds blew fire into my community in Santa Barbara County, ripping through a dozen homes and threatening hundreds more.
I tuned into the local news channel, where reporters reminded viewers that we had just finished a record-breaking fire season. They strained to list all the fires we’d had over the past decade. There were too many to recall.
Fires are happening a lot more often across California. You can’t accurately call it a fire “season” anymore. The season is year-round.
But journalists who report on the fires or heat waves rarely acknowledge this reality. Last week, the local newscasters in my area never did, even though it has a very familiar name: climate change.
The same is true of the media at large.
Although it reports on each fresh disaster — every fire, every hurricane, every flood — it tends to stop short of linking extreme weather events to global warming, as though the subject were the exclusive province of reporters on the climate beat.
As a result, we’re missing what is arguably the biggest story of all: The climate we knew is no more. We’ve already warmed the planet, whether we deny it or not.
It’s not hard to spot global warming in the news. If you’re looking, its marks are everywhere. Right now, southern Japan is flooded. Two months’ worth of rain fell in five days, a day’s worth in an hour. Mudslides followed. More than 200 are dead, more are missing, millions are displaced.
But to get the larger story about extreme weather events, you have to read between the headlines.
There is no sound justification for this. Not anymore.
Scientists have been churning out evidence of human-caused climate change for more than a century. Some are figuring out exactly how much to blame global warming for any given weather event. They're getting really good at it.
We can now link many recent disasters and weather events to climate change. We know, for instance, that more than three-quarters of moderate heat waves are connected to warming. We also know that, were it not for climate change, fires in the West would have burned half as much land since the 1980s.
Scientists have been documenting the increase in extreme rain events in Japan since the early 1990s.
The science is clear. Journalists need to start using it.
There are reasons they haven’t. Reporters are trained to distinguish weather from climate. They are also conditioned to avoid the appearance of political bias, and a decades-long campaign to sow doubt about global warming has cast a partisan aura on the facts.
But with a bit of nuance, journalists can carefully identify the pattern. Any weather event has multiple causes. More and more, climate change is one of them, and its share of blame is growing.
The public is not entirely in the dark.
In fact, research by Peter D. Howe, a geographer at Utah State University, shows that 60% of people in 89 countries correctly perceive that temperatures where they live have warmed over time. According to a study by the political scientists Matto Mildenberger and Dustin Tingley, most Americans underestimate how many people share their belief that climate change is real. Most of us know this is not a drill, and most of us want our government to do more.
We all need to do more. Countries around the world need to go beyond the commitments made in Paris.
We need more wind and solar energy. We need states to keep nuclear plants open when they are safe, because they already produce clean energy. We need to stop rolling back renewable energy laws, as my research has documented in Ohio, Texas and Arizona.
But we won’t do any of this until we can see what’s happening.
Journalists play a critical role in helping the public to make these connections. They need to start telling the whole story.

*Leah C. Stokes is an assistant professor of environmental politics at UC Santa Barbara.


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