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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for April 2013

Different environments, same environmental fight

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Wilderness preservation issues bite back, in Australia as in Canada

Wilderness preservation issues bite back, in Australia as in Canada

Going to Australia feels like stepping into a parallel universe, as if going through Alice’s looking glass.  Cars drive on the wrong side, though writing isn’t mirror-image.  The moon is upside down, and grows from the left side.  Stars are all different, but I recognized Orion.  People spoke English – I think.  Cities could be Montreal or Toronto, except I couldn’t recognize anything specific.  It’s as if some all-powerful alien recreated my reality, but missed a few crucial details.  Spooky.

 Seriously – there’s a lot that’s similar between Canada and Oz – but there’s always a twist.  For one thing, the fauna and flora of Australia is completely unique.  But the similarities are uncanny.

Take energy, for instance.  The Australian dollar is over-evaluated, and that is hurting the manufacturing industry.  When we were there, car maker Holden announced layoffs to 500 people.  Australia’s dollar is inflated, in part, by its large exports of coal.  Anyone who’s heard of Dutch Disease will recognise the parallels with Canada.

Speaking of coal, Australia is planning a new coal superport right in the Great Barrier Reef, in an area that would threaten endangered turtlesGreenpeace Australia has mounted an expedition against coal exports, boarding a large coaler in a spectacular protest, in part because of the impacts the coal exports would have on climate, in part because of the immediate danger to the Reef, a unique environment that is part of Australian identity.  This should sound familiar to any veteran of the Northern Gateway fight, where our threatened icons are the Great Bear Rainforest and our salmon.

Greenpeace's splendid Rainbow Warrior moored at Circular key before sailing to a direct action protest against coal barrier Reef

Greenpeace’s splendid Rainbow Warrior moored at Circular key before sailing to a direct action protest against coal barrier Reef

I found eerie parallels in forestry issues, as well.  I picked up a copy of Anna Krien’s award-winning Into The Woods, an account of the fight to save old growth Tasmanian forests.  It’s as if re-reading about the Clayoquot War in the Woods, complete with road blockades, sham trials, and trumped-up charges of eco-terrorism.  Then I read about the Queensland plans to open protected areas to clearcutting:

The largest rollback of environmental protection in Australia’s history is under way as the State Government waters down vegetation protection laws.  If an amendment Bill passes through Parliament in its current form, it will become legal to clear regrowth habitat for koalas, endangered mahogany gliders and cassowaries.

In an unrelated story (in NSW), there was a picture of a lonely koala looking for its home in the middle of a clearcut – saddest thing I ever saw in Australia!

A koala looking for its home after a logging clearcut in new South Wales

A koala looking for its home after a logging clearcut in new South Wales

So I’ve been signing petitions all over the place, asking the various Australian governments to stop.  But here’s the problem: who am I, a Canadian, to tell the Aussies what to do?

Well, for one, Dinah and I spent a sizeable chunk of money to get there to see those cassowaries (saw some wild ones!) and koalas.  And we were among many, many others who took in the delights of the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, happy to plunk down our dollars and hear how these treasures are protected.  Tourism is the largest revenue-earning sector of Australia.  I wouldn’t pay to see clearcuts and bleached-out reefs, sorry.

A wild cassowary in the (still protected) Daintree rainforest

A wild cassowary in the (still protected) Daintree rainforest

En route to snorkeling in the Great barrier Reef

En route to snorkeling in the Great barrier Reef

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     But more importantly, this is my planet, dammit!  Australians are merely custodians of unique treasures that are humanity’s heritage to cherish, just like Canadians have a unique responsibility to protect caribou and spirit bears.  Ich bin ein Australier, too, or something like that.

So there you go.  Check out what Greenpeace Australia are up to, or the Global Citizens for the Protection of the Great Barrier Reef.  Inspiring stuff, and they could use a hand – from everyone.

Written by enviropaul

April 28, 2013 at 10:08 am

Solar Australia: a million solar panels!

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Solar cells festoon a house in Sydney

Solar cells festoon a house in Sydney

I went to Australia to relax and visit friends, not to scope out solar energy (though I got a great suntan).  But you can’t miss them: every street in every neighbourhood seems to have a house with a brand-new photovoltaic array.  Wineries, garages, you name it, I saw some with photocells.  I thought for a moment that I was in Germany, except that all the arrays point north, which is totally confusing at first.

There are now over a million arrays in the country.  This is even more remarkable considering that there was barely any five years ago: 20,000 in 2008, and only 900 in 2006.  Wow.

And there continues to be a large demand.   Home owners are installing the devices because they are cheap enough and offer guaranteed returns (just in case you thought

Solar panels match air conditioning demand on this Melbourne house

Solar panels match air conditioning demand on this Melbourne house

that Aussies care about the planet more than the rest of us).  Queenslanders, who live close enough to the equator to enjoy year-round even sunshine, have spent $1.45 billion (Australian) on solar collectors in the past two years.

Readers’ comments are always instructive.  Despite a few curmudgeons (“I would not have the ugly contraption on my roof. That is my choice and I pay.”), there seems to be ample enthusiasm:

Darryl Saal: Haven’t paid a power bill for 6 years now, and the system has paid for itself, so all profit from now on. I can see that as prices rise over time I may end up having to pay some, but it will always be much smaller than it would have been without solar.

Barry Bonkton: Best thing I have done, other than installing a Solar Hot Water system 15 years ago. I only have a 3kW system, but have not paid a bill for 12 months and still producing half my usage even with these rainy cloudy days lately. Build your system big enough to wipe your bill out and add a bit more for increases. If on a budget, get a bigger inverter and then over time, you can add more panels. My system should be paid off in 4-5 years, while helping the planet use less Dirty Coal Power. WIN WIN.

A Brisbane retiree: With retirement just round the corner two years ago we decided to invest in solar to try and avoid the stress of high power bills in the future. We are not rich and we were only trying to safeguard our quality of living. This has probably been one of the best decisions we have ever made.

Council House 2 building in Melbourne: 48 m2 of panels, electricity and gas consumption reduced by more than 80%

Council House 2 building in Melbourne: 48 m2 of panels, electricity and gas consumption reduced by more than 80%

How did Australia do it?  The government imposed a fairly stiff tax on carbon emissions, and used a variation on the German feebate program.  The government offered generous subsidies to purchase the systems, and guaranteed the rate that they would be paid on surplus electricity.  As in Germany, the subsidies have recently decreased (much to the displeasure of the industry), but the demand remains high, throughout the country.  Of course, not everyone is pleased: the program has been financed by a hike in electricity prices (a reader’s comment: Don’t you morons realise that solar feed-in tariffs are driving up electricity prices?).  In fact, it is the prospect of future rate increases that is partially driving the demand for solar systems.  This is how the paradigm changes – in a short few years, thanks to a judicious policy choice.

There are lessons for us in BC in that.  A few years back the Campbell government decided to encourage independent power producers, which led to BC Hydro being saddled with a number of questionable run-of-river projects.  This has been one of the most unpopular renewable energy projects ever, which is really unfortunate.  Many of the run-of-river projects are proposed in pristine areas, where they will have a large negative impact on the environment (though not all RoR projects are bad).  But in my opinion, a huge missed opportunity in getting the public behind renewable energy projects is enabling ordinary citizens, as opposed to corporations, to participate in the project.  I would love the opportunity to build a solar collector on my roof, and have a guaranteed income from BC Hydro, like the big boys.  Maybe, in our northern latitudes, the economics wouldn’t make sense, and I wouldn’t go ahead with my purchase.  (Then again, the cost of these systems keeps going down, and I’m optimistic for the economics north of the 49th parallel.)  But what is galling is that I’m not given that option, as homeowners in Germany and Australia have.

But it sure works in Australia.  A recent analysis found that renewable energy (solar as well as wind) could meet all of the country’s electricity needs by 2030.  Yes, let me repeat it:  All of the electricity.  100%.  Goodbye coal power.  The country that may be worst hammered by climate change is taking charge, and that’s wonderful news.  (Now, about these coal exports…)

Hey, I'm all for solar!

Hey, I’m all for solar!

Written by enviropaul

April 24, 2013 at 6:40 pm