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The National Energy Review: an opportunity to steer us towards a healthy future

By Graeme McLeay - posted Tuesday, 11 October 2016


Australia's federal and state energy ministers met last Fridayfor a special meeting in response to last month's statewide blackout in South Australia. The COAG Energy Council announced an independent review to provide a blueprint for the national electricity market.

The appointment of Dr Alan Finkel to chair the National Energy Review is a wise choice. Australia's Chief Scientist, who drives an electric vehicle and pays a premium for green energy, will at least inject some science into the enquiry.

To date the blackout has received a barrage of green bashing based on lies, misconceptions and ideology. This occurs whenever an environmental issue arises.

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The South Australian power crisis offered a golden opportunity to blame renewable energy and vaunt the virtues of coal and gas as "baseload energy". While emergency crews were still out working, and before any analysis had been made, Prime Minister Turnbull and the Murdoch press shamelessly rushed to describe state-based renewable energy targets as "ideological" and "unrealistic".

South Australia's blackout crisis prompted the Adelaide Advertiser to run a five page spread about the "superstorm", including details of 2000 plus calls for help, rainfall records, winds in excess of 120 km per hour, localised tornadoes, and $40 million damage to the Adelaide Plains food bowl with warnings that fresh food prices may double or triple, or in the case of potatoes, quadruple.

TheAdvertiser article, while impugning the state's wind farms, made no mention of climate change on any of its five pages. While attribution of a single storm is difficult, recent research published in Nature finds that both extreme heatwaves and heavy rainstorms are happening with increasing regularity because of manmade climate change.

The Weekend Australian launched an attack on "intermittent sources" with Environment Editor Graham Lloyd quoting Bjorn Lomborg, an analyst with no credibility in climate science institutions, claiming renewable energy will contribute only marginally to the ultimate climate change solution.

This same analyst says $90 billion in global subsidies to renewable energy is unsustainable, ignoring the $452 billion per annum in global subsidies to the fossil fuels heating the planet. The Australian's front page article, stating that Victoria's and Queensland's plans for renewables will cost consumers $41 billion in capital costs between now and 2025/30, makes no mention of the $5.6 billion in Australian fossil fuel subsidies paid out annually.

What really stands out in all the commentary is the complete absence of the human health costs of continuing business as usual. The World Health Organisation reported this year that, by 2030, climate change will be responsible for an extra 250,000 deaths per year. Nobel Laureate Professor Peter Doherty said recently this figure is likely to be an under-estimate and could be infinitely worse. Not included in the figure are the three million deaths per annum attributable now to fossil fuel driven air pollution, including 3000 in Australia, a number higher than the road toll.

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It should be stressed that a threat to the electricity network is an immediate threat to human health. During SA's power outage human embryos were lost, intensive care patients were put at risk, as were state emergency workers and others. Elderly people particularly, without heating or lighting are at risk. Loss of refrigeration is a risk for food poisoning.

Energy security is vital, but to single out renewable energy as the cause of the outage is like blaming the cows when the milk truck breaks down. There are many parts to the system and outages have occurred in states with very little renewable energy, notably Queensland. Only last week more than 10,000 propertieswere without power across Brisbane.

Problems such as intermittency and frequency control can be answered with proven technologies, some new, such as solar with molten salt storage or batteries, and some old, like pumped hydroelectric power which has existed for nearly a century and is used in many US states.

If we are to avoid global warming of two degrees we know that 80% of known fossil fuel reserves must not be mined in this century. The global agreement which Australia signed up to in Paris (which we are yet to ratify) is an acknowledgement of that reality. Australia's Emissions Reduction Target of 26%-28% on 2005 levels by 2030 is regarded internationally as very weak and not enough to meet our obligation to that agreement.

The reality of climate change can no longer be ignored; it's staring us in the face, and it is increasingly impacting on our lives through extreme weather events.

Science and not ideology or investor profit must drive Australia's energy policies if we want to ensure a healthy, safe and stable planet for all.

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About the Author

Dr Graeme McLeay is an Adelaide anaesthetist, a grandfather and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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