Category Archives: Politics

Banyule Council Community Transport Workshop

Goal and Context

The goal of the workshop , as explained by Scott Walker, the director of city development at Banyule, was to provide the community with the opportunity to contribute to the development of the Banyule City Integrated Transport Plan; the previous plan for 2003-13, has recently expired and a new one is now needed. He noted in his opening comments that the two most common issues mentioned by Banyule city residents are “trees and transport”; also, that transport and land use – what is built where – are inextricably linked.

Background Information

Three people gave brief presentations in order to brief the 50-some residents, who had braved the wild and wooly weather that autumn Tuesday, some even by bike, with information pertinent to the topic. Kevin Agen, from the Banyule City Council, outlined the role of the BCC Transport division, which is mostly involved in daily activities, but also strategies and policies. Anything implementable through the BCC would be done by that division. Then, Simon Basic from VicRoads, who was delayed by traffic, spoke, informing us that “Plan Melbourne,” the outcome of work done last year on how Melbourne could develop to 2050, has been released; more importantly, he stated that the EW Link is “still a pipedream” but nevertheless an integral part of the multi-decadal plan.

Critical Imbalance

Finally, Rowan Johnson of Public Transport Victoria, spoke to the heart of the issues around transport infrastructure: the balance of population growth and infrastructural investment. He put it quite plainly as this: population growth in the city has been mostly around the edges of the city – as it is currently predicted to continue – and public transport has been “under-developed,” though this last was a thinly-veiled attempt to avoid criticizing any government or corporation, past or present.

Mr Johnson elaborated on this last point, to say that rail is at capacity: more trains will just get log-jammed in the current system, which is in desperate need of increased capacity through the installation of more tracks. In the Banyule area, this means line duplication of the two single-track stretches between Heidelberg and Eltham, but also to create dedicated lines so that South Morang and Hurstbridge line trains would not have to share a single line between Clifton Hill and the city. However, the PTUA asserts that, in contrast, there is no capacity crisis in terms of passenger use, so why should new trains be needed, when modern signaling can run trains at the rate of one every three minutes – clearly far above the current frequencies? Regardless, Mr Johnson said that the on-road aspect of public transport, which is essentially buses as trams lines are too problematic to install, is in the process of undergoing a “paradigm shift” into which input would be most valuable.

Paradigm Shift for Buses

So, the news from Public Transport Victoria is that the paradigmatic shift for on-road modes – read buses – will involve creating three kinds of bus routes: “Premium” routes, as exemplified by the “Smart Buses”, “Connector” and “Neighbourhood” routes. The first would be the most frequent, long-running, and probably have the tightest connections with train timetables; I have heard from other sources that the maximum time between services, if people are to be able to turn up and go, not needing to schedule their lives around time-tables, is about 15 minutes. From the same company, Human Transit , comes the statement that is it frequency and reliability that determines the patronage of a transport mode. Melbourne’s SkyBus is one example of a frequent route, however, it is unreliable, due to delays caused by traffic during peak hours – the simple solution to which, Mr Walker of Human Transit was quoted in an article in The Age, is putting in dedicated bus lanes, something that would work in every municipality with Smart Bus routes, but one which was rejected as an option by the current Victorian State government. Regrettably, as we discovered, most of the obvious solutions to transportation issues are not anything that a local city council can implement, but more of that later…

Sustainable Living

Having previously heard some discussion about bus transport at a public forum held at the Sustainable Living Festival, this was a theme with which I was familiar: buses use mostly pre-existing road infrastructure, are relatively cheap to deploy at ~$350,000 each, and offer the greatest return on investment, according to Professor Graham Currie, who spoke who was one of several speakers at the forum. The main issue with buses is that there are far too few of them and their coverage – both temporal and geographical – as a consequence of this scarcity, is too limited, in spite of the fact that the bus system has grown by 60% in the last 13 years.

Also in spite of this, two-thirds of our PT system is comprised by rail and tram, but, conversely, two-thirds of our population lives near a bus line, but not near buses due to their aforementioned scarcity. The main issue with trams, at $6 million each, is that they are sharing the road with cars, while trains in Australia are among the slowest and most prone to break-down in the world. Of the three modes of public transport, buses have grown by 62% from a low base, or 46% of the total service growth, while trains have increased 30% and trams 9% since 2001.

Workshop Structure

After the presentations from the three invited speakers, the facilitator of the meeting, Mr Walker, outlined the structure of the meeting: there would be 5 short discussion periods, during which each group of 5-10 people would list as many ideas as they could on a series of topics, assisted by a table helper from the council; once the time had elapsed, each table would share a point or two from their collective effort with the wider group. The topics were as follows:
1) Land Use Planning and Transport Integration
2) Active Transport
3) Public and Community Transport
4) Road and Freight
5) Education, Marketing and Advocacy
Of these, the greatest amount of time was spent on the first topic, which is the most substantial as it involves the greatest number of elements, being the intersection of two aspects of the transport system: the modes of transport and the ‘hubs’ to which they connect.

Land Use Planning and Transport Integration

There were many suggestions that addressed the specific needs of small groups of transport users, relative to the majority of single-occupancy passenger vehicles: better access for disabled and aged people to all modes and at all transportation hubs; speed limits in activity centres; support for cyclists in terms of access and infrastructure. However, apart from advocacy and excepting some infrastructural elements like bike paths, city councils can do little about these things; most are in the purview of state-level bodies such as VicRoads, which is the arbiter of speed limits, particularly on main roads. One exception to this is provision of community busses, which have been recently discontinued and was a significant concern for many at the meeting.

Congestion is the Solution

There were two statements that stuck in my mind from this session. The first was the statement by Chris Kearney, who was the candidate for Jaggajagga in the recent federal election, which made very good sense: “Congestion is the solution.” Essentially, Mr Kearney was pointing out that we already have very good infrastructure for transport, in the form of privately owned vehicles, but commuter vehicles contain, on average, 1.2 people. That leaves about 75% of vehicles with 1 person. Again, there is little that local council can do to foster car-pooling; VicRoads could implement more multi-person transit lanes on all freeways, which would have the effect of driving single-occupancy vehicles into higher density in the remaining T1 lanes, but the state government is very unlikely to drive such an unpopular proposal.

High Rising Solution

The other suggestion was my own; though many proposed that higher densities of people living around transport hubs is necessary, no-one proposed the obvious solution: rather than mere 4-6 storeys being the maximum, as is the case for the Ivanhoe Structure Plan, for example, to increase the maximum height to 8 storeys or more. Here’s what the Ivanhoe Plan document says on the subject of increased density of housing in and around the station:

• Protection of the valued 2 storey heritage façades of Upper Heidelberg Road, while enabling up to 4 storey development setback behind the main street.
• Direction of most development to the five diversity areas subject to guidelines with a preferred maximum height of no more than 4-6 storeys, generous setbacks and landscaping.
• Protection of the desired character of Accessible Residential Areas in the Activity Area, including setbacks and landscaping guidelines to reduce bulk with a preferred maximum height of no more than 2-3 storeys.

Higher in Heidelberg

Looking at the equivalent structure plan for Heidelberg, the limit is given in metres rather than in storeys. As shown in the Guide to that plan – which is essentially an overview – the predominant height of the development area, which mostly abuts Burgandy Street and Rosanna Road, is 25 metres. This amounts to about 8 storeys, but only where the buildings can be stepped back from their boundaries in such a way that a pedestrian at street level could not see the upper floors of the building (see pages 30-33 of the Guide), or about a rise of 3 metres for each 2 metres set-back of a building envelope upper edge.

In real terms, then, with the 4th storey set back by 2 metres, the eighth storey of a building would be set back 10 metres from “sensitive land use” areas. Clearly, building 16-storey apartment blocks, which would have a tremendous impact on population density in the area, is far from being on the schedule. Examination of the areas identified for high-density development also reveals that little or none is scheduled for the area immediately adjacent to the station, along Mount Street (see page 15 of the Guide).

Cost of Parking Spaces

One of the big issues with developing such areas is that, typically, on-site parking is required for people who commute to the area as well as residents. This is, of course, simply pandering to the car culture which is at the heart of the urban sprawl and what makes public transport so relatively inefficient here in Australia, in comparison to Europe. Building huge shopping centres, where prices are lower than in small-holder shops, can only be achieved by externalizing the transport costs onto the public, through the necessitation of building more roads and parking spaces.

It has been estimated that here in Victoria, as elsewhere, incorporating car parking into buildings reduces the availability of accommodation and pushes rental and house prices up. One simple way that this could be addressed is by decoupling accommodation from parking, so that, in multi-storey buildings, residents would have the option of paying for yearly parking, rather than being required to do so as part of their purchase or rental price. Whether this is within the purview of local council is unknown to me, but I will be pursuing this in the future.

An Issue of Education

Another issue that was in this section was the use of de-comissioned, re-zoned school sites. According to the council’s website page on these sites, of the three school areas recently purchased from the Department of Education, “most of the land will be set aside for medium density residential use and refurbishment of the basketball/netball stadium, there are various complementary uses that will be considered for the Banksia-Latrobe Secondary and Bellfield Primary sites including possible local retail and/or commercial land uses.” The location of these sites is not central to any transport hubs, so putting even medium-density housing in place will result in more cars and more congestion. It is also telling that, within the information provided, there is nothing mentioned about public transport planning, to increase access from those areas to Ivanhoe and Heidelberg via buses.

Active Transport

This essentially refers to walking and cycling, over which modes of transport the council has some small purview: better lighting, zoning for school and residential areas, and off-road cycle and pedestrian paths. Bike infrastructure on roads is outside this purview, except by advocacy, once again to VicRoads; similarly the reduction of speed limits on residential roads from 50, the default state-wide limit, to 40 or even 30Kph, the latter of which is the internationally recommended speed limit to promote the adoption of active transport modes.

One thing discussed at our table was that, in order to promote walking and cycling amongst school children, the areas around schools could be zoned to prevent on-street parking, effectively making them car-free. The council member who was at our table for this discussion, Jenny Mulholland, essentially said that this was “politically unfeasible” – which means that, while it might be a good idea, the SUV-driving soccer moms of the well-to-do areas around Heidelberg and Ivanhoe wouldn’t stand for it, making it no option for those in council wanting to be re-elected.

Public and Community Transport

Bus frequency was a major concern for many, as well as timetables that are still locked to the 20th century 9-5, 5-day week working schedule, which is particularly inappropriate for an area heavily populated by hospitals, the workforce of which work unusual hours and 7 days a week. Cost reduction and free days on public transport were suggested, but, once again, this is outside the purview of local council; similarly, better shelters that are locally made will increase the ownership of the infrastructure and thereby reduce vandalism.

A TravelSmart Map was available at each table that detailed local transport options of this kind; it was also suggested that an electronic version of this would be useful, particularly one that had live updates of public transport departure times. The Map also outlined walking and cycling groups in the area, bike shops, and projects underway to enhance local use of facilities, including way-finding signage and a “Walk Heidelberg” promotional campaign.

Road and Freight

Contributions to this section were mostly focused on reduction of car use; with 75% of kilometers driven by passenger vehicles, and 75% of these vehicles being single-occupancy, the overwhelming consensus was that fewer cars on the road must be the ultimate goal of all transport and land-use policies. This means that, rather than increasing car-parking space available, a reduction of space should be attempted, with simultaneous increase in public transportation options and services provided. On the subject of car access, one person mentioned that parking permits are not managed locally, allowing the unscrupulous to rort the system by obtaining permits for parking in places where they do not live.

The use of the public transport system to transport freight was also suggested, but as there is not even enough political will to develop and upgrade the system through line duplications for passenger services, this seems highly unlikely to develop. Meanwhile, limitation of trucks carrying freight along main arterial routes is, as usual, the purview of VicRoads, so changing road use by freight trucks is not something the council can affect, except by advocacy.

The strength of opinion against cars led to the chair of the meeting, Mr Walker, to ask, somewhat plaintively, “Is there no-one with anything good to say about cars?” No, Mr Walker, it would seem not.

Education, Marketing and Advocacy

In some ways, this section should have been the main one, due to the limited capacity of local council to affect change in systems that, for the most part, pass through their jurisdiction and are the purview of state-level organizations like VicRoads. The most interesting point that was made was that no fewer than two tables reported on “commuter races” from areas local to the city, where individuals took public transport, rode bikes or took a car. The first report was of a group in another electorate that had done this, who asked: Why can this not be done by people living in Banyule City?

A member of an adjacent table to ours stood up and declaimed that this had indeed just been done and that the result was clear: bikes beat public transport beat the car, which in this case had been driven by the Banyule Mayor, Craig Langdon, who was present at the meeting. The individual reporting the outcome of this race was amused to also report that the Honourable Mayor had barely time to sip his coffee at the end of the race, before having to rush off to rescue his car from the 15-minute zone, which was the only parking to be found. Apparently, Cr Langdon had volunteered to drive only as there were no other takers for such an odious duty.

Failure of Advocacy

On the subject of advocacy, the Banyule council has been substantially less than active in speaking up about the pink elephant in the room, the EW Toll Road and associated freeway links. Cr Tom Melican is the only vocal advocate against the various freeways, with little or no support from the other councilors. One likely route of the EW Link, which will pave the way for the North-East Link, would despoil much parkland through the Banyule Flats area and as such is a major issue with Banyule residents.

As mentioned by one of the introductory speakers, Simon Basic, while there is no money on the table for this part of the many freeway projects, it is nevertheless an integral part of the larger transport plan. Consistently, the recently released infrastructure strategy for Melbourne’s north, Northern Horizons, shows a substantial preference for road projects over any other form, at 12 of 37 projects, with public transport being the next most frequent, at 9 of the 37 projects described.

Council Supports NE Link and Rail Infrastructure

Similarly, the council’s position on the NE Link is explicitly stated as being to “Support an outer ring road solution,” in spite of the many and varied reasons that such a link is not a viable long-term option, such as detailed in this transcript of a submission made to the council earlier this month by Dennis O’Connell, president of the Friends of Banyule.

In contrast, the council is avoiding a decision on the far more immediately relevant EW Link, having “not formed a view on this project given a lack of information regarding the project impacts, including impacts on Banyule” due to the state government failing to provide Banyule or anyone else with a clear picture of how the development might proceed. However, the indications are that if the EW Link goes ahead no money will be available for any other major projects, including all the various major rail projects, so any advocating for public transport projects cannot reasonably advocate for the EW Link.

In Summary

To sum it all up: it seems that local council can do little more than advocate for public transport and facilitate collaborative projects, except in the area of building regulations and parking zones. There is some sign of improvement in the latter case, but of course many residents of Banyule don’t want their precious suburban landscape urbanized and so will fight any increase in building height, even if those are limited to shopping precincts. Meanwhile, the same people are happy to avail themselves of all the advantages that living close to ‘activity hubs’ provide. Modification of parking zone restrictions to promote “active transport”, even around schools, is similarly politically intractable due to the SUV-driving hordes who would protest having to walk any distance to deliver their children to school.

Banyule council’s current positive position on the NE Link is of substantial concern, especially as other, far cheaper alternatives – including better coordinated public transport, but, far easier than that, increasing the number of multi-person transit lanes on all freeways – have not been fully explored. The worst news is that the cost of the EW Link will consume all the funds available for transport infrastructure, preventing substantial development of any other kind of transport infrastructure. Moreover, a commitment to the NE Link is a de facto commitment to the EW Link; the former would follow the latter, but only if the money could be found. Given the time-lines considered, would mean nothing would be available for substantial public transport projects for close to two decades; this is the most likely time-line for the combined EW and NE Link projects, the former of which looks to be becoming twin nightmares for both the Napthine government and Labor opposition.

Other references

It has been asked whether we can afford to invest in suburban railways in our cities, such as in this article. I would reply “How can we not?”

An interesting For and Against piece, regarding the EW Link, in which even the author of the “For” position, Charles Everist, allowed that better public transport is still needed and that, while the link would not solve congestion issues, it would provide jobs and, somehow, enable kids to be picked up from school. The author against the EW Link, Alexander Sheko, stated that:

The East West Link represents a phenomenal expenditure that provides disproportionately small benefits to a disproportionately small proportion of the state’s population. It will consume a generation’s worth of infrastructure funding, ensuring our transport system remains firmly fixed in the last century—to say nothing of the opportunity cost to our health and education systems.


Cause for Hope

The Stage is Set for Tragedy

Many years ago, I asked my father – a lecturer in English Literature – what made a Greek tragedy a tragedy. The short answer is that once the stage and characters are set, there is nothing that can change the outcome: like Newton’s Cradle, each actor will have an effect, which will in turn cause the next and so on, in a cascade of events leading inexorably to a deterministic outcome: the tragedy. My blog post today concerns whether human civilization is deterministically bound for tragedy or not.

Marching against the Tide

Yesterday, people in Tasmania rejected Labor and the Greens solidly at the polls while those in South Australia probably will have returned Labor by a narrow margin. The swing in South Australia, in particular, is mostly away from the ‘other’ parties and towards the top three: the two Old Parties and the Greens; in contrast, the swing in Tasmania is over double digits towards the Liberals. The pundits will write much on the reasons for the differences in these two elections, so I won’t concern myself with discussion of how those results came about.

The day after those elections, in every capital of the country, thousands marched to protest, not a single specific cause or subject, but to express their disgust with and revile of Tony Abbott and his regressive government. I may be wrong, but this may be the only nationwide protest against a single individual prime minister and his government in the history of Australia. Thus, in spite of recent electoral swings against the left at both state and federal levels, the latter of which was admittedly relatively small, I remain optimistic that the pendulum will swing back in the other direction, soon and with vigour.

Regrettably, although I had intended to attend the march and catch up with my friends amongst the Greens, personal injury intervened and I spent the day on the couch. Not wishing to waste my time, I decided to write a bit about the wider reasons why we should all be concerned about how our debt- and economy-driven society is being run, with no view to sustainability or balance: just profit at any cost and mostly profit to the entrenched and richest 0.1% of the population.

My Sources

Most recently, I have come across a couple of posts in my news feeds that are relevant to this subject; unlike many, the news I see has few or no pictures of cats, peoples’ dinners or social events, etc. Over the years, I have culled out most such posts, elected not to follow those people who repeatedly post on such subjects, and assiduously followed a variety of news sources that provide me with a good collection of articles written on the subject of politics, the environment, energy, transport, human health and development, etc: topics that could reasonably be expected to fall into some sort of subject class that could be studied as an “-ology”. While this means that my newsfeed displays what is known as a ‘filter bubble’, I am not so foolish as to think that what I am reading is representative of the online world; in any case, my interest is in the real world.

The Short Term Outlook is Bad

The first post was from about a week ago and was a bit of an unusual one: the author is a regular blogger and has also published fantasy and non-fiction books, so not your usual commentator by a long stretch. The subject was the potential for a perfect storm of climate change-promoted weather and population demand causing a “food shock”, similar to what happened in the 70s when world fuel shortages combined with a drought in Africa to cause a spike in the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) food price index. Such spikes correlate with increased social unrest all over the globe; even the recent Arab Spring has been reported to have been due to rising food prices, at least in part.

Even the stock market is trading on ‘food futures’, which is terrible news, given the notorious instability of that particular mechanism of wealth redistribution towards the already wealthy. Would you be surprised to learn that one of the darlings of the Global Financial Crisis, Goldman Sachs, was involved in food trading speculation through its inception of the commodity index?

With climate change pushing up the prospect of productivity losses – too much or too little water means the same negative outcome – is it too much to imagine that the next ‘bubble’ to bust might be the food futures market? This one won’t be based on pure speculation, either; unlike the housing bubble, where psychopaths in the financial sector were selling off bad loans in increasingly massive bundles until no-one was insane enough to buy them, in this case, real material stuff is being betted on – food that people will eat. How that relates is a bit esoteric, but explained very well in the New Internationalist article:

“When a flood of investors keep on buying (futures stocks), experts say, it creates a ‘demand shock’ in the commodities exchanges, pushing up the cost of futures… Taking their price signals from the exchange, traders on physical markets delay sales and hoard reserves in anticipation of higher prices. Panic buying starts and countries impose export bans.”

The Long Term Outlook is Worse

So, the immediate future is not looking great for the world at large, with the potential for world-wide spikes in food prices and another financial sector bubble busting. The long-term outlook isn’t much better, either, as modeled in a much-reported study funded by NASA that was released this week:

“By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilizational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.””

The conditions for the perfect storm are set and, like a classical Greek tragedy, unless the nature of the players can be changed in time, the unfolding of the future will be as inexorable as gravity. Paradoxically, perhaps, I believe that the pendulum will swing against the current fear-driven tribal mentality amongst voters that has brought conservatives to power in so many Australian legislatures.

What Case for Hope?

A long time ago, a much loved and repeatedly elected, openly gay once South Australian premier, Don Dunstan, was interviewed by George Negus, then of 60-minutes’ fame. The reason for the interview was Dunstan’s imminent death from cancer, to which he was reconciled. Negus observed that, as a life-long avowed atheist, Dunstan had not turned to God in his final hours, so Negus asked from where did he derive his strength to go on? Dunstan replied, with all the gravitas of a great orator, “People, George, from people.”

When thousands upon thousands of people all over a country march to protest their disgust at an entire government and all its regressive policies and decisions, hold candlelit vigils at short notice for a murdered asylum seeker and are motivated enough to start talking to complete strangers about the things that matter to us all, there is cause for hope. The harder the regressive right pushes against the progressive, humanist gains of the last century, taking what has been earned from the middle class, the harder the progressives will fight for the good of everyone and the easier it will be to see what gains are being lost.

So, the reason I have hope for the survival of our civilization is that it depends on people. Our culture will rise or fall on the strength of our convictions and our willingness to advocate for the world in which we are determined to live. I’m willing to fight for that in which I believe and I know that many others are of the same mind. The goal is to unite all who believe in a world where plenty is available for all and to realize that world as our own.

Community Solar PV

The primary reason I am writing this blog is because of my interest in the intersection between Global Warming and Politics. One of the things in which I have become interested, relating to this, is community solar power. Since returning to Australia, with the reduction of solar electricity cost to what is referred to as ‘socket parity’ – the same cost at the retail site of the plug as conventional (ie fossil fuel) electricity – it seems obvious to me that Australia should be moving to full-scale solar panel deployment. Meanwhile, Australia has one of the highest carbon footprints per capita, due to our extremely high reliance on coal for electricity.

Currently, according to the government, we have over 1 million homes with solar panels, though private homeowner installations. This number will double, then double again, for sure, but how long each doubling takes will depend a lot on the stability of the industry, something which is substantially influenced by the carbon price and other government initiatives, taxes and charges; understandably, private and public investors don’t like the ground rules changing when they have money on the table. Moreover, there are limits on how many homes can support solar panels, either due to ownership or degree of insolation – the amount of sunlight falling on a surface each day.

Community Solar PV

One of the ways in which a substantial shift towards solar panel installation can be achieved is through community solar projects, of which there are two basic types: Big Solar farms and distributed solar. Funding mechanisms and ‘financial instruments’ for project to investor relations for both approaches are still being developed, in the face of disinterest by Big Banks who dislike all things unfamiliar and therefore of unknown institutional investment requirements and risk.

I’ve pursued the subject of community PV via numerous avenues, finding some leads myself, getting others from the filter of my Facebook contacts, and still other leads from the initial contacts. What has emerged is a very messy picture, the byzantine complexity of which ensures that realising a community PV project is a major undertaking. There are many steps in the process of establishing a community solar project, which are discussed at some length on the EMBARK website; EMBARK is a private, non-government organisation dedicated to breaking down any and all barriers to developing a powerful community energy sector in Australia.

Why Community Solar?

This is really a broader question: why distributed solar at all? There are much-touted Big Solar alternatives, such as concentrating solar thermal, which would retain the traditional hub-and-spoke distribution models. In spite of this, local unfamiliarity with the internationally well-established technology means that Australian power companies are loathe to develop projects without substantial risk abatement – even when there is substantial community support, such as the Repower Port Augusta project, recently shelved probably due to the company involved asking for a lot of money for feasibility studies – and, similarly for reasons of unfamiliarity, banks are also loathe to lend money. Moreover, community PV projects provide people who are not able to house their own panels a means by which to participate in the on-going energy revolution. Currently, though the ABS reports that 30% of properties are rental, according to a report released in June 2012 by the NHSC, approximately 50% of people aged 25-34 do not own their own homes, so a substantial population is represented in this demographic.

Breaking the Electricity Hegemony

The argument for local – distributed – power production from small and medium installations (ie, residential and commercial, not wholesale production), to me, is actually about changing the stance of political parties on the national energy market (NEM). For decades, the NEM has been a game for only the rich and powerful: companies and governments who own the various systems have written the rules to suit themselves, to the detriment of consumers. The degree of difficulty in unraveling how the convoluted system works means that, even to the dedicated, the processes that determine the price paid at the plug by citizens – the ‘levelised cost of electricity,’ LCOE – are virtually impossible to understand. Transparency doesn’t help much when you’re looking at a ball of twine and the regulators – government – previously set distribution standards that have resulted in huge expenses passed on to the retail consumer in order to ‘gold-plate’ the current system, the utility of which depends on the continued use of a hub-and-spoke distribution model. Meanwhile, though coal-generated electricity use is dropping and renewables increasing, placing downward pressure on wholesale costs, whether these savings are passed on is another matter entirely.

So, the obvious way to stop small groups of powerful corporations from gaming the system is to end their various monopolies. By developing both individual and community PV projects, the current model of electricity generation and distribution can be out-moded by a more decentralised system. In such a system, the stake-holders and the share-holders are the same people – are, in fact, actually individual people, rather than faceless corporations or ‘the government.’ The electricity producers will have to adapt, as they are doing elsewhere, by changing their pricing strategies and, most likely, moving from a simple rate to one rate determined by market demand, as the graphs in this article show for the German electricity market.

This means, ultimately, a movement from supply-side price fixing to demand-side price determination, with all the follow-on advantages of personal choice inherent in the latter: people will adjust their energy usage profile to save themselves money. There will be costs for distributed energy production systems – the solar panels – as well as the provision of smart metering and distributed network components, but, ultimately, Australia can do this and go 100% renewable, for as little as 7-10 billion per annum. Ten billion dollars is, coincidentally, the amount of subsidies annually provided to the fossil fuel industry, to keep burning carbon and running out the clock on the time we have to avert climate catastrophe.

Big Solar projects, while an important part of our future NEM, are regrettably unlikely to change the hub-and-spoke model of power distribution and therefore support more of the centralised control that is necessary for corporatism or other forms of institutionalism to flourish. So, in this blog post, I’ll focus on community-based models of PV; I consider these more likely to be able to change the energy supply landscape, through disenfranchising an entrenched energy industry that otherwise has little incentive to change. Here in Australia, where most electricity comes from old, coal-burning power stations, that industry simply has to change if we are to avert climate change disaster in the very near future.

A Simple Challenge; A Decent FiT

The principal challenge that must be met by a community PV project is simple: as an investment, it must give an adequate return or else people will not invest in it. Even the staunchest environmental activist must recognise this requirement: such a project must do better than merely repay its investors. At present, the biggest block to easily realising adequate returns is the lack of a substantive feed-in tariff, or FiT.

In Victoria, the FiT has varied substantially; the most recent Labor government established a 60c/KWh rate in 2009; successive Liberal governments reduced this, first to 25c/KWh in 2010, which was about equivalent to the wholesale price of peak electricity, then to 8c/KWh the next year, though some retailers allow a 6c bonus on top of the latter two basic rates. To put this in perspective, coal-fired power stations, the building costs of which are now fully amortised, currently charge about 6c/KWh, which rises substantially by the time the electricity reaches the domestic user, to about 20% of their total bill, the majority of which is actually distribution costs – poles and wires – which, ironically, are not so necessary in a distributed power production system.

The current cost of new-build, highly efficient fossil fuel plants, at around 11-15c/KWh, is far in excess of what old coal plants can charge and, absent any government regulation on emissions – such as President Obama is using in the US to increase the expense of new and, more recently, old coal-fired power stations – the 8c/KWh state-mandated FiT is simply both unfair and unrepresentative of the savings conferred by electricity production that is local to the point of consumption.

Unstable Rules Mean Less Investment

The kind of instability created by changing rules, renewable energy targets, carbon prices and feed-in tariffs is exactly the sort of thing that makes investors – both private and corporate – very wary of putting money down on projects. Moreover, with a 2 or more year incubation period before their investment starts paying off, short-term pay-off investors, which include large retailers like supermarkets, are simply not interested. In a long and substantive discussion paper, Woolworths identified lack of a government commitment to a feed-in tariff as the single main reason that it had not committed more of its substantial retail roof space to medium-scale solar PV projects. Persuading large, corporate distribution companies to offer a better rate than this, however, requires leverage that few small, community-based organisations have. Acquiring this leverage would require, at the least, a negotiating position that has buying power.

In the jargon of the energy business, arrangements for buying and selling power come in the form of “power purchase agreements,” or PPAs. These agreements are one of the things that community PV projects need, to guarantee a buyer for the electricity they produce at a set rate. It’s all about ensuring the future unfolds as planned, really, which, as individuals know, is a bit of a crap shoot at the best of times. In the meanwhile, as the dice tumble and fall, we invest ourselves in plans that predicate a certain outcome. Developing PPAs with local consumers is one of the major goals of any community solar PV project.

Completing the First Community PV Project

So far, from what I’ve read or heard, the Community Solar project closest to completion is the South Melbourne Market project, which is being organised by the group Locals into Victoria’s Environment, LIVE. This has been on-going for some time and has more time to go, with an expected date to come on-grid later this year. The main organiser – project manager – for the effort, Mr David Robinson, recently released the feasibility report for the project, which was an important milestone, but the project is yet to start installing panels.

This is certainly not the only green electricity project on the map – literally; the federal government has a map that is searchable for renewable energy and related green projects, though it is probably not comprehensive as it only shows those efforts in which the government is already financially involved. Among these would be the recently announced large-scale solar plants in NSW, the largest of their kind in Australia, which have been mostly financed by state and federal governments at the behest of AGL. The potential for contribution of energy to mining operations should not be overlooked; miners are also looking to solar power, both here and elsewhere, due to the expense of grid access.

The Most Significant Barrier

Just as the most important criteria for justifying a Solar PV Project is economic, the biggest barrier to getting a project started is funding for personnel to work on the project development. Access to funding is either difficult to find – where to start looking – or simply absent. As Adam Blakester, Director, Starfish Enterpises, Coordinator of Farming the Sun, puts it: “The most significant barrier to more successful community energy projects is greater access to funding for the initial project development costs. This covers the critical stages of work before the community is able to invest their own funds.” One place from which such funds could come, of course, is the government.

From Renew Economy recently came the better news that some Community Owned Renewable Energy (CORE) Projects are being funded at the state level, at least in NSW; Robyn Parker, MP (Lib), has announced $411,000 in funding for CORE Wind and Solar projects in that state. I have been unable to find similar stories of similar funding in other Australian states, but keep an eye on the FB group CORENA for updates. CORENA uses a different model, not dependent on investment return, to create projects through donations that then get recycled into buying more solar panels as the initial projects start generating income. Also further to that end, Fund Community Energy has a petition for Federal seed funding, in which they claim that $50 million would unlock $500 million of community funds for 170 projects in the coming 6 years.

Meanwhile, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), has $3 billion to invest in renewable energy projects in the 2012-22 decade, some part of which should be available to local communities, but their website is not clear on this matter; none of the solar projects listed as supported by ARENA are community-based, but industry, industry-association and government research bodies. Mr Robinson of LIVE has told me that even a mere $20K would go a long way to assisting the South Melbourne Market project to move forward. Much of ARENA’s funding, however, seems to be targeted at R&D, rather than roll-out, though there are some provisions in their mandate that could cover community PV projects (see addendum 2, below).

Local Government Options

Meanwhile, also on the local government side, while speaking recently with Ms Romney Bishop of the Nillumbik Shire Council, that council’s Sustainability Officer, I learned that there are multiple groups of councils involved in alliances to combat climate change: Nillumbik is one of nine councils in the Northern Alliance for Greenhouse Action, NAGA; there are equivalent groups around the greater Melbourne area: WAGA, SECCA, EAGA.

The Nillumbik council has recently completed a solar hot-water roll out for council-owned buildings and are now looking at a similar project for solar PV. From Ms Bishop I learned something of the complexity of the energy sector, from a council viewpoint; to obtain a PPA, the councils of the alliance would have to negotiate with numerous distributors and retailers, as the geographical areas serviced by council and energy companies overlap, but are not fully concordant.

Costs of Solar PV Plummeting

The other side of the equation, of course, is the cost of installing solar PV. Solar panels have come down in cost by 80% since 2008 – due to demand driven substantially by Germany’s nation-wide commitment to solar PV, (yeah, even sun-drenched Germany is doing community and residential PV in a big way, with many lessons to be learned), as well as investment by other nations – and, with China, Japan, Chile, Peru, UAE and Saudi Arabia recently committing to substantial solar PV investments, more reductions in module price can be reasonably expected. While this alone will improve the rate of return on investments, a substantial proportion of the cost of establishing a private PV project is installation costs – around 50%, in fact, with module cost the other half – albeit with large local variations. Governments are also working towards reducing the so-called ‘green-tape’ that slows down private installation approvals, such as in the US, but as with any first-time achievement, the first community solar PV projects will face a slew of issues, both technical and administrative.

Electricity Generation and Global Warming

How all this relates to Global Warming is simple: in Australia, the overwhelming majority of electricity is produced from fossil fuels – approximately 97% in Victoria – and, so long as aging, highly polluting coal-fired generators are able to be profitable, due to a lack of a carbon price that properly reflects their social cost, this will continue. By promoting and adopting a distributed energy production system, these dinosaurs of the last millennium will be driven to their necessary extinction and the way to renewable energy will be ensured.

However, with a change of government in the offing, substantial damage could be done to the carbon price by either an LNP or an unfettered middle-right Labor party, much of which price was due to the conditions the Greens imposed on that government. Already, Rudd is heralding a move to an ETS, which would further reduce the price of carbon from $12 AUD of the 2013 budget, itself a reduction on the original $23 AUD, down to ~$6: far below what a US government agency set for the ‘social cost’ of carbon at over $40 USD. Meanwhile, Abbott has an even worse agenda for the carbon price and renewable energy in general, preferring – predictably – to subsidise businesses rather than to put control of consumption in the hands of consumers.

In Summary

I am certain that Australian home-owners will continue to move towards individual energy independence, as solar modules and installation costs continue to fall, thus sparing themselves the certainty of future price rises for energy. Therefore, for the greatest benefit of the greatest number of people, regarding the national electricity market, Australia needs a standard feed-in tariff that reflects the savings of local electricity generation. This will accelerate the development of community power projects, which will ensure that a more substantial population of people can participate in the on-going energy revolution. We also need transparent methods for applying for government funding for community projects, to ameliorate the expenses of initial feasibility studies.

In addendum:
1) I have a collection of curated relating to this subject articles here on ScoopIt!
2) A recent reply to an enquiry I sent to ARENA indecates that there are Federal funds available for community PV projects, for which the PDF describing the provisions under the Measures stream can be found here, within which Appendix A is pertinent.

First off Word Press

Welcome to my first Word Press blog entry. There will be many more to come; I have approaching 50 works in progress, from when I hadn’t yet figured out how to get them all into my personal web pages…but which issue I have now resolved. So, you might wonder why I’m writing a separate blog here on Word Press.

Well, my other two blogs, which I publish on my personal website, are about two of the main aspects of my life to date – Science and Dance – which I will continue there. The subjects I cover there are fairly limited in their scope, according to the titles, and I have of late been developing a different set of interests, which can be broadly described as within the spectrum of political activism, stemming from two convictions: that Global Warming is a reality and that the usurpation of personal democracy by large, non-elected self-interested groups or their representatives simply must end.

Many have written about the confluence of these two issues: that Fossil Fuel companies are the biggest and most substantial corrupting influence of Western and possible world democracy and that an impending Climate Catastrophe of which Global Warming is a harbinger will not stop for political or social considerations. As one post on Facebook recently put it: “Evolution is real. Belief is optional. Participation is not.” The denialists vigorously deny its existence, but they will be “roasted, toasted, fried and grilled” along with the rest of us, which larger population – 5770% in the US, depending on the poll – now includes the IMF chief, who gave that quote earlier this year. Scientists, of course, have long since ended their debate and are now only discussing the degree of the coming catastrophe.

My tendency is to reduce whatever it is about which I am thinking to the most fundamental principles I can imagine, then work my way back upwards to an explanation for the observable events or conditions. As a classically trained biologist, I am accustomed to thinking in a reductionist sense, but as one of the first of the network or system biologists, I have also developed a deep understanding of how complex are the ways in which the pieces interact to create the whole, which is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. In true Muskateers’ fashion, gene effects are “All for one and one for all;” the same is true for the myriad ways in which sociological, political, geographical, and economic factors interact in a system that few, if any, understand. Clearly, the leaders of the Federal Reserve have no idea as Paul Krugman at the New York Times, Robert Wenzel at the EPJ and Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post all seem to think.

All the things I have been contemplating in the last 18 months or so boil down to a single, fundamental flaw in our system of governance: that of representation.

As was said a long time ago, by successive authors, and I paraphrase: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The people in our society who are in a position to be corrupted in such a manner are those who have accumulated great wealth and with it the capacity to buy influence with elected officials of any political persuasion or position. Such wealth is only possible with increasing size of material or financial holdings, generally though pyramidal hierarchies that pass the wealth generated by the actual workers upwards, to increasingly elevated managerial classes. This then allows those few at the top, who were not selected by representational voting by the constituents of their companies, to use their power to set political agendas at their discretion.

In exactly the same manner that private companies create an hierarchical pyramid, so do to political systems, where the elected officials are a long way from the supporter base. Symptoms of this are easy enough to see; wherever rank and file political candidates are drawn from places other than the geographical region that they purport to represent, or evidence clearly shows that a political party has become a promotion mechanism to enable access to some other entity – be it a union, lobby group or an industry – then you have a system run by self-interested apparatchiks.

In both cases, the manner in which representation is ensured could be said to be the problem; I would go further and claim that representation itself is in essence the problem. Once a person gives up their right to choose to another – however that is realised, as either a voter, a shareholder or a stakeholder – then the person acquiring that power is being placed in a corruptible position. Why, then, do we continue to relinquish our personal power to others; what are the alternatives; how may we reach a better way to govern ourselves and our societies?

These are the things I will be exploring in this blog: musings on grassroots activism, libertarianism, the welfare state, a sustainable economy, renewable energy, politics and so on. I hope I can get a nice, rotating word-cloud for my site, too…. 🙂