Tasmanian Times


They should have dammed the Franklin after all?

The poles are melting. Polar bears are losing their habitat. Unprecedented wildfires, droughts and storm surges are rife. An ever-so-cautious army of climate scientists take three years to get their research papers peer reviewed, but climate news is now accelerating so dramatically that comes their publication the IPCC reports are already way, way out of date. Embarrassingly so.
As the stark reality of catastrophic climate change weigh down on us, concerned onlookers search in all directions for answers. For some high profile crusaders, like James Lovelock, Tim Flannery and George Monbiot, the risk of going down the nuclear pathway is seen to be less risky than business as usual, so they’ve reluctantly gone pro-nuke.

And in Tasmania in recent months some anxious voices have muttered quietly in meetings: “I never thought I would ever say this, but maybe the Franklin dam should have been built after all”. It’s a thought that has crossed many minds I’m sure and it is usually put as a tentative question rather than as a bald statement.

The temptation to go to water (please excuse the pun) is excusable but, to call a spade a spade, just plain dumb. For the uninitiated, here are 7 good reasons why this is so.

1. If drought is Tasmania’s future, then hydro-electricity is dammed!
Actually, it’s not really drought that is of concern to the Hydro, its evaporation. Higher winter temperatures, in particular, are causing Tasmanian soils to dry out, resulting in much less water flow into the impoundments. On top of that, a one degree increase in ambient air temperature causes much higher evaporation losses from the water storages themselves.

If the past few years are anything to go by, the mooted 180 megawatt output of the Gordon-below-Franklin dam would in reality be more like 130 megawatts – if it had actually been built. And with that piddling output for a capital outlay of over $1 billion, the sums would never stack up in a million years (they didn’t stack up then, but the figures are now even worse).

2. Hydro electric power contributes significantly to global warming:
When you see statistics on Tasmania’s greenhouse emissions, showing one eighth that of mainland states, you probably get a sort of cosy feeling. Hydro is renewable after all, ain’t it?

What they don’t explain is that drowning whole valleys of rainforest eventually causes the liberation of vast amounts of carbon dioxide and (much more seriously) methane from the decomposition of these materials. These gases bubble up to the surface during ensuing years and in some situations cause more greenhouse impact than would an equivalent sized thermal generating station.

These serious emissions are not included in Tasmanian emission statistics, because they are deemed to be ‘historic’. (If you turn off a coal fired plant, then it will stop producing greenhouse gases, whereas if you turned off a hydro facility, those gases keep getting produced and there is nothing that can be done about it.)

However, if a hydro scheme was to be built today, then those greenhouse emissions would have to be carefully calculated and they would have to measure up against alternatives. That’s the rub.

3. Embodied energy in hydro plants contribute significantly to global warming:
‘Renewable’ has become a loaded word. Compared to wind farms, hydro not only loses vast areas of biological habitat, the building of them gobbles up immense amounts of ‘embodied’ energy.

Apart from extensive building of access roads, dam and tunnel construction require many thousands of tonnes of cement – the manufacture of that having a higher greenhouse impact than almost any other building material available. As with nuclear power, embodied energy for large scale hydro-electric plant is very consequential, so it should be factored into energy and greenhouse statistics.

4. Wind energy wins hands down over hydro.
Whilst it may take some years for this embodied energy of dams to be recovered by energy production, the wind farms recover their much smaller embodied energy footprint more quickly and with significantly less other environmental stresses. (That is, if we actually do need additional energy supply. But we’ll get to that point shortly.)

Again, if we want to exploit our wind potential, Tasmania is in the box seat, compared to other places. This is because wind energy is variable in output and requires a significant ‘base load’ to feed into, meaning you need a lot of other generating plant as well.

However, lucky for Tassie, hydro energy and wind energy work wonderfully in tandem: hydro generators can be turned on and off at short notice, enabling the system to automatically compensate for fluctuations in wind energy output. Unlike mainland states, Hydro Tasmania therefore has much greater scope to build viable wind farms since the existing hydro system can already deliver almost twice the ‘peaking capacity’ than it can deliver on a sustained basis.

5. Putting hydro energy into a national context.
All of the hydro electric output from the Tasmanian hydro system and the Snowy Mountain Hydro amounts to just 2 percent of Australia’s total delivered energy (from all sources).

This being a very dry continent, this contribution could be expanded at the very most to maximum 2.3 percent, with a very aggressive policy of flooding available habitats.

In the current climate crisis we do need to put on the table all possible alternatives to coal fired electricity, but hydro-electric power can only ever be one of the smallest contributors.

6. The Franklin scheme would have delivered only 6 years of energy growth…. What then?
Energy consumption in Tasmania is currently growing at approximately 5 percent per annum. Yes, that’s shocking.

Even if electricity growth levelled out to 3 percent in the longer term, the energy output of the Gordon-below-Franklin scheme would have been gobbled up in less than 6 years. Repeat: less than 6 years.

If that inexorable growth path were to be sustained then Tasmania would need to build a new hydro scheme or wind farm every three to six years, just to keep abreast with growing energy demand.

Now extrapolate that scenario out for the 50 years and imagine where it leads us.

7. Renewable energy can’t fuel a non-sustainable society.
This is the most important issue of all. Although loyal to the conservation movement, with all of its passion and good intent, I seriously part ways with the mindless obsession with renewable energy that abounds in the movement.

The futility of meeting ever-growing energy demand is plain stupid. We know that building more and more freeways encourages more traffic, likewise it is important NOT to meet so-called energy demand. We need to learn to live with what we have – already the highest power consumers in the world.

The cold fact of life is that wind farms and solar power plant will not displace one kilowatt-hour of thermal power currently being produced by polluting power schemes, they simply enable we citizens, in our thousands, to march into Harvey Norman and buy a humungously huge plasma TV that will use up more power than a large refrigerator…. and many dozens of similar absurdities.

It’s a hard thing to tell people, but to be honest, when we argue for renewable energy in the current context we are, in effect, arguing a case for the worst excesses of consumption to continue unabated. We are pandering to consumer society. We are making a rod for our own backs. We are being intellectually inconsistent.

Fostering renewable energy ought to be our 100th priority behind all the dozens of ways that energy consumption can be reduced to sustainable levels. Yet it’s at the forefront of nearly every conversation, including among those who have strong environmental affinities.

To put this into context, all of the combined wind energy farms and rooftop solar hot water and solar pv installations in Australia presently deliver less than 1 percent of total energy consumption of this nation. Repeat: less than 1 percent. All of that infrastructure.

Now, for a reality check, imagine how easy it would be for us, as a nation, to cut back on our energy usage by just 1 percent. We could do it by tomorrow morning.

Which is the more sensible priority for action?

In summary:
Hydro Tasmania is well aware of all of the above factors, so you don’t see them making much noise about going back to dam construction – its simply not in their best interest to do so.

And the Franklin is well protected in the Wild Rivers world heritage area, so why bother to write up this treatise at all?

I do so because the old dam issue is frequently dragged out to dent the credibility of the environment movement, by those who have perverse motives. I also feel the need to protect the sensitivity of those good people who put their livelihoods on hold for years on end – to protect the now world famous Franklin River environment. They should not be allowed to suffer a failure of nerve, as if their efforts were not in the best interests of this half plundered planet we live on.

If the climate change crisis results in us piling more environmental harm on top of harm then we have totally lost the plot. The message is: Stay strong. Don’t get sucked in by simplistic notions that don’t stack up. Don’t go to water. The future is a leaner, more creative one, not a mindless focus on meeting endless growth.

August 2009

See Trainer article: http://www.greens.org/s-r/48/48-11.html

Author Credits: [show_post_categories parent="no" parentcategory="writers" show = "category" hyperlink="yes"]


  1. Mark Duffett

    September 2, 2009 at 4:10 am

    Obvious solution to the methane in 2: clearfell and otherwise raze the impoundment before filling it!

    Also, wind needs hydro not just for complementary generation, but for energy storage. The greatest value of Australia’s hydro schemes may yet prove to be as batteries, running in reverse (i.e. pumping water uphill) when the wind’s blowing, and discharging when it’s not.

  2. Gerry Mander

    August 31, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    There are simple ways to make major reductions in electricity and fossil fuel usage.

    1. Get away from traditional building methods that use lots of heavy polluting elements such as steel, aluminium cement and bricks. Instead use natural materials such as wood, rammed earth and mud bricks (adobe) That would need lots of changing in planning laws.

    2. If you want a twenty percent reduction in greenhouse gases, mine twenty percent less coal, and give all users a quota without the option of carbon trading. (A fictional belief that the atmosphere can be saved by generating money!) THAT would ensure they became more efficient, or went to the wall.

    After all, if the world doesn’t do something like this, I doubt whether there will be a future as we know it.

  3. Chris Harries

    August 31, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Gerry, I understand and appreciate what you are saying but we can also fall into the trap of adopting John Howard’s morality on climate change – finger pointing.

    Australia won’t act until China does. China points the finger back at us. And so nobody moves at all, or only furtively. This is the name of the game with global climate politics.

    If we, as citizens, point the finger and use that as an excuse for not doing what we can ourselves then our moral stance is no better than Howard’s – or Rudd’s for that matter.

    Australia, despite its 1% contribution to greenhouse emissions can take a leadership role in the world. We as small citizens ought to do so as well. Cynicism breeds cynicism.

    But I take your point about not being naive about the significant impact of industry.

  4. Gerry Mander

    August 31, 2009 at 2:11 pm

    If ALL Asutralian citizens became very conscientious and managed to save 10% of their electricity usage, the total consumption would go down by a piddling 1.5% and the bills? They will rise by at least approximately 40% if the current trend is anything to go by!

    However, the industrial consumption is on the rise and despite all the best efforts of Kevin Rudd, the atmospheric pollution will jump, with the net result that many big companies and the stock exchange will make a killing with carbon trading and taxes riding on the back of the taxpayer, and the atmosphere, which it was supposed to be saving, will continue on its downward plunge.

    Ain’t politics wonderful!!

  5. Chris Harries

    August 31, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Thanks Corey, I was acutely aware that the article may appear to be opposed to renewable energy technologies, but feel that the absolute critical need of today is to emphasise the priority to use less energy.

    As a technically trained bloke I enjoy technology and have installed solar hot water and in process of installing solar pv at home.

    BUT…. as a lifelong environmental activist specialising in energy issues I know I will go to my grave talking the need for ‘demand management’ whilst the song of the Universe is ‘supply’. This is a universal obsession in Western society.

    Every conversation on energy demand quickly switches over to supply. Solar and wind (and even nuclear) are sexy subjects and so we humans gravitate to them. Government has provided generous rebates for renewable supply investments, but (until Christine Milne forced it upon them) no similar incentives were in place for technologies that reduce energy consumption.

    At every public talk I have given on energy conservation I have quickly been confronted by earnest-men-of-science-and-technology who have been smitten by one promising supply technology or another that will save human kind – whether it be fuel cells or hot rocks or tidal power. Always blokes. They are very well meaning and often passionate about climate issues. But the religious obsession with energy supply technology is mesmerising and ubiquitous.

    The ‘supply’ obsession afflicts the whole of society. It is a massive blindspot. It is exemplified by the mad rush to take advantage of the federal government’s $8,000 solar incentive.

    For some good folks, like Pete Godfrey, it’s a sensible move, because they have already pared down there energy consumption, but for many others it is actually a pointless and naive gesture because their energy consumption patterns are all out of kilter. They would do much, much better to insulate their hot water cylinder or walk their kids to school or bury their patio burner.

    Australia’s energy consumption is doubling every 30 or so years. If we don’t address that problem first and foremost, then any argy bargy about preferable supply options (i.e. solar versus coal) are a waste of time. Because we would need all of them. Including distasteful ones like nuclear power and woodchip-fired power stations.

    Just like the rest of society, the green movement to some degree shares this unhealthy obsession. This is what worries me most because it is a dead end and will come back to bite us. If we sing the praises of wind and solar as our foremost priority then we will very soon be put upon to be consistent and support many things that are have much greater impacts.

    My interest is certainly not anti-technology, it is simply a call to put the horse before the cart. If we fail to do this then we have no option but to go down the nuclear pathway (for example).

    For a sobering look at this: here is George Monbiot speaking in 2006: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jul/11/comment.environment

    And here he is speaking in 2009: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2009/feb/20/george-monbiot-nuclear-climate

    What happened in between? George has regretfully realized that there is no chance we can peg back energy growth enough for renewable energy to make a meaningful contribution. In other words he is conceding defeat. That’s the wall we are all facing.

  6. Pete Godfrey

    August 30, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Well said Chris, it is much easier to use less than to create vast infrastructure projects to pander to more consumption.
    I have lived on a stand alone solar system for the past 30 years now and get by with only 300 watts of panels. I don’t feel that my life is cramped by not having unlimited power to throw away.
    You are right about the new Television sets , they use far more power than the now outdated cathode ray sets did, apart from the fact that every new innovation leads to vast quantities of embodied energy being dumped at the tip. Take computers and televisions as just one example of the vast amount of waste we are creating.
    Like you say our lifestyle is as unsustainable as we could make it.
    So over to us to do something isn’t it.

  7. Simon Warriner

    August 30, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Back in the days when infrared thermal imagers cost many tens of thousands of dollars, and I was operating one, I read of an electricity generation and distribution company who purchased one of these wonderful machines for homeowners to use. The logic was that if home owners could see where the energy they were paying for was going (ie out throught the gaps around doors etc) they would reduce waste and therefore demand. How is this good for the electricity seller? Simply that reduction in demand was cheaper than having to pay for expanded infrastructure. Put another way, it was more profitable for them to run a smaller, more efficient business than a larger inefficient one.
    It struck me as smart thinking then, and I have often wondered why it has not spread, especially now, when camera’s are less than 6 thousand dollars and a damm sight easier to use.

  8. phill Parsons

    August 30, 2009 at 10:39 am

    Point 3. seems to remain behind advances in cement technology. According to the scientific reports new formulations now end up sinking Carbon over the life of the product not that i am advocating the use of more cement or hydro dams but a change by the industry and recognition of that by emissions trading rules would seem a sensible step.

    Point 4. Huge areas of sea surround Tasmania and some is located near the use points reducing transmission losses. Wind farms in the sea also increasemarine habitat. On the face of it increasing the number of wind farms in the sea would seem sensible.

    I have to agree with Chris about efficiency versus domestic based renewables and the end the effort is sseking. However efficiency is a low hanging fruit and more changes will be nneded to minimze the climate instability we will face.

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