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but climate news is now accelerating so dramatically that comes their publication the IPCC reports are already way, way out of date.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

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