During my break from Blogging I was able to get away for some time out. I headed off to one of my favourite spots, relatively close to here (about 3.5 to 4 hours drive, which is fairly close for Australia), Dorrigo. Dorrigo National Park is near Dorrigo – in fact it is just 2km out of town. It’s a great place and I’ll be posting some photos (and possibly video also) from the visit over the next week or so. During my visit I stayed at Dorrigo Mountain Resortjust out of Dorrigo and close by the national park. I stayed in a fairly basic cabin for two nights, which though it wouldn’t meet the standards set by most people (and I wouldn’t blame them or judge them for that) for a place to stay, I did view it as just somewhere to stay and sleep, choosing to spend…
You live in one of the sunniest countries in the world. You might want to use that solar advantage and harvest all this free energy. Knowing that solar panels are rapidly becoming cheaper and have become feasible even in less sunny places like the UK, this should be a no-brainer.
Despite this, the Australian government has taken a step backwards at a time when we should be thinking 30 years ahead.
Can we do it differently? Yes, we can! My ongoing research on sustainable urbanism makes it clear that if we use the available renewable resources in the Sydney region we do not need any fossil resource any more. We can become zero-carbon. (With Louisa King and Andy Van den Dobbelsteen, I have prepared a forthcoming paper, Towards Zero-Carbon Metropolitan Regions: The Example of
Sydney, in the journal SASBE.)
Enough solar power for every household
Abundant solar energy is available in the Sydney metropolitan area. If 25% of the houses each installed 35 square metres of solar panels, this could deliver all the energy for the city’s households.
We conservatively estimate a total yield of 195kWh/m2 of PV panel placed on roofs or other horizontal surfaces. The potential area of all Sydney council precincts suited for PV is estimated at around 385km2 – a quarter of the entire roof surface.
We calculate the potential total solar yield at 75.1TWh, which is more than current domestic household energy use (65.3TWh, according to the Jemena energy company).
If we install small wind turbines on land and larger turbines offshore we can harvest enough energy to fuel our electric vehicle fleet. Onshore wind turbines of 1-5MW generating capacity can be positioned to capture the prevailing southwest and northeast winds.
The turbines are placed on top of ridges, making use of the funnel effect to increase their output. We estimate around 840km of ridge lines in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines, enabling a total of 1,400 turbines. The total potential generation from onshore wind turbines is 6.13TWh.
Offshore turbines could in principle be placed everywhere, as the wind strength is enough to create an efficient yield. The turbines are larger than the ones on shore, capturing 5-7.5MW each, and can be placed up to 30km offshore. With these boundary conditions, an offshore wind park 45km long and 6km wide is possible. The total offshore potential then is 5.18TWh.
Altogether, then, we estimate the Sydney wind energy potential at 11.3TWh.
We can turn our household waste and green waste from forests, parks and public green spaces into biogas. We can then use the existing gas network to provide heating and cooling for the majority of offices.
Biomass from domestic and green waste will be processed through anaerobic fermentation in old power plants to generate biogas. Gas reserves are created, stored and delivered through the existing power plants and gas grid.
Using algae arrays to treat the waste water of new precincts, roughly a million new households as currently planned in Western Sydney, enables the production of great quantities of biofuel. Experimental test fields show yields can be high. A minimum of 20,000 litres of biodiesel per hectare of algae ponds is possible if organic wastewater is added. This quantity is realisable in Botany Bay and in western Sydney.
Shallow geothermal heat can be tapped through heat pumps and establishing closed loops in the soil. This can occur in large expanses of urban developments within the metropolitan area, which rests predominantly on deposits of Wianamatta shale in the west underlying Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith.
Where large water surfaces are available, such as in Botany Bay or the Prospect Reservoir, heat can also be harvested from the water body.
The layers of the underlying Hawkesbury sandstone, the bedrock for much of the region, can yield deep geothermal heat. This is done by pumping water into these layers and harvesting the steam as heat, hot water or converted electricity.
The potential sources of energy from hydro generation are diverse. Tidal energy can be harvested at the entrances of Sydney Harbour Bay and Botany Bay, where tidal differences are expected to be highest.
Port Jackson, the Sydney Harbour bay and all of its estuaries have a total area of 55km2. With a tidal difference of two metres, the total maximum energy potential of a tidal plant would be 446TWh. If Sydney could harvest 20% of this, that would be more than twice the yield of solar panels on residential roofs.
If we use the tide to generate electricity, we can also create a surge barrier connecting Middle and South Head. Given the climatic changes occurring and still ahead of us, we need to plan how to protect the city from the threats of future cyclones, storm surges and flooding.
I have written here about the potential benefits of artificially creating a Sydney Barrier Reef. The reef, 30km at most out at sea, would provide Sydney with protection from storms.
At openings along the reef, wave power generators can be placed. Like tidal power, wave power can be calculated: mass displacement times gravity. If around 10km of the Sydney shoreline had wave power vessels, the maximum energy potential would be 3.2TWh.
In the mouths of the estuaries of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, freshwater meets saltwater. These places have a large potential to generate “blue energy” through reverse osmosis membrane technology.
To combine protective structures with tidal generating power, an open closure barrier is proposed for the mouth of Sydney Harbour. The large central gates need to be able to accommodate the entrance of large cruise ships and to close in times of a storm surge. At the same time, a tidal plant system operates at the sides of the barrier.
All these potential energy sources are integrated into our Master Plan for a Zero-Carbon Sydney. Each has led to design propositions that together can create a zero-carbon city.
The research shows there is enough, more than enough, potential reliable renewable energy to supply every household and industry in the region. What is needed is an awareness that Australia could be a global frontrunner in innovative energy policy, instead of a laggard.
This follows apparently egregious behaviour by some irrigators and state government regulators in New South Wales. Yet the alleged theft of water in the Murray-Darling Basin is only the tip of the iceberg when we consider the institutional problems – namely the capture of state government agencies by powerful irrigation interests.
Take NSW as an example. In 1993 the then state Department of Water Resources’ North west rivers audit found the same theft, meter-tampering and questionable government oversight exposed again by the ABC’s Four Corners investigation in July.
In fact, many values are at risk in the river system that supplies water to more than 3 million people, and covers a seventh of Australia’s landmass. It is not only a few (alleged) bad apples, it is governance of water that is broken.
Problems with the existing plan
While bad behaviour in NSW is evident, of more concern is the way some state governments are frustrating implementation of the A$13 billion 2012-26 Basin Plan and associated programs to recover water for the river system.
If the Basin Plan is to improve the health of the river and its extensive floodplain forests along the lower River Murray, the water recovered for the environment needs to be released in pulses. That will be the best way to ensure it can rise out of the river channel and inundate wetlands.
In this context it is unhelpful for the Victorian Government to propose flows of around half the previously agreed size because of the objections of a small number of landowners along the Goulburn River in its Goulburn key focus area project.
Upstream, state governments have rules that allow water purchased by taxpayers for the river to be extracted by irrigators when it crosses state borders. However, they are failing to remove bottlenecks that prevent managed floods from travelling safely down rivers. They have even proposed to reduce the water available for the environment below minimum requirements.
Astonishingly, 30% of water extraction points in the Basin are still not metered and the information that is collected is not publicly available or audited so that theft can be penalised.
Sustainable management required
Sustainable management of the Murray-Darling Basin requires trust and cooperation among the responsible state, ACT and federal governments.
The alleged water theft in NSW breaks that trust, especially for SA as the downstream state that relies on the River Murray. But so too does the stalling of implementation of the Basin Plan agreement and manipulation of the rules that govern who gets what water and when they get it.
The foundation of trust is transparency. As a start, there are many opportunities for online recording of water allocations and use to increase trust. It is still possible to fix implementation of the Plan.
In a report released yesterday the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has identified several solutions, including metering all water diversions, completing water recovery, and investing in regional development.
The good news is that there are signs of political leadership. The Council of Australian Governments promised in June to deliver the Basin Plan “in full and on time” for its planned commencement in 2019.
Recently, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recommitted the federal government to Basin Plan implementation. He endorsed the far-reaching recommendations of the Murray-Darling Basin Authority’s Basin-wide Compliance Review to strengthen enforcement of water laws and the Basin Plan, and to recover the remaining environmental water.
The SA Royal Commission
Beginning in 2018, Weatherill’s newly announced Royal Commission will investigate breaches of the Murray Darling Basin Agreement, and the Commissioner “will examine the adequacy of existing legislation and practices and make recommendations for any necessary changes.”
Most significantly, Weatherill has proposed going beyond water theft to “look into whether any legislative or policy changes since the agreement was signed in 2012 have been inconsistent with the purpose of the Basin Agreement and Basin Plan”.
The Royal Commission’s terms of reference are not yet available and the extent of cooperation of upstream governments is highly uncertain (NSW has already said it will not cooperate). Yet the Royal Commission could help identify ways to better meter and account for water, improve compliance and set rules to protect environmental water.
At the next Basin Ministerial Council meeting later this year the governments need to map out measures to put the Plan back on track. If it can do so, it will be endorsed at the Council of Australian Governments in 2018. This is their opportunity to articulate precisely how they will fulfil their commitment to delivering the basin plan in full and on time.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan is not perfect. Implementation has problems, but with the remaining $5.1 billion allocated funds and proper leadership it can be well implemented to benefit both people and the environment.
The gloomy octopus, named for large eyes that can give the animal a doleful appearance, is the most common local octopus in NSW waters. Octopus tetricus, to use its scientific name, has usually been thought of as a solitary animal, and that has been the stereotype associated with most octopus species for many years.
The recent discovery of a site in Jervis Bay, Australia where these octopuses gather in quite high numbers is challenging that perception, and revealing some striking behaviours.
The site consists of three rocky outcrops, around which octopuses have built up an extensive bed of discarded scallop shells, mixed with some human debris.
We think there is a process of “positive feedback” operating at the site. As scallops are brought back to the site to eat, the discarded shells provide material for additional octopuses to dig burrows. The shells line and stabilise the shaft-like dens. When the site was discovered in 2016, a total of 15 octopuses were present, along with several unoccupied dens.
This is the second site of its kind discovered. The first, reported in 2012, seems to have been formed around a discarded object, now very encrusted, of human origin.
The second site, which is entirely “natural,” shows that the same gathering of octopuses can occur without a “seeding” of the process by a human artefact.
At both sites, octopuses engage in quite complicated interactions – they produce displays, probe each other with their arms, and often try to evict other octopuses from their dens.
Other individuals of this species probably do live more solitary lives – when observed around Sydney, for example, they are almost always alone. This suggests that the octopuses have an ability to individually adapt their behaviour according to their circumstances.
This paper received a good deal of media attention, with initial stories fairly accurate. But they seem to have started a self-sustaining process of their own, especially as a couple of early reports used the term “city” in their title. For example: “Scientists discover an underwater city full of gloomy octopuses.”
This was probably influenced by the nickname chosen for the site, “Octlantis,” though our article did not talk about “cities” or anything similar. Soon the authors were fielding interview requests from around the world, wanting more details of the hidden octopus city and the lives of its denizens.
New online articles about the site seemed to build successively on exaggerations made in earlier articles, until our octopuses were reported as making “art” and building “fences”.
Octlantis is not a city, and no artworks, fences, or buildings have been made. In an era of rapid and unconstrained circulation of information around the internet, often with important political ramifications, the buzz around Octlantis is a reminder of how quickly rumours can arise and feed off each other, generating a literature that becomes less and less accurate at each step.
Accident versus intent
The Octlantis site does raise interesting questions about what the octopuses intend to do, and which effects of their actions are entirely inadvertent. Questions of “intent” are very difficult in work on animal behaviour, but we think some distinctions can be made – provisionally at least – in these terms.
Octopuses collect scallops for use as food. This requires them to make excursions from their den and find their way home. They bring the scallops home to eat, we assume, because it is safer than eating in the open. They also dig dens in the shell bed, and sometimes arrange shells and other objects around the edge of their den.
It seems quite likely to us that the collection of scallops and the building and maintenance of dens are all intentional behaviours (in a low-key sense of that term).
Dens are sometimes maintained with some care, and octopuses will expel debris either by carrying it away, or with use of their jet propulsion mechanism, the “siphon.” But this does not imply that octopuses have any inkling that when they bring scallops back to the site, they are improving the den-building possibilities for themselves or others. Those effects may be entirely inadvertent.
Work is continuing on these animals and their unusual homes. One interesting question is whether other octopus species behave like this in some circumstances.
Another is why we observe groups of gloomy octopuses at these particular sites, and not in other areas where a solid object has been placed on the sea floor in what looks like similar circumstances.
How many octopuses’ gardens are out there, waiting to be discovered?
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott this week drew renewed attention to himself with a speech to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate sceptic group, in which he voiced a range of doubts about climate science and policy, and claimed that climate change is “probably doing good”.
The comments might come as no surprise to those familiar with his views. But what’s arguably more surprising is the prevalence of similar opinions among some Australian business leaders.
It reveals that Abbott’s doubts about the veracity of climate science and its forecast impacts, and his scathing dismissal of those concerned about climate change, have a long history of support among the Hunter Valley’s business leaders.
Carried out in the lead-up to the implementation of the Gillard Labor government’s price on carbon in 2011, my research sought to understand business leaders’ attitudes to government policies and to climate change more broadly.
I approached 50 chief executives of organisations operating in the Hunter Region, of whom 31 agreed to participate (or had a senior staff member take up the opportunity).
They were asked questions about their views on climate change, how and whether their organisation was responding to the issue, and what they thought about the various political parties’ policies in response to it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, participants’ overwhelming concern was that the economy might decline as a result of climate policies such as pricing carbon.
While some were concerned about climate change, there was almost unanimous opposition to carbon pricing. Given the politics of the time, this too is unremarkable, particularly in light of the success Abbott enjoyed at the 2013 election after pledging to scrap the policy.
What was surprising, however, was the pervasive scepticism among participants about the science of climate change. This is especially the case given that many people now view the debate over whether climate change is happening – and whether it is caused by human activity – as being over.
Moreover, many participants believed that climate scientists were motivated by financial rewards in arguing that climate change is a serious concern.
These beliefs were voiced not only by those in industries like coal, aluminium, and shipping – but echoed by participants from other industries, revealing a deep scepticism of both the discipline and the science of climate change itself.
It is noteworthy that the research was focused on the Hunter Valley and Newcastle, home to the world’s biggest coal port.
Participants also held intensely antagonistic views in relation to the environment movement and the Australian Greens, believing their views were quasi-religious and that they too were self-interested and unrealistic in wanting to tackle climate change.
A small minority of participants did support some type of mechanism to limit greenhouse emissions, and were concerned about the environment.
But more broadly, my research showed that the Hunter Region’s business leaders – whether or not they were directly involved in coal – had taken on board many of the arguments promulgated by the industry in its ultimately successful campaign against carbon pricing in Australia.
These dynamics may have changed a little in recent times, with companies such as AGL and BHP shifting away from coal.
The overall dynamics of the climate politics, however – as revealed in the current stalemate over responding to the Finkel Review – remains out of step with what the climate science is telling us. As, of course, do Abbott’s comments.
Abbott’s London speech was interpreted as incendiary, and earned him a sharp rebuke from government colleagues. But when we look at the places where his message might be received more favourably, it becomes apparent there are still pockets of the country where he might expect to find a plentiful and powerful audience.