Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Budget 2017: government goes hard on gas and hydro in bid for energy security


Gas infrastructure and exploration attracted the lion’s share of new energy announcements in the 2017 Federal Budget. 

Hugh Saddler
, Australian National University; Alan Pears, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Grattan Institute
The budget contains several measures designed to boost energy security, including: The Conversation
  • A$90 million to expand gas supplies, partly through increased unconventional gas exploration
  • a potential Commonwealth buyout of an expanded Snowy Hydro scheme
  • up to A$110 million for a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta
  • monitoring of gas and electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Below, our experts react to the measures.

Gas price problem far from solved


Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne


The budget contains a broad range of funding in energy-related areas, with a significant focus on gas resources, making A$78 million available for onshore unconventional gas exploration and reform in the gas markets, and A$7 million for studies into new gas pipelines to South Australia, from both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Interestingly, there is A$110 million in equity available (but not guaranteed) for a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta. And most notably, the government has proposed purchasing the Snowy Hydro Scheme from the New South Wales and Victorian governments, ensuring that the scheme stays in public hands.

The budget also includes A$13 million for CSIRO to improve energy forecasting tools, and A$8 million for the ACCC to investigate consumer energy pricing issues.

Overall, the budget highlights the government’s desire to do something about gas prices, but offers little to make a significant difference to a very difficult problem. Gas market reform and new pipelines are unlikely to reduce the exposure of the domestic market to price rises driven by international exports.

Importantly, there is little new funding in the budget directly relating to reducing carbon emissions and meeting the pledges made in the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% emission reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030). Also noteworthy is the removal of funding for research into carbon capture and storage.

‘On energy this budget is small fry’


Tony Wood, Energy Program Director, Grattan Institute



The budget does little more on energy than endorse the government’s deal with Senator Nick Xenophon on corporate tax cuts, complemented by modest commitments to energy security, more gas and better regulation.

Government facilitation of gas development and beefing up the energy capability of the Australian Energy Regulator and the ACCC are simple logic, and the one- off payment to pensioners to help with electricity bills will be welcomed by them.

Major public funding for further feasibility studies is a little more questionable. If the gas crisis can’t galvanise support from pipeline companies and gas consumers for pipelines, why would governments reach a different conclusion?

And finally, one can only speculate as to why the federal government is contemplating buying out the NSW and Victorian governments’ share of Snowy Hydro. Presumably it is because the feds are concerned about securing support for the proposed expansion.

In summary, on energy this budget is small fry ahead of major policy decisions that rest on the forthcoming Finkel Review of the National Electricity Market next month, and the climate change policy review later in the year.

A step towards radical energy reform?


Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University



Few announcements in the budget speech are more emblematic of complete policy reversal than the announcement that the Commonwealth would buy the shareholdings in Snowy Hydro Limited of the governments of NSW (58%) and Victoria (29%), to add to the 13% currently owned by the Commonwealth. This comes almost exactly 11 years after Prime Minister John Howard, responding to vociferous public opposition, pulled the plug on plans by all three governments for a public float of their entire shareholdings. What is more, Treasurer Scott Morrison has now announced that, once owned by the Commonwealth, Snowy Hydro would remain in public ownership.

This announcement of course accompanies the government’s Snowy 2.0 proposal, for a fivefold increase in the Snowy scheme’s current 500 megawatt pumped storage capacity (at Talbingo). This was used, after commissioning in 1974, to allow inflexible coal fired power stations to operate with constant output levels day and night, but is now almost never used. This presumably reflects commercial decisions by Snowy Hydro, as it trades in the National Electricity Market.

The rationale for Snowy Hydro 2.0 is to facilitate operation of a grid with a high share of renewable generation, by smoothing out variations in wind and solar supply. Does this announcement mean that the government envisages moving away from a strictly commercial approach to using the assets of the Snowy scheme? Is this a first step towards radical restructuring, or even dismantling, of the National Electricity Market?

Stronger legislation needed


Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University



The detailed A$265 million energy package includes a number of useful measures to strengthen the weak regulatory culture of the energy sector that has allowed our energy crisis to evolve. But it is still limited: strong legislative reform and active support of emerging competitors will also be needed. It is a modest investment compared with recent multibillion-dollar energy cost increases. If it is successful, it will deliver vary large net benefits to the economy by limiting energy price increases. Unfortunately, past efforts to fix the energy situation have largely failed to deliver real outcomes: we need clear objectives for outcomes, and a mechanism to implement contingency strategies if they are not achieved.

In a context of increasing urgency for stronger action on climate, and the reality that the global “burnable carbon” budget is very limited, investment to encourage more gas development seems misplaced. More emphasis on energy efficiency, renewables and smart energy systems would make much more sense. Energy efficiency already saves billions on energy costs and could save much more, while renewable energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. They also help to achieve our climate targets. And fossil fuels are responsible for almost three-quarters of Australian emissions, so we need strong action to meet our international obligations.

The extension of the A$20,000 tax write-off for small business spending on equipment is a measure that, at least for small businesses, offsets a significant barrier to investment in energy efficiency. Firms will also be able to continue to claim the write-off to improve the economics of investments in on-site renewable energy and storage. Of course, the problem still remains for spending over A$20,000 by small businesses, and for larger businesses.

The energy security plan, which includes funding for ACCC to police energy industry behaviour is only a small step towards fixing the disastrous failures of energy policy and a transition to a 21st century energy policy framework. Much more will need to be done.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University; Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Higher-density cities need greening to stay healthy and liveable


Adelaide. Getty image.

Melanie Davern, RMIT University; Alison Farrar, University of Melbourne; Dave Kendal, University of Melbourne, and Lucy Gunn, University of Melbourne

Access to high-quality public open space is a key ingredient of healthy, liveable cities. This has long been recognised in government planning policy, based on a large body of academic research showing that accessible green spaces lead to better health outcomes. The Conversation

However, cities are home to more than just people. We also need to accommodate the critters and plants who live in them. This includes the species who called our cities home before we did.

Greening cities that are becoming denser is a major challenge. Green spaces and density are both good for health outcomes when designed well. However, higher-density development can place added pressure on green space if not well planned and managed.

The South Australian government is leading the way in the design of public green spaces in denser cities by bringing together the multiple actors needed to create change. This includes the Heart Foundation, Departments of Health and Ageing, Environment Water and Natural Resources, Office for Recreation and Sport, the South Australian Local Government Association and the Office of the Chief Architect, as well as researchers from RMIT University and the University of Melbourne.
This is the new shift required for urban greening practice – led by practitioners with support from research evidence provided by (and in collaboration with) academics.

In Victoria, Planning Minister Richard Wynne has called for the suburban backyard to be maintained in the refreshed Plan Melbourne 2017-2050. This policy recognises the importance of private green space by establishing minimum garden areas in new developments.

Another major challenge is increasing urban heat and climate change. Some tree species we know and love will no longer be viable in cities that are several degrees warmer than they were.
Suitable species for future climates need to be selected, as the City of Melbourne has recently demonstrated. Increasing temperatures and the resulting loss of old trees will have adverse consequences for public health, ecology and biodiversity.

Understanding how best to achieve these benefits, and the trade-offs involved in delivering them, is particularly important today. Our cities are growing rapidly. We are seeing increasing populations, greater housing density, rising temperatures, growing rates of obesity, diabetes, stress and depression, and declining native biodiversity.

Why is greening on the agenda?


Urban greening is now recognised as a public health issue. New research has found its benefits include:
Ecological research also shows that urban green spaces can support many kinds of birds, bats, bees and plants. Urban greening has even been found to lead to safer neighbourhoods.
Australian urban planning and policy need to embrace these findings. Multiple government portfolios must work together to better plan for green cities that achieve maximum impact for economic, environmental and public health outcomes.

What do we mean by green space?


Green spaces are areas of public and private land covered with vegetation. This includes most areas we traditionally see as public open space: parks, gardens and sports ovals.

Green space also includes other areas of public land: street trees and streetscapes, nature conservation reserves, community gardens, school grounds and public buildings with green walls, facades and roofs. On private land, green spaces include residential gardens, golf courses and greening on and around private buildings.

All these green spaces together provide multiple benefits. The Heart Foundation and South Australian government recently commissioned an evidence review of how quality green space is supporting health, wellbeing and biodiversity. This report shows that green spaces can be designed to provide multiple benefits.

These benefits are delivered by including features that are known to influence physical activity, mental health, social, cultural, environmental and biodiversity outcomes. For example, planting trees in parks, gardens or streets can have many benefits:


Greening solutions aren’t simple


The benefits green spaces provide are also influenced by local context: climate, inequity and social disadvantage, culture, or resident/user age and gender.

However, if green spaces are well designed with community input, these local factors can provide opportunities to maximise impact. For example, green space can be more beneficial when provided in areas of social disadvantage with limited existing green space, and trees provide more cooling benefits in hotter cities.

There are no magic bullets. If green spaces aren’t well designed, for example, trees can:

  • reduce the area available for some active sports;
  • shade rooftop solar panels;
  • reduce flower, fruit and vegetable production;
  • create mess through fallen leaves; and
  • create unsuitable habitat for other kinds of plants and animals.

These complex interactions highlight the need for academics and practitioners to work collaboratively across disciplines and sectors. These should include urban planning, public health, urban ecology, urban forestry, engineering, community development and economics. Knowledge needs to be shared and translated into action.

Our green cities of the future need to be designed to benefit human (and non-human) residents equitably. We need to move beyond a reliance on backyards and parks that were designed according to 19th-century principles (and using 19th-century species).

Cities need green spaces that are well designed, creatively delivered, accessible to all, and managed and maintained with appropriate resources to ensure long-term quality and availability.

Further reading: How urban bushland improves our health and why planners need to listen
Melanie Davern, Senior Research Fellow, Healthy Liveable Cities Group, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University; Alison Farrar, Research Assistant, School of Ecosystem & Forest Sciences, University of Melbourne; Dave Kendal, Research Fellow, School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences and the Clean Air and Urban Landscape hub of the National Environmental Science Program, University of Melbourne, and Lucy Gunn, Research Fellow, Community Indicators Victoria, McCaughey VicHealth Community Wellbeing Unit, University of Melbourne
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.