Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Killing koalas to “save” polar bears: Robert Onfray

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“They are farming us of our money, not farming the wind or solar.

Queensland will be covered in glass and steel to meet ambitious renewable energy targets.

Robert Onfray

In a previous post, I wrote about the mad scramble by federal and state governments to force a rapid transition to renewable energy despite insurmountable engineering constraints, costs blowouts by a factor of 20 from $78 billion to $1.5 trillion in 2030 and $9 trillion by 2050, and the refusal of our federal minister, Chris Bowen to face up to reality, even after a relentless stream of delays to major renewable projects hits the news each month.

I also touched briefly on the environmental destruction wrought by wind and solar factories and massive transmission lines along the eastern seaboard from Cairns to Melbourne and westwards to Adelaide. This blog will detail the lack of environmental scrutiny of the wind factories and pumped hydro projects built or planned in Queensland as the state sanctions the wholesale clearing of remnant native forest on the coastal ranges straddling the Great Dividing Range.

The great renewable energy transition

To reduce carbon emissions to near zero by 2050, the Queensland Government is rolling out many renewable projects across the state. They include solar and wind factories and pumped hydro schemes. Many kilometres of large transmission lines are also required to link these isolated projects to the Eastern Grid.

The government announced its plans through two papers. One is the Energy and Jobs Plan released in September 2022. The other is the Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) Roadmap released in July 2023. Both documents outline the planned location of the renewable energy projects along the coastal ranges from Brisbane to Cairns.

Each REZ is designed to “coordinate the development of clean energy infrastructure in areas of high renewable potential, maximising benefits for regional communities”. The REZ document mentions the word “benefit” to the community of the transition on 22 occasions without going into detail about what those benefits are, except there will be the creation of 4,000 long-term jobs. It is not clear if that is a net figure after accounting for the loss of jobs at the coal mines and power plants.

Qld REZs

The map (right) shows the vast spatial footprint of the proposed Queensland REZs, resulting in the clearing of habitat in Queensland’s most important wildlife corridor along the spine of the Great Dividing Range. The plan is to install 3,183 wind turbines stretching hundreds of kilometres from the Barron River, west of Cairns, to Kariboe, south of Gladstone.

Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk upgraded her initial plan of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030, accelerating the process to 70 per cent by 2032 and 80 per cent by 2035. It is all part of the broader plan to showcase a “climate-positive Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2032”.

However, there are doubts about the “climate positive” claim when the plan is scrutinised without the sanitary bureaucratic and government spin.

If we do some quick back-of-the-envelope analysis, we can see the propaganda from the government. According to a 2022 report by Construction Skills Queensland (CSQ), achieving Net Zero targets by 2035 will require the complete electrification of Queensland. Only about one-quarter of Queensland’s energy needs are met by electricity, primarily from fossil fuels. Electrification will have to increase from 25 to 70 per cent by 2050, most of which will come from wind and solar.

Therefore, a 50-fold increase in renewables infrastructure is needed to achieve this. According to CSQ and CSIRO models, Queensland needs up to 196 Gigawatts (GW) of installed renewable energy capacity to reach Net Zero. Currently, the state has 30 GW total capacity; less than a quarter comes from renewables (3.8 GW). Bridging the gap will require a 98 per cent increase in installed capacity.

Queensland has seven operating utility-scale wind factories with a nameplate capacity of 2.8 GW. The government plans to fund the construction of an additional 48 wind factories to reach as close to New Zero as possible by 2035 at a cost (currently) of $62 billion. The target is to lift the nameplate capacity of wind energy to 33 GW to supply the 12.2 GW output required since the wind’s capacity factor is calculated at a very generous 37 per cent.

According to Queensland Energy Minister Mick de Brenni, in order to meet their ambitious targets, “a wind turbine has to be erected every 18 hours until 2030”. This will then be doubled or even tripled to get anywhere near the installed capacity required. It will then have to be tripled to power an electric vehicle fleet and doubled again to produce “green hydrogen”. 

De Brenni has admitted at meetings that the government cannot undertake any wind factory location planning as they have no wind data. This is because when the federal government sold off the CSIRO subsidiary “Windlab” to Andrew Forrest, all the data went with the sale. And Forrest won’t release the data for anyone else to use. Consequently, the Queensland government relies on the wind factory proponents to carry out their own rudimentary wind data collection for concept design. As a result, the wind factory proposals go through the approval process without adequate engineering checks on the technical advisability of their site selection.

To make matters worse, Queensland is not a particularly good state for adequate winds to power wind turbines. Northern Queensland is in an area known as the “tropical doldrums” where typical conditions include hot windless summer nights. This is in contrast to the REZ Roadmap statement that says REZs have been coordinated because they are “in an area of strong wind”. As a result, wind factory proponents are forced to chase sites on and next to the ridge line of the Great Dividing Range to get what they hope are the best winds in a fairly poor wind area.

A knowledgeable local resident gathered wind data on the Mount Emerald site after the wind factory was built in 2018. His data shows only an 18.1 per cent capacity factor for 2021. This is a $400 million project that only stacks up after a generous Power Purchase Agreement with energy retailer Ergon.

Another factor is that coastal areas north of Gladstone face tropical cyclones and a category 5 cyclone is not uncommon. Since 2018, the installed and proposed turbines are getting bigger and bigger, growing from 150 metres to now reach 250 metres to their tip. These gigantic structures face enormous wind stresses that exponentially increase with height and will be tested to their limits under a severe tropical cyclone.

Renewable energy projects, to provide sufficient energy to run a modern economy, require a lot of land. Every wind turbine needs 200 hectares for each 4.5 Megawatt (MW) of energy (one GW is 1,000 MW). Queenslanders are required to sacrifice 1.47 million hectares of land for new wind turbines. That is equivalent to a quarter of Tasmania. By 2035, Queenslanders will see wind turbines, solar panels and transmission lines on every horizon from Central Queensland north to Cairns, replacing precious remnant native forest and productive farmland. Only four per cent of Australia is arable land and so too much good farming land is being targeted and lost in the Net Zero transition, and farmers affected are being totally ignored.

Compare this impact to existing coal plants or nuclear. A coal plant requires 25 square metres for every MW of energy produced. A modern small modular nuclear reactor requires less than one square metre. A wind factory requires more than 2,000 square metres.

So, what is more environmentally friendly – an energy source that uses one unit of land to produce one unit of electricity or a source that uses 80 units of land to create one unit of electricity? While the answer to that question is obvious, we have a government, supported by the renewable industry and “green” energy zealots, who believe the latter energy source is more desirable to replace traditional power plants to avoid a “climate crisis”.

What are the oversights on the environmental impacts?

In a nutshell, there are none! Unlike getting approval for a coal mine, gas plant, nuclear reactor or a mine, the approval process for renewable energy projects such as wind, solar, pumped hydro, and massive new transmission lines is quick, easy and subsidised.

The state has introduced strict vegetation management laws in response to receiving bad press about perceived tree-clearing rates and its management of the Great Barrier Reef. However, no state-based legislation protects vulnerable wildlife and intact remnant vegetation from renewable energy projects. The forest ecosystems affected by wind factories in Central Queensland are classified as 90 per cent plus remnant and intact vegetation. However, wind factories are exempt from the Vegetation Management Act 1999 (Qld) and Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Qld).

Instead, they are subject to State Planning Code 23, the Wind Farm Code, which overrides those two acts. Renewable energy companies can put wind and solar factories, transmission lines and pumped hydro schemes anywhere they like. Under the Code, renewable energy companies don’t need to conduct environmental impact studies as part of the approval process. We now have a situation where governments approve significant developments with minimal environmental review before sanctioning wholesale clearing.

Proponents don’t have to consult with local communities or Traditional Land Owners. All they do is hold low-key, closed, invite-only and biased reference group meetings here and there. 

In August last year, media and public pressure forced the Palaszczuk government to conduct a review of the rules governing wind factory development under the Code to “strike the right balance” as the clean energy transformation continues at pace. Palaszczuk hoped it would strengthen protections for communities and the environment. But the exercise was just another bureaucratic diversion to try and remove the heat from the Premier and her government over the fact they allow major wind development projects without environmental scrutiny by rubber-stamping wholesale land clearing.

Farmers wonder why they can barely chop down a paddock of regrowth trees, but foreign companies can clear hundreds of football fields for a “clean” renewable project without issue. Also, farmers within the Great Barrier Reef catchment must endure excessive restrictive rules. However, they are seething when they realise the wind factories will not be monitored or audited under the Great Barrier Reef Protection legislation. The only legislation that applies is the federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, which requires proponents to prepare reports and submit them to the federal government. It is purely at the discretion of the environment minister whether the projects are approved or not.

The major proponents of renewable energy projects and governments refuse to respond to questions about why they announce their projects before environmental studies have been conducted. It is alarming that companies can plan for significant projects without proper and diligent ecological investigations.

According to Rainforest Reserves Australia co-founder and former Greens Party candidate, photographer Steven Nowakowski, “the Queensland wind industry is the wild west. There are no rules. These companies can do what they like with very little in the way of legislation to stop them”. He firmly believes the Queensland government is hell-bent on destroying what is left of its forests in the far north to build wind factories.

He says the 17 renewable projects in North Queensland alone will clear 14,100 hectares of remnant forest. The proponents will construct an alarming 4,625 kilometres of new haulage roads to service 95 renewable energy projects in some of the most spectacular and biodiverse regions of Queensland.

State MP for Mirani, Steve Andrew, says his electorate in Central Queensland faces annihilation with four giant new wind factories being constructed or planned along the coastal range system from Marlborough to Mackay. Three of the projects – Lotus Creek, Clarke Creek and Boomer Range – are relatively close together with about 300 wind turbines, and the combined linear impact of the projects extends over 100 kilometres, located on the ridgetops of the steep Connors Range, west of Sarina and south on the Boomer Range, west of Marlborough. Much of the forests are essential koala and greater glider habitats. About 2,000-2,5000 hectares of forest are earmarked to be cleared for the wind turbines. Central Queensland won’t be known as the “Beef Capital” as it becomes and industrial wasteland.

A state government report called the Mackay Highlands Management Statement was published around 2000. It stated the area:

“…contains outstanding levels of biodiversity across a diverse range of ecosystems. Several thousand species of flora and fauna are known to occur in the area, many of which are threatened species and some of which are unique only to the Mackay Highlands”.

The report goes on to recommend inappropriate development would impact the conservation values. It strongly recommended against the building of public utilities:

There have been proposals in the past for public utilities telecommunications and radar towers on top of Mt Dalrymple. The construction and access required to maintain such facilities would have significant conservation impacts. Such facilities will not be permitted in this area.

There is no change to its conservation values, so how can massive industrial wind factories, pumped hydro schemes and high voltage transmission lines be built?

The remnant forests on the private lands along the ranges have escaped agricultural clearing and mining in the past. They have historically been subject to light grazing and selective timber harvesting, and they support the state’s highest density of healthy koala populations and large populations of other animals, such as bats, wedge-tailed eagles, red goshawks and greater gliders. The Boomer Range is covered in granite rock boulder formations, home to the little-known and cryptic Sharman’s rock wallaby, only discovered in 1974.

Andrew says there has been no debate in Parliament about the projects, no studies, and no comprehensive impact assessment on the cumulative effects on the environment, food production and property values. He says his constituents see bureaucrats move in at breakneck speed to streamline the environmental processes and fast-track planning applications. It has been a strange way to attract any social licence.

Nowakowski says it is “absolutely insane in this day and age, 2023, to be smashing up fragmented, intact remnant forests for green renewable energy”.

Residents in affected areas have no idea about the planned renewable projects as local councils quietly rubber-stamp the projects under their planning schemes. The former Queensland government principal botanist, Jeanette Kemp, conducted a 2022 analysis and found clearing for renewable energy projects risked “causing substantial damage to the biodiversity of sensitive areas. The cumulative impact on our environment by this rapid roll-out of renewable energy projects being fast-tracked Australia-wide is being overlooked”.

Albanese doesn’t know much about the land clearing or the local opposition to projects around Kidston in North Queensland. In September last year, while visiting Rockhampton, he rejected claims that companies were killing koalas to make way for wind and solar factories or that the factories were causing more environmental damage than they were preventing. He also made the extraordinary claim, “the communities there are incredibly excited because what it’s brought is jobs and activity”.

Perhaps Albanese should study the map below to understand what is really going on under his watch. It shows the planned and current wind factories in Central Queensland affecting every bit of forested high country outside protected areas. All the remaining untouched coastal ranges on private and vacant crown land will be smashed to provide renewable energy. Instead of swanning off overseas every week, he should take the time to visit the communities affected by his government’s proposals so he can learn what is really happening on the ground and face the anger that is palpable across wide communities.

Killing koalas and other endangered species with impunity

According to an assessment carried out by Rainforest Reserves Australia, 10,178 hectares of koala and 6,744 hectares of greater glider habitats are set to disappear if all the renewable proposals in Queensland are approved. Greater gliders are very sensitive to clearing and fragmentation. Females only produce one offspring a year, so any impact on the breeding cycle can affect numbers.

The Lotus Creek Wind Factory project is a classic example of environmental destruction in Queensland. The entire landscape surrounding the Connors Range has been cleared for agriculture, and the remaining remnant vegetation covering the steep coastal ranges is under attack by wind factories. It is a fantastic place where the forests support a high population of koalas. In what can only be seen as a prescient coincidence, at the same time work is about to commence on destroying prime koala habitat at Lotus Creek, the state government announced a koala hospital in Brisbane at a cost of $11 million.

Former Liberal Environment Minister Sussan Ley was accused of being a “koala killer” when she assessed the environmental merits of the project over three years ago. She rejected the wind factory development in June 2020, citing it was “clearly unacceptable” under national environmental laws impacting native species, such as the koala.

About 632 hectares of prime koala habitat and 340 hectares of greater glider habitat were targeted for clearing. The original environmental survey on the site found koalas at 101 locations, including seven females with young on their backs, indicating a self-sustaining population. An environmentalist who visited the site claimed to have never seen so many koalas at one spot.

The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) welcomed Ley’s original decision. They said, “renewable energy projects should not leave biodiversity and threatened species worse off”.

However, Labor’s federal Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, overruled that decision in December 2022, allowing the bulldozing of prime koala habitat to make way for wind turbines.

Plibersek is shameless. On the one hand, she says:

“No-one wants to imagine an Australia without the koalas. The Albanese Labor Government is ensuring that our kids and grandkids will still be able to see koalas in the wild”.

On the other hand, when she has a choice between koalas or wind factories, she chooses the latter every time. Her decision allows her and the rest of Australia to oversee the denudation of Queensland’s coastal ranges and soil pushed off the slopes, all within the catchment of the Great Barrier Reef. When will she be accused of being a “koala killer”? When will ACF break its silence and join the chorus of condemnation? One can only conclude their tacit silence over Plibersek’s reinstatement of the project means they support the slaughter of koalas.

The silence from the Greens Party made up of elites ensconced in the cities, is also dramatic. For a party that loves to exploit the koala for political ends, where are they now? In October last year, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young introduced the Save the Koala Bill into the Federal Parliament to place a moratorium on destroying critical koala habitat. However, she only targeted coal companies in the bill, where she said the threat of extinction of the koala in coming decades was enough to stop the expansion of BHP’s Peak Downs coal mine in Queensland and MACH Energy’s Mount Pleasant coal mine in the upper Hunter Valley. Hanson-Young didn’t read the Mount Pleasant Environment Impact Statement, as there were no sightings of koalas, scratches on trees or scats on the ground. On the other hand, she ignores an environmental report for the proposed Upper Burdekin Wind Factory, which highlighted several populations of koalas threatened by the clearing for the 69 proposed wind turbines.

Another wind factory that has proven to be environmentally destructive is the Kaban wind development. Despite being heavily redacted about sensitive ecological information, its latest compliance report confirms 17 bat species forage around the site, including the critically endangered spectacled flying fox. These animals are essential to the Wet Tropics. The area supports the smallest distribution and population numbers of the four mainland Pteropus flying foxes. They only forage at night and are critical dispersers and pollinators of rainforest flora. Two dead flying foxes have already been found on the site, carved up by spinning turbine blades. The federal agency dismissed the deaths as “one-off” episodes!

The Moah Creek Wind Factory is 30 kilometres west of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. Over 654 hectares of remnant vegetation will be cleared – habitat for koalas, greater gliders, and eastern horseshoe bats. The proponents plan to construct 76 kilometres of haulage roads into the high ridge lines and escarpments and will cause damage to over 3,000 hectares of classified remnant vegetation from “edge effects”.

The project was approved by Plibersek immediately after she banned gillnet fishing in Queensland without any scientific evidence that it is harmful. That decision was made following a grubby backroom deal after UNESCO threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef on the “in danger” list and embarrass the government.

A leaked letter to UNESCO shows exactly how far Plibersek is prepared to go in sacrificing the Queensland farming and fishing industries to expand the implementation of 2018 land clearing legislation and further strengthen protection to remnant and high value conservation areas, yet she shamelessly excludes renewable energy from these restrictions as they relentlessly clear and destroy those same forests.

The environmental groups that demonised the fishing industry, spreading misinformation about threats to dugongs and dolphins, refuse to acknowledge the damage to vast areas of native forest, all for “clean” renewable energy.

The proposed Chalumbin Wind Factory, two hours west of Cairns, comprises 88 wind turbines in the middle of upland tropical forest on the Atherton Tableland. Over 844 hectares of koala habitat is in the firing line. The original proposal has been scaled back from 200 turbines to appease some traditional owners. However, it still poses a threat to the greater glider, red goshawk, magnificent broodfrog, masked owl and spectacled flying fox, as well as the koala. This wind factory will support the tallest wind turbines in the Southern Hemisphere and only serve to destroy forest and the critical habitat of endangered species.

A recent disturbing find in a quarry just 15 kilometres north of the proposed Chalumbin site was the discovery of a wind turbine graveyard. The quarry owner has dumped several worn-out 20-metre turbine blades from the nearby 23-year-old Windy Hill Wind Factory in this open grave despite denials by the landholder. However, it is implausible they will be recycled, given the landholder admitted the blades have been sitting in situ for over 15 years waiting on a recycling method. Yet another dirty secret about so-called clean energy and a frightful prospect for the future when all the new blades will need to be replaced within 20 years.

Wind turbine dump

Nick Cater at wind turbine dump. Still taken from video.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQicWEp9P-s

Journalist Rebecca Weisser eloquently and brilliantly described the new corporate shysters who can smell a good deal from government largesse a mile away. She calls them the “Green Shoe Brigade”:

When Sir Joh Bjelke-Peterson was premier in the 1980s, deals were done for the ‘white shoe brigade’ that ignored regulations and delivered rapid rezoning, government loans, and subsidies for controversial developments on the basis of a nod and a wink and sometimes a rumoured brown bag of cash. Under Premier Palasczczuk, Queensland is rolling out the red carpet for the Green Shoe Brigade, not so much carpetbaggers as sun and windbaggers. There’s no need for a brown paper bag. The ‘climate crisis’ justifies the immediate rezoning of pastoral and forested land to allow for industrial-scale renewable utilities”.

What can we say about Palaszczuk? In September last year, she chose National Threatened Species Day to announce a $4.2 million grant to the environmental organisation “Healthy Land and Water” for koala protection. Yet, under her government, she allows thousands of hectares of prime koala habitat to be cleared by foreign companies to make way for wind factories.

She employs young university graduates as “Reef Compliance Officers” to turn up at farms in the Burnett Region demanding lengthy meetings to conduct audits and inspect properties. Using maps generated from satellite imagery, they demand to see every bare spot on the farm. The lack of worldly experience these officers demonstrate is deplorable and an insult to the farmers. And later that day, the farmers look outside the kitchen window towards the distant ranges to see the large areas of bare ground supporting the installation of massive wind turbines, totally ignored by the compliance officers as it is not part of their remit.

Plibersek showed she was more worried about the Greens vote in her inner-city Sydney electorate when she knocked back Clive Palmer’s coal mine proposal in Central Queensland in February last year. She told The Age after her decision, “if you want your kids and grandkids to be able to see koalas in the wild, we have to change what we’re doing because, in NSW, we’re on a trajectory to no koalas by 2050”. The way things are going in Queensland, she can add koalas from that state to her list and do the right by admitting it is her fault.

At the same time these renewable energy projects are ploughing ahead in Queensland, other big projects such as the $6 billion Barossa gas project by Santos to extend the LNG export facility from Darwin has been stopped yet again after green activists won a successful court case. In Western Australia, the $15 billion Scarborough gas project has been further delayed by another court appeal.

These disruptions are the work of activists funded by the federal Labor Party using taxpayer monies to stop major projects that provide jobs and much-needed export revenue, just because they don’t meet an ideological imperative.

Barbaric practices exposed

All of the above pales into insignificance after reading the environmental report associated with the largest wind factory proposal at Clarke Creek. Located about 150 kilometres north-west of Rockhampton, each of the proposed 200 turbines will be 207 metres tall and all are built in China. The construction company is Squadron Energy, owned by billionaire iron-ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest. 

2GB’s Ben Fordham has exposed an alarming section within the environmental report. Squadron Energy admit they will remove up to 1,450 hectares of suitable koala habitat, but it is how they will deal with affected animals that is truly appalling.

This is what they plan to do if any animals get in the way of their construction. “A suitably qualified fauna spotter is required to humanely capture, trap and handle the animals”. But it gets worse. There is a section in their report called Euthanasia. “Euthanasia will be conducted using blunt force trauma”. Blunt force is mainly recommended to humanely kill reptiles and small to medium-sized mammals. But the report says it could also be used for large mammals. “This involves a hard sharp blow to the base of the back of the skull with a blunt metal or heavy wooden bar”. 

Squadron Energy are hoping the affected animals can be relocated. If they cannot, and if any animals are injured in the process, there is the euthanasia policy to follow.

“A second fauna spotter will be required to assist with larger animals. Appropriate tools to undertake blunt trauma are to be carried by all suitably experienced spotters. Larger tools (eg large crow bars or a sledge hammers) are to be available in each car“. 

If this was a forestry, agriculture, fishing or mining operation, all hell would break loose. However, as long as there are “experienced” fauna spotters on hand they have a free reign to deal with any animal that gets in the way or is injured during attempted capture, by wielding crow bars or sledge hammers, to bludgeon the animals to death.

Is this environmentally and humanely friendly to you and should our iconic animals such as koalas be subject to this sort of barbaric treatment?

The Queensland Conservation Council (QCC) doesn’t care. Their Director, David Copeman, recently wrote to subscribers:

I’m furious…renewable energy projects need to be built in the right places, but right now there’s a barrage of misinformation being circulated about solar and wind farms so we thought we’d set the facts straight. According to Queensland’s latest land clearing data, 89% of land clearing was a result of cattle and other grazing. Climate change is one of the biggest threats to biodiversity and to take action we need to minimise land clearing and roll out more renewable energy. Building enough wind farms to support Queensland’s entire energy transition would equate to only 5.5% of the land clearing that is currently occurring across the state every single year.

Mr Copeman is the one guilty of spreading misinformation. He failed to point out the clearing figures he used with his rant were from the 2020/21 SLATS report when clearing of remnant vegetation for renewable energy projects hadn’t started. Nor did he highlight the lack of environmental regulatory control of the renewable projects compared to every other project. And nor did he outline to his subscribers the proposed euthanasia of koalas using a blunt instrument to the base of the skull, not by vets, but by “experienced fauna spotters”.

In my working days, I was once classed as a fauna spotter. However, I wouldn’t trust myself to humanely kill a koala with a blunt instrument. In fact, I would never even contemplate such a merciless and brutish option.

It is clear Mr Copeman needs to leave his cosy office in Brisbane and visit the regional areas affected by the wind factories. He will then learn about the footprint of these renewable projects in the pipeline or commenced. It is estimated 57,348 hectares of regional ecosystems classified as “of Concern” or “Endangered Ecosystems”, representing some of the best remnant forests in the state, will be cleared.

These areas have escaped any development because they are on high ridgelines and escarpments associated with the majestic Great Dividing Range, a fact clearly lost on QCC. Unless the state government fudges the clearing figures over the next few years and gets away with hiding the renewable energy carnage, the QCC will be on the wrong side of history by defending the wilful destruction of iconic forests in Central Queensland.

How environmentally “clean” are wind factories?

Former Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel has written a new book outlining how Australia can transition to a wind and solar-powered future.

He had this to say about the impacts of large numbers of wind and solar factories:

Think forests of wind farms carpeting hills and cliffs from sea to sky. Think endless arrays of solar panels disappearing like a mirage into the desert”.

In addition to taking up a large area, the need for more and more wind and solar factories will create a technological dependence on minerals, which means more mines to save the planet. More mines represent destroyed landscapes, debased watersheds, and displaced rural communities.

Here is a simple comparison of the materials required for a wind factory compared with a natural gas generation plant. Wind power requires 18 times more material than a natural gas plant. The turbines alone require a lot of minerals, petrochemicals and fossil fuels. Building a single 2 MW wind turbine uses 187 tonnes of coal. Building a 100 MW wind plant requires 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete and 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics for the blades – all mined, transported and produced with fossil fuels.

Steel, concrete, plastics, resins, chemicals and other materials make up Finkel’s wind and solar carpet, many of which are hazardous, including when broken up on decommissioning. No sooner is the carpet laid that companies will extract more than 24 separate minerals required to build their replacement, including 220 tonnes of coal necessary to construct each new wind turbine. We’ll need even more electricity to manufacture this new carpet or, more likely, will import it from countries with cheaper, abundant electricity not produced by wind and solar. The problem is that politicians and bureaucrats designing this new energy system haven’t told us how they will manufacture these products in the future without fossil fuels.

Pumped hydro – a giant battery or a white elephant?

The glossy brochures tell us that pumped hydro works like batteries, filling in gaps when more electricity is needed. They pump water uphill during low electricity demand (mainly at night) and release it downhill through turbines during high demand, generating electricity. They require an upper and lower reservoir and plan to pump the water uphill using intermittent renewable energy only. However, how energy providers will do that on a windless night is unclear. The water is then stored until needed, making it a virtual battery.

However, they have massive impacts on the environment that involves flooding large areas of land. It is also recognised by expert engineers worldwide as an outdated technology simply because it, like all batteries, uses more energy to pump the water than can be supplied. It is a wonder why Australia is considering building pumped hydro projects over the next ten years.

Last year, in a media fanfare, de Brenni announced the state would build the world’s largest pumped hydro scheme storage plant at 5 GW. He said the scheme will act like a giant battery, storing energy generated by the proposed renewable energy zones.

Local landowners affected by the proposed Pioneer-Burdekin pumped hydro scheme west of Mackay knew nothing about the project before it was announced. No known environmental impact and engineering studies were carried out before the announcement. Over 937 hectares across three reservoirs, including renowned platypus habitat, would be impacted. The residents are concerned that the pumped hydro, solar and wind factories and giant transmission lines will destroy the Burdekin and Pioneer Valleys, both of which flow independently into the Great Barrier Reef.

There are major concerns for the viability of platypus populations if the valley is turned into an industrial zone. The hydrology of the area will be changed forever, threatening the habitat of a unique and threatened endemic species. The government and its bureaucrats don’t seem to care. Queensland Hydro released a Platypus Management Plan last June. All they did was cut and paste from their aquatic biology report that was prepared the previous year. There is no information about the impacts of the scheme on platypus burrows and breeding. Queensland Hydro say it is a live document which will be updated as the “details of the construction and phases become available”. So here we have proof the government has decided to go ahead with the project regardless of what the scale of the impacts will be on native flora and fauna, but they are doing studies anyway to be able to tick a box and say due diligence was done. Meanwhile, residents and concerned environmentalists are voiceless in trying to put a stop to the destruction of the “Land of the Clouds”.

The project requires the construction of three new reservoirs. Despite outlining the project and its location, geotechnical and engineering studies have only just begun. This didn’t stop de Brenni responding to a local resident’s complaint:

The Pioneer-Burdekin Pumped Hydro Project site was selected as part of a rigorous, multi-year analysis of potential pumped hydro sites across the entirety of Queensland“.

The lower reservoir will be sited near the small Netherdale settlement. This is the same site that was discounted during a 1991 storage reservoir review. A greater concern are the two proposed upper reservoirs along the Dalrymple Range. They are being squeezed into a narrow strip of land wedged between national parks on either side. Trying to avoid the national parks will only exacerbate the engineering problems as the area contains significantly fractured material which provide variable and difficult engineering works to hold the water and provide solid and robust foundations.

Additionally, two new roads, one in the national park, will need to be constructed as the current Range Road will be flooded by the lower reservoir. The area is already prone to landslips and supports many springs.

When questioned by concerned residents, Powerlink could not say how much rainforest and forest they would destroy, and which towns would be affected. All they can say now is they have not yet commenced the detailed planning, studies or design work to connect the proposed project to the grid, even though their glossy brochures tell us all that development work has been carried out.

Even the former CEO of Powerlink for 17 years joined the debate. Electrical engineer Simon Bartlett has concerns over the project. He argues that the basic rule of planning is to build your generation plants as close as possible to the load centre to reduce the risk of long-distance transmission and the cost. Bartlett can’t understand why the government wants to build their giant Pioneer-Burdekin project 1,000 kilometres from the main load centre in south-east Queensland. He said as soon as you hear the world’s largest scheme, watch out! There is a reason why others haven’t gone that big.

To drum up dwindling support for the project by residents and the public, the government established a new government-owned corporation, Queensland Hydro, to finally conduct studies and deliver a detailed assessment of the project in 2024. You couldn’t write a better script for the ABC’s Utopia series. Governments rushing out yet another ill-conceived big renewable project without considering the impacts on the local community or the environment. What is the point of a belated review when they have already decided?

The Stakeholder Reference Group for the project primarily consists of VIPs who attended the Premier’s opulent $700-a-minute Christmas party at the end of 2022. It is as plain as the nose on everyone’s face that a decision for the project to go ahead has been made and consultation with the community will be about the level of offsets required to placate the people of Queensland. 

The other pumped hydro scheme is the $14.2 billion 2 GW Borumba proposal in the Mary Valley near Imbil. It will impact more than 200 freehold properties from Borumba through the South Burnett and Kilkivan to Woolooga and destroy up to 83 kilometres of native forest to support 500 kV power pylons to transmit the power. Yet, as a storage battery, all it will do is provide 200 MW for just 24 hours after the construction of six new dams and an underground power station.

The scheme is sited so that the existing Borumba dam forms the basis of the lower reservoir. But the lower reservoir will be much, much larger than the existing dam flooding all the tributaries into the reservoir. There will be only one upper reservoir, but again it will be squeezed into a tight site hard against the national park boundary. This will lead to very difficult engineering and construction constraints. It is impossible to see how the construction area requirements for letdown facilities, access roads and dam wall foundations will not have a very significant impact on the neighbouring national parks.

No economic feasibility or environmental studies are available to the public to demonstrate the efficacy of this project, even though the government assures us otherwise. All we are told is that renewables are cheap and nuclear is expensive.

Despite this, the government announced last October the project had been declared a “co-ordinated project”, meaning a streamlined process will apply.  What this means is that all obstacles in its way, including people and the environment, will be steamrolled.

Yet, for the same price tag, we could build three 1 GW small modular reactors for 24/7 dispatchable power without slaughtering prime koala habitat.

The original Borumba Dam was built in the 1960s across Yabba Creek. It stores water for drinking and irrigation as part of the Mary Valley Irrigation Scheme. The Borumba pumped hydro project features two main reservoirs – a new upper reservoir in the steep hills south of Lake Borumba and the expansion of the existing dam to act as the lower reservoir. Tunnels over about 3-4 kilometres will link the two reservoirs.

The estimated costs, however, do not include compulsory acquisition, as Powerlink faces stringent opposition from affected landholders and the local communities.

The ill-fated Traveston Crossing Dam, also in the Mary Valley, was cancelled in 2009 by federal Labor Environment Minister Peter Garrett after a 2007 Senate Inquiry. Even though the dam was promoted as a major water project to supply water for south-east Queensland after the prolonged millennial drought, there was national and international condemnation of the project. The major environmental groups led a sustained campaign. ACF wanted the protection of endangered species such as the Mary River turtle and the Queensland lungfish. Greens Senator Bob Brown argued:

The dam should be opposed because it would flood thousands of hectares of prime food-producing land near Brisbane, Aboriginal heritage sites and the main nursery for the world famous Australian lungfish”.

In terms of land use, nothing has changed since then. The silence by the major environmental groups over the Borumba pumped hydro scheme is deafening. They are nowhere to be seen as a committed group of locals stage a David versus Goliath battle to protect their environment and save the same wildlife species that were under threat from the Traveston project.

According to energy sources, there are significant environmental and technical issues for both the planned pumped hydro projects. One of the more pressing issues was addressing efficiencies “because it would address the scale of the investment needed”. It is important because both projects could easily face the same cost and time blowouts plaguing the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme.

The other major problem is who is going to build these projects. Engineers Australia CEO Romilly Madew said Australia, particularly Queensland, does not have the workers to construct them. She argues there are too many projects in the pipeline at once, and the demand to meet the Brisbane Olympics infrastructure needs in 2032 only adds to the pressure.

Bartlett argues that the state should look to alternatives such as chemical grid-scale batteries for storage rather than the costly pumped hydro option. The only serious battery options are lithium-iron. However, the government dismissed this option because they are limited to a two-hour storage time.

It is no secret that most of the power generated by these renewable projects will go to the densely populated south-east Queensland region. It begs the question, why aren’t any of the projects earmarked in the Scenic Rim, Mount Tamborine or Mount Coot-Tha on Brisbane’s doorstep? It would certainly reduce the costs and footprint of the transmission line corridors, or is it because it is not a politically favourable option as it would face opposition from the city dwellers who love the idea of these projects, as long as they aren’t in their backyard? 

The sensible alternative to replacing fossil fuel energy is nuclear. Governments must consider this option before wasting too much money and effort on non-dispatchable renewable energy.

Summing up

Over 40 years ago, we were fortunate to have two pragmatic and productive federal Labor leaders, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. They created a national energy market that stabilised the grid, securitised energy supply and reduced prices for households and industry, allowing them to introduce big-ticket policies that improved the nation’s competitiveness and increased productivity.

Fast forward 40 years, and we have Albanese and Bowen ideologically fixated on replacing that proven energy advantage with an inefficient and intermittent renewable energy system that will create the opposite outcomes for the country. Not only that, large swathes of remaining native forests on private land along the spine of the Great Dividing Range are being bulldozed and cleared to save the planet. Renewable energy projects are killing and sacrificing koalas, greater gliders, red goshawks, cryptic rock wallaby species, bats and other animals because we face a “climate crisis” that refuses to arrive.

If all these renewable projects go ahead in Queensland, many rural landscapes will never be the same. The push for this madness comes from high-income inner-city residents preaching climate action, but they do not intend to play any role in delivering it. As long as the projects are out of sight and someone else’s problem, they are happy to see the price borne by the regional areas.

There is also deafening silence from those who should care about the environmental destruction happening in Queensland. The tree-hugging environmentalists are nowhere to be seen. Those hardcore greens you could always trust to chain themselves around machines and trees and fight against the logging of the forests. Where have they gone? None of the usual suspects are saying anything – ACF, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), or Friends of the Earth. How WWF expects to continue making money appealing to punters like yourselves to stump up your hard-earned to adopt a koala while remaining silent to their destruction is beyond me. Somebody told Weisser off the record that state-funded conservation groups were reluctant to criticise the government for fear of losing funding. If true, it demonstrates how compromised the environmental charity juggernaut is and helps explain the QCC ignoring clearing associated with renewable projects.

The destruction of the environment for renewables isn’t confined to Australia. In the Scottish Highlands, they’ve wiped out over 14 million trees, spread over more than 17,000 acres to clear the way for thousands of these industrial monstrosities. Germany’s Black Forest has been overrun, with chainsaws, bulldozers and blazing torches paving the way for our so-called green energy transition. And hundreds of ancient oaks in its thousand-year-old Fairytale Forest, the Reinhardswald, are threatened to be felled and shredded for the same reason.

All eyes are now on Plibersek to see if she is prepared to knock back just one renewable project to show that she and her government stand by their rhetoric and are unwilling to sacrifice our koalas to “save” the polar bear, even though everyone knows that nothing Australia does in terms of reducing carbon dioxide emissions will make any different on a global scale.

Related story: Wake up Australia: Renewable energy won’t save the planet if it costs the earth

Australian Rural & Regional News welcomes considered contributions from the politicians and others mentioned here or otherwise interested, and also from others with expertise and experience in these areas. Should sufficient responses be received, a discussion page will be opened.
Robert Onfray is open to questions.

Robert Onfray is an Australian historical author and forester, currently settled in Hervey Bay and working on his next book, on the forestry history of Fraser Island before it all disappears. Robert’s book, Fires, Farms and Forests – A human history of Surrey Hills, north-west Tasmania is available from www.robertonfray.com, along with many other articles about the Australian country and its history.

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