Can the ACT rely entirely on alternative energy?

 By Don Aitkin

 If light rail is the preferred theme for the ACT Liberals, in October’s election, then it is possible that ACT Labor will trumpet its success in leading the nation in powering the ACT entirely from alternative energy sources by 2020, or thereabouts. On the face of it they won’t have an opponent on that issue, because Jeremy Hanson has been very quiet about it, other than saying that ACT power bills will go through the roof.

If that is all that he and his colleagues continue to say, then the reasonable elector might have a few questions of her own, just as she had about light rail. She recalls Mr Barr’s saying last August, at the Annual Conference of the ACT Labor Party, that ‘Canberra can and should be a beacon for everyone who realises the world must act decisively now to stave off a future of catastrophic climate change.’

She wants catastrophes no more than the next person, but nonetheless ponders just how Mr Barr’s plan would do this. After all, she remembers, when she switches on an electric light, the power that comes is overwhelmingly fossil fuel in origin (in 2014 the components were: coal 73%, natural gas 13%, hydro 7%, wind 4%, rooftop solar 2% and biomass 1%). How exactly will the ACT ‘transition’ (she loves new verbs) to this new alternative-energy world?

In fact, it’s hard to find a sensible answer to such a question. The ACT Government has commissioned three wind farms and three solar farms that will collectively supply about 60 per cent of the ACT’s energy needs by 2017, if the sun shines and the wind blows as hoped. There’s some more coming that will push the equivalent to about 90 per cent of the ACT’s energy needs by 2020.

Mr Corbell says the Government will then work out what is needed to get the total up to 100 per cent. He has stated clearly enough that the intention is to provide the ‘equivalent of the ACT’s energy needs’, not for the ACT to become independent of the grid.

OK, says the reasonable elector, but how is this forestalling a catastrophe? She knows that when you use alternative energy sources like wind and sun, you have to provide back-up for those days when the wind doesn’t blow sufficiently to generate much or any power (about 60 per cent of the time), and those nights (all of them) when the sun doesn’t shine. The back-up has to be something that you can switch on at a moment’s notice, and means gas-turbines. So the more alternative energy we have, the more fossil-fuelled back-up we also need.

And she also knows, because she has done some reading, that the world is still a long way from having the capacity to store power from sun and wind, apart from in domestic batteries. Yes, you can push water uphill during the day, and let it run downhill at night to generate more hydro power, and we can do a little of that in Australia, but it’s not a viable option on a large scale. We just don’t have a lot of stored water for hydro, and no government is proposing to build more dams. Not yet, anyway.

But the ACT Government hasn’t gone down that path of explaining why all these wind forms are pushing catastrophes away from the ACT, and nor has Jeremy Hanson asked it to. What the Government has done is to talk up the scheme in terms of its role as an economic development strategy. Yet the wind farms are not in the ACT — two of them are in Victoria and one in South Australia. So while it is good for the ACT to be doing all this economic development, why we should be helping Victoria and South Australia in this way is not instantly clear to the reasonable elector.

At this point the reasonable elector gives up. The alternative energy strategy ought to be an election issue, she thinks, even if the Liberals won’t make it one. And she thinks she knows why there’s no action. In 2013 the ACT Government conducted a survey about popular reaction to its alternative energy strategy, and found to its pleasure that about 70 per cent of those interviewed were in general support: they thought that ‘climate change’ was important, that they themselves contributed to it, that they ought to do something about it, and that the ACT Government’s strategy was the right way to go.

It may be true that most people in the ACT think that they will be getting wholly green power in 2025, or whenever the magic year is. It’s nothing like that, and they will be paying much more for their mostly fossil-fuelled power than they would have done had the ACT Government done nothing at all in this field. But they’ll feel good about it —and after all, aren’t we the people in Australia who can most afford to feel good about something that is mostly smoke and mirrors?

(Don Aitkin AO, political scientist, historian and novelist, was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, the Foundation Chairman of the Australian Research Council and a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council. He blogs at The Canberra Times, January 2016)

Light rail for the ACT

 By Don Aitkin

Although the ACT elections are nine months away, these months represent the gestation of the decisions we will make in October. There will be more than the usual electoral fuss during the coming year, and themes will start to stand out. One of them will certainly be the wisdom of the Labor Government’s having taken up so enthusiastically and forcefully the provision of light rail as a new form of mass transit for our city.

Jeremy Hanson and the Liberal Opposition are certain that this is and was the wrong decision, and they will campaign on that theme. Andrew Barr and his Government, having committed themselves, will tell us, confidently and repeatedly, that light rail is our future.

I have been asked several times what my own opinion is. I don’t really have one, but I do have the somewhat simple-minded view that the government is there to govern. I do not know whether or not the ACT Government is correct in planning for light rail within the city. But it is unquestionably its job to make that kind of decision. If it gets it badly wrong, and the issue is important to enough people, then it may lose office.

If a reasonable elector looks at the arguments, she would probably accept that we are unlikely to be able to rely on private cars in a 2050 Canberra of half a million and more people. The reason is not that petrol is going to be too expensive. The current evidence is that there will be oil in abundance for a long time. Nor is it that cars themselves will become too expensive. They are getting cheaper and cheaper. It won’t be long before we see the first new car for sale under $10,000. Perhaps I’ve already missed the announcement.

The principal reason is that while we can add cars almost indefinitely, we cannot do the same to our roads and parking spaces. Parking is going to grow steadily more expensive, and that will push drivers to consider whether or not they might as well go by public transport. An additional reason will be the decreasing average speed on our roads. Sydney is at gridlock now in some parts of that large city, and any crash on the urban motorways means long delays for the drivers there. We will experience our own tamer version of that crisis before long.

A focus on the provision of more public transport seems sensible enough. Why light rail and not more buses? One obvious reason is that the buses will have some of the same problems as cars unless they have completely dedicated lanes. Why not widen more roads to provide them, as is happening slowly? That is very expensive, and it simply changes the place where the bottlenecks occur.

In fact, anything to do with the problem of getting people to and from work in a large city is expensive. Light rail is in no way the cheapest solution, but it is probably faster and able to move more people. It all depends on which experts you listen to. We have to assume that the ACT Government has listened to them all, at least in the early stages. It must have considered the O’bahn bus system in Adelaide, where the buses have their own permanent way, and rejected that in favour of light rail. We need to remember that the O’bahn way (12 km only) is a small part of the Adelaide bus system, which relies on public roads for the buses, as in Canberra.

If she also accepts all that, the next question the reasonable elector might ask is why the first light-rail corridor is from Gungahlin to the City. Capital Metro says that Gungahlin is growing five times faster than the rest of Canberra and that light rail is part of a larger plan to improve the Northbourne Avenue precinct. I guess that another reason is that the land acquisition there is relatively cheap.

When I was at the University of Canberra we had discussions with a much earlier ACT Government about our losing some campus land in the interest of improved rapid transit to the city from Belconnen. A later notion was a Belconnen – UC – ANU – Civic – CIT – Russell – Airport corridor, which had the advantage of a lot of tertiary staff and student customers throughout the day, rather than just at peak times. The obvious disadvantage is expense, especially in the vicinity of the CBD.

I’ll pass on the cost of crossing the lake and servicing the national triangle. There will be solutions, all of them expensive. But the reasonable elector can see that this is a major planning matter, and she will hope that the ACT Government has got it right. I am with her. We won’t know the answer for years, so it’s not a matter that might cause the reasonable elector to cast her vote one way or the other.

But if light rail’s a success, then there will be cries that it should have been done years before. That’s the great advantage of hindsight.

(Professor Don Aitkin AO, novelist, historian and political scientist, was Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra, and Chairman of the National Capital Authority. He blogs at

(for The Canberra Times, January 2016)