Tasmania’s unnecessary energy crisis

Tasmania’s unnecessary energy crisis

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An outage of the Basslink cable plunged Tasmania into a six-month long energy crisis. Industrial production at major producers had to be slowed, with the state left relying on emergency diesel generators to avoid widespread blackouts.

The Basslink cable runs along the Bass Straight between Victoria and Tasmania, capable of transmitting energy and telecommunications in both directions. A fault occurred along the cable in December 2015. After several delays, the cable was finally returned to operation in early June, but the for-profit operator of Basslink is yet to explain why the cable failed. Even with the cable fixed, there remain serious concerns about the future of the state’s energy sources.

In 2012 when Tasmania’s hydro dams were at 62%, the state’s energy generation capacity was only slightly less than its usage with energy imports through Basslink making up the shortfall. However long term drought, believed to be linked to climate change, depleted dam levels. They reached as low as 11% in May.

Until recently, Tasmania was generating almost 100% of its energy consumption from renewable sources – mostly hydro, with some wind and small-scale solar. In response to the depleted dams and Basslink outage, the government re-opened the Tamar Valley gas-fired power station and imported more than one hundred diesel generators at a cost of up to $60 million.

A series of short-sighted decisions by the main electricity generator, Hydro Tasmania – a government owned enterprise – seems to have exacerbated the problems. While the Basslink cable was being repaired, Hydro Tasmania embarked on controversial cloud-seeding in an attempt to fill the dams. This was despite there already being predictions of high rainfall. The seeding is thought to have exacerbated the flooding that eventuated, which led to the death of three people and a damage bill of up to $100 million.

Since the rains in June the state’s hydro capacities are at about 25% and there is no guarantee that enough rainfall lies ahead to return Tasmania to energy self-sufficiency. Despite this, Hydro Tasmania began exporting energy in an attempt to turn a profit, presumably in a desperate bid to make up for losses suffered during the crisis.

There will no doubt be wider costs to the state’s economy and government finances. Estimates of direct costs to the state already range from between $200 million and $400 million. The government also negotiated a slow-down in industrial production by Tasmania’s main energy users, the impact of which is yet to be fully assessed.

Tasmanians were told Basslink would save money by allowing (mostly dirty brown coal) energy to be imported from Victoria, reducing the need to invest in new power generating capacity. Paradoxically, it was also argued Basslink would allow for more renewable energy to be exported to the mainland, reducing Australia’s overall reliance on non-renewable energy.

It is entirely feasible to meet Tasmania’s energy needs through a combination of hydro, wind and solar projects. But just recently the government justified scrapping a massive King Island wind farm project that would have met the energy shortfall due to depleted dams, on grounds of being economically ‘unviable’.

The ability to import dirty brown coal power from Victoria via Basslink made it easier for the government to sit on their hands. Since this crisis, rather than moving towards more renewable energy both the major parties have supported calls for the building of a second cable linking Tasmania to the mainland.

Profit interests lie behind this approach. They are more interested in investing in projects that will boost the profits of big business rather than those that benefit ordinary people. While on the basis of capitalism there are profits to be made from renewable energy, for Australia’s major energy producers, it is far more attractive in the short term to turn Tasmania into a more dependable market for fossil fuel energy exports.

In order to guarantee a renewable energy future that prioritises people and the environment, it is necessary to break from the major parties. The alternative to the anarchy of the market, and decisions based on short term profit, is a rational plan to immediately transition towards renewable energy sources. To achieve this, the energy industry and main levers of the economy would need to be brought into public ownership, under democratic worker and community control.

By Ben Convey