Robust debate on energy future

A FORUM on the Latrobe Valley’s future energy management evoked “robust but respectful” debate in the first of a series of events around the issue this week.

Regional Development Australia Gippsland hosted a forum on Tuesday night, including an expert panel, to gauge community views on how the region “can create a more resilient economy” while ensuring “greater sustainability of our natural resources”.

Hosted by media personality James O’Loghlin, the event heard from panellists representing a diverse mix of resource interests .

By the night’s end most panellists recognised Gippsland would remain reliant on fossil fuels, at least for now, but universally agreed renewables had a role to play in a future energy mix for this area – to what degree both the reliance on brown coal, and the spread of renewables, should occur, remained steeped in debate.

Early in discussions former Loy Yang Power chief executive officer Ian Nethercote said the Valley’s coal resource would remain a part of its energy industry “for a long time to come”, but added “that doesn’t mean it will be used in the same way (as it is now)”.

He said the size, cost and availability of the resource meant it would not be “left in the ground” – a conviction not shared by at least some audience members who asked “why not?”

Mr Nethercote also acknowledged research and development aimed at cleaning up brown coal was “very costly” and still in its early stages but added “need is always the start of innovation”.

His views were shared by Melbourne University Professor Frank Larkins whose work as chief scientist of energy with the Department of Primary Industries seeked to explore CCS possibilities in the Gippsland Basin.

Professor Larkins claimed the $100 million Federal Government-funded CarbonNet Project was working on a profile of the Gippsland region’s CCS potential.

“By 2014 we will have identified the best area to (undertake) drill demonstration works… we have reduced 24 options to three prospects as of now.”

Professor Larkins said it was expected drilling and sequestering activity, for demonstration purposes, could be developed by 2015.

Some of those gathered expressed concern about the environmental implications of CCS and Andrew Lang, Sustainability Managed Australian Regional Timbers chair, predicted carbon storage, if able to be implemented, would push the price of coal “up over bio-mass”, an energy source he was a strong advocate for.

Suggestions brown coal jobs in the Valley could be transferred to “cleaner energy jobs” were met with caution by Committee for Gippsland executive director Mary Aldred, who said while there was “no doubt” the region would require a different skill mix in the future, “I am cognisant there can’t be a huge degree of shift”.

Garrad Hassan Pacific Pty Ltd business development manager Graham White told the forum there needed to be increased investment in distribution networks for renewable energies and said “while no-one is saying renewables will take over 100 per cent”, they were “good, commercial options” being used far more widely elsewhere in Australia, and globally.

Mr Lang cited numerous global examples of successful biomass energy uses and expressed disappointment in the Federal Government’s recently released Energy White Paper 2012 which he said “practically ignored” biomass potential and showed “we are out of step with the rest of the world”.

Coal seam gas fracking was discussed, though a temporary moratorium on its exploration is in place in Victoria. A large contingent of those gathered expressed their opposition to any CSG development.

Despite the emotive nature of topics covered at the event Mr O’Loghlin commended participants on the “respectful” tone of debate.