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Legislative Assembly

07 March 2023
Tim Read  (GRN)


Tim READ (Brunswick) (16:38): In my address-in-reply to the Governor’s speech and specifically to the motion moved by the member for Ripon, I would like to begin by commenting that the Governor, as is the convention, set out the government’s plans for the coming parliamentary term. So her speech, unsurprisingly, was a reiteration of government election promises, just as we would expect, and one of the first of these was that the government will increase renewable electricity targets to 95 per cent by 2035. I must emphasise how important this is. The state currently has a renewable energy target of 50 per cent by 2030, and so this is a substantial increase to 95 per cent, even if it is five years later. Clearly, we will need to be well above 50 per cent by 2030 to get to 95 per cent within five years.

I recall moving to amend the government’s renewable energy target for 2030 from 50 per cent to 100 per cent four years ago. The Labor and Liberal parties did ridicule the idea and they blocked it of course, but last year the new federal Labor government declared their intention to achieve 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030. If we were to achieve that here in Victoria, that would put us well on the way to our 95 per cent target by 2035. It may be slower than I would like, but I do commend the government for moving this far. But why would we even bother to do this when we have so much brown coal – centuries worth of brown coal? It is obviously because of the climate crisis that is now plainly visible in so many ways – at least it should be obvious.

The Governor’s speech talks about public ownership of energy generation, keeping power bills down and creating jobs, all of it good and necessary, but there is not a whisper about climate change – no mention of global warming or the greenhouse effect, nothing about the climate emergency and its droughts, fires, heatwaves, sea level rises and the resulting ecological collapse in our forests and oceans, none of that. Surely the government has not forgotten. Perhaps the government believes their plans to own 51 per cent of a small proportion of the wind and solar generation in the state and call it the SEC addresses the problem, but that would be the problem. It only goes some way toward addressing the drivers of climate change. The climate crisis is caused by much more than coal. Weaning Victoria off coal is urgent, but burning coal to produce electricity produces less emissions now than the combined emissions from transport, agriculture and burning gas for heating. Of these the fastest-growing sector and source of emissions is transport, principally cars, almost all of which burn petrol or diesel. So we need to really look at how to address this urgently. The government has a number of big-ticket public transport projects underway, but there are some more cost-effective and perhaps more urgent measures that could be introduced very quickly at lower cost and that might – in fact would – have a greater impact on shifting people from cars into public transport.

I will start with buses. Buses are probably the most cost-effective public transport in terms of dollars per passenger kilometre, and I would urge people to have a look at the Melbourne on Transit blog to get a better idea of some of the improvements that could be made. For example, increasing the frequency of buses to every 15 or 20 minutes – and I am thinking, as an example, of the east–west buses that run across Essendon, Brunswick, Northcote, Clifton Hill – would increase passenger usage in this poorly served east–west direction. We have quite a good radial transport system in Melbourne with trains and trams running into the CBD, but the buses that intersect with those run less frequently, tend to stop around 7 o’clock at night and often barely run on weekends and not at all on Sundays, depending on individual bus routes. Simply increasing the frequency and the hours of those bus routes would increase passenger patronage and mean more people left their cars at home, and of course the best electric vehicle is an electric bus. I know the government has finally bitten the bullet and decided to start investing in electric buses – and good on them – but we should actually just stop buying diesel buses and go all electric straightaway. There is no point in a government buying something that burns petrol or diesel now that is still going to be burning petrol or diesel in 20 years time.

Other excellent electric vehicles I would like to recommend are trams and trains. Increasing the frequency of our tram and train services has been shown also to increase patronage and would be an important measure to encourage more people to leave their cars at home. Likewise active transport –some jurisdictions, some governments, spend upwards of 5 up to 10 or more per cent of their transport budget on improving routes for active transport – that is, walking and riding bikes. We need to do the same here. There is a big gap in Melbourne in infrastructure for safe bike riding and if we fill that we know that we will get more people using their bikes for short journeys, and short journeys constitute a large proportion of car travel and petrol use in Melbourne – trips to the shops, trips to school, journeys of less than 5 kilometres – and they can easily be met by bikes or e-bikes. This sort of investment will drive people onto or away from cars and reduce petrol and diesel consumption, but still a lot of Victorians are going to be using cars for a long time to come.

In fact Australians buy about 1 million new cars per year, and I imagine with a quarter of the population Victoria is probably buying about a quarter of a million new cars per year. When someone buys a petrol-burning car this week, it is still likely to be burning petrol in 10 to 20 years time. We must urgently dissuade Victorians from buying petrol and diesel cars. The best thing they could buy if they must buy a car is an electric one, so I urge the government to review its policies and see what adjustments could be made to encourage people if they are going to buy a car to buy an electric one or an electric bike or to take the bus.

The next sector and source of emissions I want to touch on is agriculture. The most important emissions are methane from cows and sheep, and the next most important are nitrous oxide from cow manure and nitrogen-based fertilisers. The solutions to these are a lot more complex, so I do not expect this problem to be solved in the short term. Nevertheless, we need to start now, and we know some of the answers. Regenerative agriculture will reduce a lot of the problems, as will using some feed additives and educating people to eat less ruminant meat and move to other sources of food.

I want to come back now to the SEC briefly. The former State Electricity Commission owned 100 per cent of generation and it owned 100 per cent of the powerlines that distributed the electricity and 100 per cent of the shops that sent out the bills. I do not think the former State Electricity Commission had a website; it might have been before that time. The new SEC will own 51 per cent of some of the state’s wind and solar generation, and there is talk of branching into storage as well. The biggest barriers to expanding renewable energy in this state are the lack of capacity in the powerline grid to carry electricity from northern and western Victoria into Melbourne and the lack of storage to supply power to our houses in the evenings, so this is where we most need investment, and who better to drive this than the new SEC. Of those issues, I believe fixing the grid is the most urgent need.

I will just touch briefly on electricity storage. We are already generating a large amount of solar electricity in the middle of the day, so demand from the grid is falling. Every year Victorian households are taking less energy from the grid at lunchtime, and that is largely because of home solar and increasingly due to solar farms, but that is not happening at dinnertime because the sun is low or the sun has set. Hence the need for storage, which can come in the form of household batteries or community batteries. The government has some plans to subsidise the former and build the latter, as well as some large batteries that are appearing on the Victorian grid – privately owned and public.

Pumped hydro is the technology that could do the heavy lifting. It is disappointing to see that Snowy Hydro 2 has had a major setback recently, but hopefully that will come online some time towards the end of the decade. What might come to our rescue, though, is another battery that is not getting a lot of publicity, and that is car batteries. A typical large household battery is somewhere between 10 to 15 kilowatt hours, but a lot of car batteries are up towards 60 kilowatt hours. A parked car could probably power two houses overnight and still have enough power on board for a long journey the next day, so incentives to have workplaces provide charging stations for parked vehicles during the day could be a major part of meeting Victoria’s energy storage needs.

Let us talk briefly now about methane gas. So-called natural gas, fossil methane, provides energy to about 2 million Victoria homes, most of that for heating, a fair proportion for hot water and just a few per cent – 4 per cent by a recent estimate – for cooking. It is also used by industry, and we should not forget public buildings – heated swimming pools. We need to start getting Victoria off gas, so we need subsidies and loans, we need help for people to pay disconnection fees and we need a program to start disconnecting our 2 million homes from gas. It will take decades, and we need to start now.

We are running out of gas in Victoria, and so we can drill for more fossil methane or we can import more or we can use less – or any combination of those three. Importing gas obtained by fracking is like burning very expensive coal. A lot of the gas provided in Queensland and planned in the Beetaloo Basin in the Northern Territory or in the Pilliga in New South Wales is going to be obtained by fracking, and large amounts of that escapes unburned into the atmosphere. Methane in the atmosphere is over 80 times more polluting than CO2 as a greenhouse gas. That means that if 3 per cent or more of that gas escapes unburned, the gas is just as polluting, just as damaging to the climate, as coal. Why would you replace Victoria’s polluting brown coal with something much more expensive but with a similar greenhouse impact?

I implore the government to resist the urge to allow a gas import terminal in Geelong. We need to use less gas, not import more. Drilling or importing more gas, exploiting coal reserves for brown hydrogen and trying to bury the carbon dioxide – these are all misguided fossil fuel projects at best, and in the future when we look back at this era we may be less forgiving than that. And so in response to the motion moved by the member for Ripon, I move:

That the following words be added at the end of the motion: ‘but respectfully regret that the speech fails to announce a ban on new coal and gas projects’.

Continuing to exploit new fossil fuel projects while we are already counting the rising costs of climate change is madness. I think some in the government know this, and I urge them to speak up.

Members applauded.