Friday, 1 January 2010

let's get on with it: steppin on the gas

Project outline.
To deliver natural gas infrastructure to Warburton* with a nett positive 'return on investment' across sustainability benchmarks.

What's so damn special about this project?
To this point in time, decision-makers and industry experts have applied linear thinking to extending the pipeline from Millgrove to Warburton. (That is, constrained to terms of delivering a brand new, dedicated service comprising single-use infrastructure, the nett benefit doesn't 'justify' the outlay - amounting to a $4.6 million project cost.)

My proposal is that, in building the infrastructure, we develop its capacity to share other services: both at the build stage and into the future - NOT ONLY including the long-awaited optic fibre rollout BUT mains electricity as well.

Fresh thinking from all levels of government, business and other stakeholders.
Co-operation between all levels of government, business and other stakeholders investing in the project (including the possibility of partial ownership by locals).

Potted history.
Three or four years ago, Warburton Highway was plumbed with natural gas mains as far as Millgrove ('last town' before us).
Warburton missed out, mainly because the return on investment of extending the gas pipeline was considered too low by the State Government: we automatically failed the 'National Feasibility Test'.
(I do understand the bean-counters' logic, though it's never been convincing.)

To their credit various parties, including our State representative (Tammy Lobato) and a handful of locals have kept the pot simmering.

When the Federal Government announced the economic-stimulus-led-recovery early last year (including many billions invested in 'community-strengthening' projects) something clicked in my brain.
With the idea still taking shape - but also with an understandable sense of urgency - I emailed our excellent State MP Tammy Lobato on 10 June with my initial suggestion: of rolling out the gas pipe and the optic fibre pipe at the same time, into the same trench - achieving obvious gains in efficiency and splitting costs between different funding streams (in addition to inviting private investment).

Tammy wrote to the relevant State and Federal Ministers on my behalf.
Having waited 11 weeks for a response in the first instance and 19 weeks in the second, I found that my suggestion doesn't rate a single mention, even in passing.
Ironically, I'd been half-expecting a gentle Labor-style Realpolitik refutation of my technical naiveté.

So, a pretty piss-poor outcome you'd have to agree. 'Democracy' inaction [sic].

Turning to the positive, my original idea has evolved still further.
To quote from my followup email to Tammy (13 October):
"In the backwash from the Bushfires Royal Commission* it has also occurred to me that the same infrastructure rollout (gas pipe plus telco pipe installed in a single trench) could potentially include the 'backbone' mains electricity supply in fire-prone districts.
Provided it's technically feasible, this possibility value-adds the proposal immeasurably across the Triple Bottom Line.
Indeed, such a venture could provide a template for future rollouts across Australia and across the world."
*Six months after it started, the blame at the Bushfires Royal Commission has finally slipped focus from the failed warnings of the fire agencies and taken aim even further back in the chain, at the power companies.

In a sad postscript to the Commission's (unfinished) findings, the Toodyay fire in Western Australia this week - which destroyed 40 homes and 3000 Hectares - has been traced to a fallen powerline.

Encouraging news.
In addition to emphasising his support of the benefits of natural gas, Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson's response to Tammy's letter (see above) refers to legislation - the National Gas Law and the National Gas Rules - enacted by his government on 1 July 2008; their purpose "is to encourage investment in economically viable gas supply infrastructure without the need for an ongoing subsidy by the taxpayer."
In the light of a fresh discussion – a fresh set of parameters – Federal support may well translate into a little 'community-building' seed funding as well - particularly if we can roll out (at the bare minimum) dual services simultaneously.
Point of interest: guess who live in the most marginal Federal electorate in the country? ;)

Yes, I realise that such a combined and synchronised rollout would require unprecedented levels of flexibility and planning (and common sense?) from diverse – historically process-bound – public and private! bureaucracies.
Perhaps it's time we collectively dragged ourselves from our respective comfort zones and into the 21st century.
If governments can't do it alone, I'm sure we can help!

This project can and should transcend insular – dare I say 'obstructionist'? – number-crunching and finally address the S word – Sustainability – in reality.

Feedback welcome, as always: either here (add a Comment) or via email.

Further reading:
The Solutions We Need Now
Highly recommended. ;)

* Victoria, Australia; Latitude: -37.753530634370875 Longitude: 145.68950414657593

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