By ERWIN CHLANDA
Mayoral candidate Jimmy Cocking is indisputably the town’s Mister Environment: A sunny nature, director of ALEC, the prime nature NGO, serving on a string of boards and untiringly pushing his messages to interest groups such as mining and the cattle industry.
Left: Mr Cocking with his number two and three preferences, Catherine Satour and Donna Digby
At no time does he display the kind of vitriol that can turn people off supporting issues.
A typical cheeky Cocking stunt was enticing lowercase ‘g’ greens (not necessarily Greens) to come to a fracking inquiry meeting. Stacking might be how an opponent would have described it.
Out of the blue Mr Cocking called for a vote, broadly speaking, against fracking. Dozens of hands shot up, to be recorded in still photos and movies on mobile phones, to the visible consternation of inquiry chairperson, Judge Rachel Pepper, who had been gracious in not making a fuss about people who had not booked entering the room.
It’s all good street theatre and a great deal of fun. But does it cut the mustard? Does it have the shape and compelling reasoning to penetrate beyond the usual suspects?
Last year, in the dying days of the Giles government, its purchase of 10 gas-burning electricity generating sets for $75m was an opportunity for kicking renewable energy goals.
To be sure, there was plenty of bluster: Why does the government not spend some of the money on solar and cut back the number of gas-fired units?
Nice thought – but where were the numbers? Mr Giles came out with horror scenarios: Running Alice from the sun “will cost $1.4b to build the solar and the battery technology.
“It will see a multiplier of electricity prices going up by 300%. At the same time we still have to run the gas fired power units to make sure that we have speedy reserves and back-up capacity.”
Territory Generation boss, Tim Duignan, said much the same, to have solar power provide 75% of the energy used for electricity generation in Alice Springs would cost $1.5b to $2b and would drive up prices by 345% for that market.
The environmentalists had no numbers to put up against that, which reduced their credibility.
We asked Mr Cocking in the lead-up to this election: “Can you point me to a study that is fully costed, peer-reviewed and provides the technical details, the cost to the consumer in terms of money and inconvenience, with specific reference to Alice Springs.”
“No,” was the answer. “Not that I know of. There was a report done by Aurecon for Territory Generation.”
Of course. That was a report commissioned by the NT Government owned Territory Generation which was controlled by Mr Giles. Would he pay for a report that proves him wrong?
Right: Confronting Adam Giles outside the gas power station at Owen Springs in July last year.
Where was the counter-argument based on facts and figures?
“We would like to see something like that,” says Mr Cocking.
Well, it was available right here in The Alice where the Centre for Appropriate Technology was exporting “the design of power systems and electrification programs in developing countries, particularly in the Asia Pacific.
“CAT Projects is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Centre for Appropriate Technology Inc … a national Indigenous corporation that has been providing technology and services to remote Indigenous communities across Northern Australia for over 30 years.”
Why was Mr Cocking not able to get CAT Projects to put some bones on the argument?
When the Alice Springs News Online put him on the spot in August last year, Lyndon Frearson, managing director of CAT Projects, told us his duty is also to “keep the lights on in our office … keep people employed”.
Did he mean CAT gets NT government money – public money – through grants and contracts? Was it an issue here of not biting the hand that feeds CAT? Would it have been a bad look to challenge the spending of $75m of taxpayers’ money in this way? Are the people who pay for CAT through their taxes getting value for their money from CAT Projects? Does the partly publicly funded CAT have a responsibility to the public or to the government?
These could have been questions Mr Cocking may have put to CAT. As for the News we are still waiting for answers to these questions.
Mr Cocking told us on August 15 a costed report “is something that if elected I would be looking to see we get … how we would get to 100% renewable plus storage in Alice Springs, what that would look like and what sort of time frame.
“That is something that should be costed out and paid for by either Territory Government or Territory Generation. There was none of that work done before committing to the 10 engines.
“If they had their time over they would probably prefer to put in five [engines] and put in some solar.”
The environmental lobby clearly needs a reality check. Politicians will make decisions based on what consolidates their power and what their mates tell them. Mr Giles was a prime example.
Mr Gunner wants the NT to be 50% renewable by 2030 and appointed an expert panel last December to report on that target. The panel has not yet reported.
How solid are the connections of Mr Cocking’s network with Labor? Would they not be fighting a losing battle again if they remained dependent on the government for advice and money? How much money can they marshal to fund their own independent research?
Will he he convince the town’s majority of the importance of his agenda?
Mr Cocking says a report with facts and figures would have cost “at least $20,000” – not an insurmountable sum for a group with hundreds of members, an opportunity to put their money where their mouths are.
The lobby made little use of the investigations by the News, material offered to them on a platter in July last year, for example initiatives in WA.
Mr Cocking says the $75m decision was made by the previous government which had “almost an anti-renewable policy. It’s unfortunate that the current Labor government that inherited that issue has not sought to change it.
“It’s similar to the gas pipeline. [They say] all the contracts are signed. If a bad deal is a bad deal you still go through with it even though you’re not the person that signed it? There are questions to be raised. The taxpayer is going to pay for this folly.”
Mr Cocking says although the engines are being installed there is no reason why they cannot be sold “second-hand to another user down the track as [Territory Generation] build more and more solar into the grid, which is the direction we are heading”.
He says the government could have put 50% into renewables and storage and 50% into the gas engines.
With the Giles decision “we had ideology running rather than economics. That was the problem with the previous government”.
Left: Repower Alice Springs forum on August 14 (supplied).
But in the absence of an economic argument on its part, that same accusation can be levelled at the local environment lobby.
“In 2014 the environment lobby was defunded by both Federal and Territory governments for the very reason that we would not have the capacity to do that sort of thing, or even speak up against it.
“In the last two years we were not able to contribute to that space because we did not have the resources to do so.”
Rather than the community raising money “to do the government’s job forever the community has actually formed RePower Alice Springs”.
And this is how RePower Alice Springs headed its media release on August 14, at a time when community solar power projects around the world are a reality, not a pipe dream: “Plans for a community-owned solar energy project in Alice Springs received a big boost at a RePower forum on the weekend. Community power planners call for NT Government support.”
RePower Alice Springs did not return our phone calls.
UPDATE Friday 8:20am