Monday, February 23, 2015

The BOM bombs

They've got global warming assumptions built into all their models so are bound to get things wrong

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has defended the Bureau of Meteorolgy's forecasting after the rapid escalation of Tropical Cyclone Marcia caught most by surprise.

TC Marcia had been forecast to be a Category 1 or 2 as it approached the Queensland coast but quickly gained power and was a Category 5 – the most powerful classification – when it crossed the coast near Shoalwater Bay.

Ms Palaszczuk said the Bureau had been monitoring the situation and providing regular briefings as TC Marcia intensified as it made its way to the coast.

"This is something that they have never seen before as well, going from a low pressure system to a (Category) 1 all the way up to a 5," she said in Yeppoon on Saturday afternoon.  "They'd never seen this in their lifetime, so this was a rare event.  "Now, they're going to go back and look through all the research and try to work out how that happened so quickly.

"But can I just assure everyone, the Bureau of Meteorology, they did everything that they possibly could and they were getting that information out to residents as soon as that information came to hand."

Ms Palaszczuk travelled to central Queensland on Saturday afternoon to receive briefings from emergency responders and inspect the damage.

Standing outside a ruined house in Yeppoon, the Premier said she had spoken with Prime Minister Tony Abbott and requested army assistance, as the rebuilding effort was beyond local capabilities.  "What we can see is right up and down this street and around this community, is the absolute complete devastation," Ms Palaszczuk said.  "These families just want to rebuild their homes and get back in and that's what we have to do. "We need to make sure that we do that as quickly and as thoughtfully as possible."

Ms Palaszczuk said it was likely that power would be restored to the region earlier than first thought. "What we are seeing is some early signs that the power will start coming on very shortly, so that is encouraging," she said.  "But, it will be gradual, so once again people do need to be patient, because it may not be their home that comes on straight away.

"Our priority is to make sure that we've got the generators coming in to both of the communities, to make sure that they can get those essential services up and running."

Localised flooding was reported across south-east Queensland, but Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said the city was fortunate to have missed out on the forecast 120km/h winds.

Still, the Queensland capital was not completely unscathed.  "We have had very little trees and vegetation come down," Cr Quirk said.  "…We are on the tail end of these cyclonic conditions and Brisbane has coped pretty well.  "There has been some pretty high creek levels, but by and large, we have coped pretty well."


Solar experts claim multi-billion dollar subsidies wasted on cheap and dodgy panels

More Australians are buying cheap rooftop solar panels that fail long before their promised lifespan, prompting claims a federal rebate scheme needs to be overhauled to prevent dodgy systems receiving public subsidies.

Solar industry experts say lax rules covering the scheme – which provides incentives of up to $4350 for a $5500 rooftop system –  mean it is not always delivering the environmental benefits promised.  

They blame an explosion of cheap, mainly Chinese-produced solar panels that have flooded the market over the past five years that are failing to provide the 15 years of clean power expected. Installers in four states told Fairfax Media that the worst systems stopped working within 12 months, with others "falling apart" within two or three years.

Problems reported include silicon that cannot stand up to the Australian sun, water egress in panels, fires and defective inverters. The term "landfill solar" is used in the industry to describe dodgy solar systems of uncertain origin.

A recent Choice survey found, while more than 80 per cent of solar system owners were satisfied with what they had bought, 17% of owners of Chinese-made solar systems and 11 per cent of those with a German inverter had experienced problems of some kind.

Peter Britten, technical director at Brisbane-based Supply Partners, said he logged a complaint with the Clean Energy Regulator last May alerting authorities to "blatant loopholes" in the system, but he said his complaint had been brushed aside.

Jarrod Taverna, of Adelaide Electrical Solar & Security, said Chinese manufacturers like Yinglit, ET Solar and Trina were reputable producers, but much of the production that ended up in Australia was outsourced to other factories.

"The quality has gone down in the last few years. The market is more competitive and they are cutting corners to protect profitability," he said.

"Most of them you're lucky to get 10 years, but some of them are falling apart after 12 months. We're seeing a lot more faults now because Chinese-made panels are becoming more prevalent."

The rebate system, backed by both major parties and overseen by industry body the Clean Energy Council, pays the same amount regardless of the quality of the system. A rooftop system in Melbourne attracts a $3705 rebate whether it is a low-quality "tier 3" product or a European-made "tier 1" system made to last 25 years in extreme conditions of Australia.

The rebate is higher in areas with greater sunlight, reaching $4350 per unit in Sydney and Brisbane.

Australia now has more than 1.3 million households powered by solar, making it the biggest market for small-scale systems. Since 2009, $1.6 billion has been paid out to encourage take up through what are known as "small-scale technology certificates".

The certificates have to be purchased by electricity retailers, which pass the cost on to all consumers. Last year the solar scheme was responsible for about 2 per cent of household electricity bills.

Installers say the faults in the system include that the rebate is paid upfront and does not have to be paid back if a system only produces a few years' power, and that there is no limit on the number of rebates a consumer can access.

They say it has encouraged some installers to offer cheap systems of questionable quality at prices that are virtually free to the buyer once the rebate is factored in.

Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton played down the scale of failures and warned against blaming production faults on systems from one country.

He said the "Chinese success story" had led to prices for solar tumbling dramatically, allowing more households to invest in green energy.

"If someone is getting a subsidy there is an expectation that the benefit to the environment and society equals or outweighs that cost. There are cases of systems not running for 15 years and people have got rid of them, but from our point of view most will run for 25 years," he said.

"There are cases that come up just like in any industry, but failure rates are low."

Bill Yankos, from Bexley in Sydney's south-west, bought a solar system and encouraged seven members of his family and friends to do so. Of those, inverters in five of them had failed within 18 months.

"We were lucky that the electrician replaced them but I know some people have been left with a warranty and no one to honour it," he said.

Matt Vella, of MPV Solar in Gladesville, said: "The tier two and three guys shouldn't be allowed into the scheme unless they have runs on the board. There should be more regulation about which systems are allowed to claim the 15-year rebate."

Melbourne solar installer John Alberti, who installs top quality systems that cost his customers up to $12,000 and also works as a trouble-shooter assessing panels installed by others, said the industry had been "all but destroyed" by shoddy operators.

"You find corrosion, rust, they're flimsy," he says. ``The lamination on the back of the panel has come away and water gets in. But most of the time they're not generating the kind of wattage that was promised."

After Mr Alberti or one of his four staff conduct an investigation on failing panels, they write a report and advise the consumer to contact the panel supplier "to see if they will stand by their performance guarantee and replace the panels. But generally, because the warranty is held offshore, what are your chances? Next to none".

Mr Alberti suggests consumers ask suppliers for a flash test report on their panels  to indicate the wattage for which a penal is rated. He said consumers also needed to establish where the warranty for a product was held. ``If there warranties are held in Australia and there is a problem, you can lodge a complaint with the [consumer watchdog]... otherwise, there is nowhere to go."


Trans Pacific Partnership. What's the deal being negotiated in our name?

Unlikely to get through the current Senate without big carve-outs

When The Lancet and the Australian Medical Journal editorialise against Australia's next free trade agreement it's a fair bet they are concerned about more than just trade.

The Trans Pacific Partnership is the biggest free trade agreement hardly anyone's ever heard of. Bubbling along below the radar for half a decade, it's about to become solid. It is set to deliver much more money and power to US pharmaceutical companies, to criminalise the use of technology in ways that presently don't attract jail time and to set up outside tribunals to reconsider decisions already made by Australian courts.

Taking part is almost 40 per cent of the world's economy - the industrialised nations of Australia, Canada, Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand, Chile, Mexico, the United States and Japan and the less developed nations of Malaysia, Peru, and Vietnam. If China joins later (as expected) it'll be nearly 50 per cent.

It has reached the point where Australia's trade minister Andrew Robb is prepared to put a date on it. "I think it could be ready next month," he says, before adding that there have been slippages before. It was meant to be signed in 2011.

"The meeting we held in December was the first time I witnessed a change from people being predominantly exercised about their own sensitivities to being prepared to find middle ground," he says. "A lot of decisions at the last two meetings were made in areas we previously hadn't been able to touch."

Increasing the pace is the imminent US election season. If there isn't an agreement within the next few months before it starts, political positioning will prevent the US sealing a deal until 2017 when the new president is in place.

Mind boggling in its complexity (the US takes 80 specialists to each negotiation, Japan 120, and Australia 22) the negotiating text is secret. Robb says even most of the negotiators don't know what's in the whole thing. Each knows about little more than the chapter they are working on and there are more than 20 chapters. The text won't be made public until after the leaders shake hands, as is typical in international trade agreements.

But what is known, from draft chapters leaked to Wikileaks and from the generally more open US political system, suggests that it's about far more than trade.


When the US negotiated its 2004 free trade agreement with Australia it pushed to eliminate "price controls", by which it meant the prices set by Australia's Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. What it got was an independent review process which had no authority to overturn decisions. Public health expert Dr Deborah Gleeson of La Trobe University says it's only been used twice. For the TPP the US wants something much stronger, the right to appeal against decisions and have them overturned. It would apply to decisions about both the prices charged for drugs and which drugs to include in the scheme (and in similar schemes in other countries).

Among Australia's most expensive medicines are so-called biologics - drugs or vaccines made from living organisms. They are used to treat conditions including breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. To get approved in Australia the manufacturer needs to submit data from clinical trials which remains confidential for 5 years, and is then available to competitors to use in seeking approval for much cheaper versions. The US wants signatories to the TPP to lift the period of exclusivity to 12 years, which is what it is in the US. It would mean up to 7 more years of very expensive biologic medicines in Australia before the prices drop. Gleeson and colleagues reckon the extension would cost Australia more than $205 million a year. Most of the money would go to US owned pharmaceutical companies.

A relatively rich country such as Australia can afford to send more money to the US for its medicines. Poorer nations such as Malaysia, Peru and Vietnam would find it harder.

Robb responds by saying the critics don't know what will be in the final agreement.

"They might know what the US position is but there are 11 other countries, right? A lot of us are waiting to see what the rest of the package looks like. We're not going to give up on something unless we get something somewhere else."

It's that flexibility, the fear that health protection measures could be traded away to get something else that worries organisations such as the Australian Medical Association.

It says the US wants "industry" to have a guaranteed right to contribute to national nutrition policy making in member countries. It would mean letting the food industry help draft anti-obesity campaigns.

If the tobacco industry had been given the right to help draft anti tobacco campaigns they would have taken place later and been less effective.


Australia is currently being sued in an international tribunal by Philip Morris Asia after the tobacco giant lost its case in the High Court against Australia's plain packaging law. It is only able to do that because of an investment treaty Australia signed with Hong Kong. Philip Morris moved its Australian business to Hong kong to take advantage of it.

So-called investor-state dispute settlement procedures are common in international treaties. The US has insisted on them in all its free trade agreements but one. Australia is the exception. The Howard government said no in 2004 arguing that Australia's legal system was good enough to resolve any disputes it would have with the US without the need for an outside one.

This time the US wants a universal system. The previous Labor government refused to have them in any of its trade agreements and believed it was on the verge of getting a carve out for Australia in the TPP because of its strong judicial system. But shortly after taking over the new trade minister, Andrew Robb said he would instead consider agreeing to them on a case by case basis, depending on what he got in return. The statement weakened Australia's ability to get a carve out.

High Court Judge Robert French has complained that the judiciary is being frozen out of the decision making process. It knows more than any other branch of government about what allowing outside appeals beyond the High Court would do to the legal system, but he says as far as he knows, he hasn't been asked.

Intellectual property

The US is demanding extreme extensions in copyright terms. Already in the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement it secured an extension from 50 years after the author's death to 70, something former productivity Commission economist Philippa Dee believes cost Australia $88 million in extra copyright payments. Now it wants to make 70 years universal in those countries that don't have it and to extend the copyright on movies and sound recording from 70 years after publication to 95 years. And it wants to turn into criminal offences breaches of copyright that presently attract only civil penalties.

Robb says none of this is known, in part because the decisions haven't yet been taken, but leaks from inside the negotiations suggest that most of the intellectual property chapter has been finalised.

What's in it for us?

An Australian National University study of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement found there was very little in it for Australia. A recent US department of agriculture study found it would deliver a zero economic benefit to Australia and a zero economic benefit to the United States. For smaller nations the economic benefits are bigger which may explain why they are eager to join and why the US is driving a hard bargain on intellectual property and the rights of its pharmaceutical industry.

Robb is more optimistic. He says we'll like the agreement when we see it. It'll have to go to parliament. Until then he says we'll have to trust him.


Sydney Siege Review Calls for Tougher Laws

Review says Sydney gunman ‘consistently misled immigration authorities’

An Australian government review into a siege at a Sydney cafe in December has recommended tougher visa rules and gun laws, while also declaring there were no notable shortcomings by authorities in the lead up to the event.

Two hostages were killed after a lone gunman took control of the Lindt Chocolate CafĂ©, just a few minutes from Sydney’s Opera House and Harbour Bridge, sparking a massive police operation that shut down large swaths of the city. A total of 18 people were held captive during the siege.

A joint review of the incident by the state and federal governments decided “measured changes to laws and government processes,” from tighter visa and citizenship rules to tougher firearms regulations and bail laws, were needed to mitigate risks to public security.

“The review found that there were no major failings of intelligence or process in the lead up to the siege,” said a joint statement by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Mike Baird, the premier of New South Wales state. Still, “we must do everything we can to prevent anything similar happening in future,” they said in the statement Sunday.

An inquest last month heard cafe manager Tori Johnson was killed moments before armed police stormed the building in Sydney’s central business district in the early hours of Dec. 16, bringing to an end the 17-hour siege. Initial evidence also indicated that another hostage, Sydney barrister and mother-of-three Katrina Dawson, was killed by fragments of a police bullet or bullets when officers stormed the building, it heard.

In September, Australia’s government raised the national-terror-alert level to high, from medium. At the time, Mr. Abbott warned of potential threats against lawmakers and the Parliament building in Canberra.

Gunman Man Haron Monis, a 50-year-old self-proclaimed Shiite cleric with a history of run-ins with Australian law enforcement, held hostages at gunpoint and forced them to put up an Islamic flag in the cafe window during the Sydney siege. Mr. Monis, who was also killed as police stormed the cafe, had earlier entered the cafe as a customer.

While Mr. Monis was on the radar of police and national agencies, he was never deemed a security threat, the review found.

“Mr. Monis consistently misled immigration authorities, including when he secured the initial visa he used to come to Australia,” the statement by Mr. Abbott and Mr. Baird said.

“Because it is possible this could still happen, the review recommends tightening up visa and citizenship processes and laws, including improving the risk assessment policies and information verification processes which inform revocation of visas or citizenship.”

It also recommended counterterrorism officials step up work to recognize signs of radicalization and improve identity proofing procedures.

Mr. Abbott ordered the review after it was found Mr. Monis was free on bail despite a long history of violent behavior and extremist views, and was in possession of a weapon despite stringent gun controls.

He had earlier been granted bail after being charged with accessory to murder in connection with his ex-wife’s death. He had also been found guilty by a court on charges related to offensive letters he sent to the families of deceased Australian soldiers, and had also been charged with sexual and indecent assault.

Last month’s inquest heard that, throughout the siege, Mr. Monis carried a sawn-off pump-action shotgun. The review, which found he never had permission to own a gun in Australia, consequently called for the strengthening of the National Firearms Agreement—laws that restrict legal possession of automatic and semiautomatic firearms in Australia and demand people who keep firearms be licensed.

The state government will meanwhile also look at ways to reduce the number of illegal firearms in New South Wales, it said.


No comments: