Hydro plans dry on detail
The Federal Government’s $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme has been met with excitement and cynicism.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced an upgrade to the important post-WWII infrastructure project, potentially adding 2000 megawatts to the 4000-megawatt facility.
But the plans have been criticised for their vaguery.
Mr Turnbull's announcement has been seen by critics as consisting of little more than a nine-month feasibility study into the possibility of expanding the scheme, which would then take at least four years to complete, if the necessary approvals are obtained.
A key feature of what has been dubbed ‘Snowy Hydro 2.0’ is an increase in the amount of renewable energy storage capacity, through pumped hydro technology.
The pumped hydro approach involves using cheap electricity (typically at night) to pump water uphill. Then, in peak times, the water is released downhill through turbines, creating electricity.
The expansion plans include new tunnels (for pumped hydro to travel uphill and be stored) and power stations (at the bottom of the hill), for a total estimated cost of $1.5 to $2 billion.
But while these figures were included in the announcement last week, there is still no real detail on where the costings come from, and who will be asked to meet them.
This is important because the Federal Government only actually owns 13 per cent of the Snowy Hydro project, with the Victorian Government holding a 29 per cent stake and the NSW Government being the majority owner with 58 per cent.
Despite controlling the smallest slice, the Federal Government reportedly contacted state partners just one day in advance of the $2 billion announcement, and gave no details on who would be asked to contribute.
Additionally, the Snowy expansion is seen by some as a knee-jerk response to South Australia’s big energy announcement from just a few days before.
Experts have reflected on the questions that the announcement poses.
“I support the expansion of the Snowy Scheme, which does not require new dams. However I must add that the government publicity is misleading, in three ways,” says Dr Mark Diesendorf, from the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW.
“Comparison with the Hazelwood brown coal power station, which will be closed shortly, is misleading, because Hazelwood is a base-load power station and the Snowy scheme provides peak-load power.
“Although the maximum power output (2000 MW) of the proposed Snowy expansion is greater than the maximum power output of Hazelwood (1600 MW), Hazelwood provides much more energy per year, since it’s designed to operate 24/7.
“The Snowy Scheme only contributes to supplying the peaks in demand.
“Because the proposed Snowy expansion involves major tunnelling and new transmission lines, it could take up to 10 years to build and commission. The SA battery project could be operating before next summer.
“Finally, the notion, spread by the government, that the Snowy Scheme would provide significant benefit to South Australia is also incorrect.
“It will mainly benefit Snowy's neighbours, NSW and Victoria. SA is located out on a limb, a long way from the Snowy, it is joined by low capacity transmission lines to Victoria only, so the benefit of the proposed project to SA will be very small.”
Dr Liam Wagner from the Griffith University Business School says the Federal Government’s plan would link energy security to the certainty of natural water supplies.
“Energy security will be more uncertain ... as water availability in the Murray-Darling basin dries up," he said.
“With competing uses for water and the increasing likelihood of drought brought on by climate change, increasing our reliance on water to provide electricity is ill-advised.
“An increase to the capacity of the Snowy Hydro Scheme by 2000MW would place significant stress on the Murray Darling Basin and its effectiveness as Australia’s largest food bowl.
“Previously, the increase in environmental flows from the storage lakes have improved water quality and maintained agricultural production.
“However, in July 2007, Lake Eucumbene a major storage component of the hydro scheme came within 0.2 per cent (10.1 per cent) of the minimum level required to allow electricity generation. This resulted in the increase of pump storage use to recycle water between storage lakes.
“Pump storage requires the use of coal-fired electricity overnight. The use of pump storage and the aggressive trading of the Snowy Hydro power plants up to 30th June 2007 almost caused another electricity crisis.”
“In 2017, the proposed upgrade to the Snowy Scheme would increase uncertainty in electricity prices, remove water from agricultural production and reduce the quality of water flowing down the Murray-Darling Basin.
“Snowy Hydro’s ability to generate clean renewable energy has become consistently more difficult given the reduced availability of water.”
Professor Ken Baldwin - Director of the Energy Change Institute at the Australian National University - says the role of the Federal Government should be to create a robust nationwide plan.
“The announcement of a revitalised Snowy Hydro scheme for energy storage is welcome, and comes hard on the heels of the South Australian Government’s recent energy initiative that also incorporates storage,” Dr Baldwin said.
“However, what is urgently needed is a national energy plan for these initiatives to plug into.
“The energy sector has been paralysed by a decade of government policy uncertainty, and is now creaking under the strain as technological advances overwhelm it.
“The Chief Scientist Alan Finkel has been given the task of reviewing the National Electricity Market, and will soon be handing down his report, following which a serious national discussion needs to take place.
“The national energy plan needs to take account of our climate and environmental challenges, and needs to focus on decarbonising the energy sector by the middle of the century. This should be the driving consideration, along with delivering affordable and secure electricity supply.”