Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme pushes ahead despite industry concerns

Posted 28 March 2017

Snowy Hydroelectric SchemeThere has been broad support for the planned $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Hydroelectric Scheme, but when it comes to the details, many are raising concerns about its execution.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Snowy Mountains Scheme 2.0 would be “an electricity game-changer”, increasing power generation 50% and adding 2000 megawatts of renewable energy to the National Electricity Market. 

“In one hour, it could produce 20 times the 100Mwh expected from the battery proposed by the South Australian Government, but would deliver it constantly for almost a week (or 350,000 Mwh over seven days),” Turnbull said. 

“The unprecedented expansion will help make renewables reliable, filling in holes caused by intermittent supply and generator outages. It will enable greater energy efficiency and help stabilise electricity supply into the future.”

Clean Energy Council Chief Executive Kane Thornton said a successful upgrade and expansion could open the floodgates to the greater use of renewable energy.

“Hydro power has a long and impressive history of delivering energy to Australians and meeting peak demand, currently delivering about 7% of Australia’s power each year and acting as the dominant form of energy storage here and across the world,” he said. 

“Pumped hydro is a perfect complement to renewable energy such as wind and solar, as well as other forms of storage that are becoming much cheaper with each passing year.”

Australian National University Professor Andrew Blakers has long been advocating for pumped hydro energy storages (PHES) to play a key role in achieving affordable, 100% renewable electricity in Australia.   

“PHES is the 97% worldwide market leader in energy storage because it is much cheaper than alternatives. The announcement of increased PHES in the Snowy Mountains is welcome,” said Blakers, who is part of the ANU Energy Change Institute.

However, director of the ANU Energy Change Institute Professor Ken Baldwin added that the project was only part of the energy supply solution. 

“What is urgently needed is a national energy plan for these initiatives to plug into,” he said.

“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.”

The economic credentials of the plan are also being put under a microscope, with the Grattan Institute's Tony Wood saying the project was unlikely to be a "magical panacea".

“Whether it's privately owned or publicly owned, is this a good use of public funds? That's going to be the trick for the feasibility of the study to determine,” he told the ABC.

“And that would also be the reason why no-one has leapt into this before.”

Frontier Economics' Energy Economist Danny Price agreed, characterising the proposal as “half-baked” and a “thought bubble”.

Environmentalists are weighing in too, with some calling for an environmental inquiry and others warning the Snowy hydro scheme would be “left high and dry” unless the surrounding mountains were carefully managed and protected. 

The government, through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), will examine several sites that could support large scale PHES and the required new tunnels, power stations and connections to existing storages.

A feasibility study is expected to be completed before the end of the year, with construction to begin soon after. 

Turnbull assured irrigators in New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland that the the plan would not have any impact on the scheme’s ability to supply water to them.