The Federal Government’s announcement of a feasibility study into the expansion to the Snowy Hydro Scheme in NSW could potentially break the current impass in the fossil fuels vs renewables energy debate.
Pumped hydro represents stored energy, which can be created through the use of renewables. It is a ‘game changer’ in that it can, in effect, provide baseload power for when renewable energy supplies like wind and solar need back up. This will be done through what is called Pumped Hydro.
“Pumped hydro energy involves storing water in an upper reservoir which has been pumped from a lower reservoir. During periods of high electricity demand, power is generated by releasing the stored water through turbines. While during periods of low demand, the upper reservoir is recharged by using lower-cost electricity from the grid to pump the water back to the upper reservoir”.
Most environmental groups responded positively to the announcement (see for instance, the media statement from Friends of the Earth).
The Snowy Mountains scheme already exists. This proposal potentially represents a way of increasing the value of the existing power generating capacity with relatively small ecological costs. It would re cycle water, allowing it to be used many times rather than once.
However, before a feasibility study is completed by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), details of ‘Snowy 2.0’ remain scarce. We do know that about 2,000 MW of extra capacity has been targeted, at an estimated cost of $2 billion over 4 to 7 years. Much of the project will be for additional pumped hydro storage to help ease the strain on the power system at times when power is extremely scarce.
Some sources have already questioned the government’s price tag, suggesting that based on existing energy generation costs, it is likely to be ‘at least $5 billion’ in total.
We also know that the existing scheme has had major impacts on the environment of the Snowy Mountains: the Colong Foundation says “the Snowy Hydro scheme may be iconic but it has caused impacts on the national park. You’ve got powerlines going all over the place, aquaducts, dams, pipelines, generating facilities and many, many roads.” The issue will be whether ‘Snowy 2.0’ adds to these existing problems.
As noted by The Age:
“Such an infrastructure project would be good news for renewable energy, as it will add to the flexibility and responsiveness of our power system. The four-year project would massively increase the amount of renewable energy storage capacity in Australia through pumped hydro technology, which involves using cheap electricity to pump water uphill so it can be later released downhill through turbines, creating electricity when demand is high.
No new dams would be built, but a fresh series of tunnels and power stations are on the agenda, at an estimated cost of $1.5 to $2 billion. A feasibility study should be completed by the end of 2017 and the search for expansions sites will led by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.”
It is not yet clear what the environmental impacts of the enlarged project would be. Issues to be considered include:
- The impacts of drilling for additional tunnels
- The likely impacts of enlarging the Tantangara Dam
- The possible impacts of reducing flow from the Snowy Hydro scheme into the Murray Darling system
- The ongoing problems associated with the original scheme, which saw large volumes of water that traditionally runs into the Snowy River being diverted to the Murray Darling Basin
- To what degree climate change will impact on available water supplies in the Snowy Mountains.
It is clear that the scale of the proposal is significant enough that there could be negative impacts. The federal government is allocating $500,000 for a feasibility study to examine four possible sites for the expansion.
The final design could include three new tunnels stretching 27km and new power stations – but no new dams – and is expected to take between four and seven years to complete.
Tantangara Dam, to the north of the Eucumbene reservoir, has been identified as a reservoir which could be enlarged.
The Colong Foundation for Wilderness says that “any environmental assessment could not be relied on to protect the Kosciuszko National Park, where the Snowy Mountains scheme is situated.
“We just can’t trust the Government to do a proper environmental assessment because there is too much at stake”.
“Having a huge earthworks program for a major development in a national park is a big red flag and we don’t want any light weight environmental assessment with a pre-determined outcome.”