What are the environmental costs of Snowy Hydro 2.0?

Australia is still (sadly) stuck in a culture war over whether climate change is real. While the majority of Australians accept the fact, a significant number of political leaders are using their position to block meaningful action. This has immobilised any forward movement on developing a coherent national energy policy. If anything, the standoff between the conservatives and climate deniers on the one hand, who support more coal and gas, invoking the catch cry of energy security and reliability of supply, and those who heed climate science and understand the need to transition rapidly to renewable energy, is getting worse.

Thankfully technology is intervening to change the dynamics of the argument. The rapid development of storage technology is clearly a game changer when it comes to considering what is possible in terms of powering our nation. Domestic and commercial scale batteries and electric cars are two obvious points where the debate is changing. So is the prospect of pumped storage hydroelectricity, where a two way system is developed so water can be run through a hydro system to produce electricity, and retained below the point of generation, then pumped back up into the storage point (usually a dam) when electricity is very cheap.

As the federal government grapples with pumped hydro storage options it is becoming ever clearer that there are many places where such schemes could be established (It is estimated that there are more than 22,000 suitable locations right around Australia). But there are also plans to re-purpose the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme to be able to re-use water by creating a second pipeline system to pump water back into the storages. This is being referred to as Snowy Hydro 2.0.

On face value this seems to be a sensible option for getting more clean energy production out of the existing infrastructure. However there are obvious and very considerable environmental issues that need to be considered before the upgrade proceeds. The initial feasibility study (which is still underway) has already identified the major question of what to do with the spoil from the massive drilling operation that would be required to make the project viable. It will need 27 kilometres of tunnels, which may be up to 12.5 metes wide, and from the report below, it is clear that, at this point, the authorities have no idea where they would dump all the rock waste that would come from drilling the tunnels. It should go without saying that the Snowy scheme is within the Snowy Mountains National Park and so the waste will need to be taken outside the park.

This article by Nicole Hasham appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald .

Up to 4,000 Olympic Swimming pools of rubble to be dug from Snowy hydro

Rubble to fill 4,000 Olympic swimming pools will be excavated from the Snowy Mountains to build the Turnbull government’s pumped hydro expansion – and authorities so far don’t know where to put it.

The project’s 27 kilometres of tunnels may reach 12.5 metres wide – bigger than the Sydney Harbour crossing, the Euro Tunnel or the planned Melbourne Metro project.

Officials from Snowy Hydro Limited fronted a Senate inquiry in Canberra on Tuesday. They revealed the intense difficulties faced by engineers seeking to bring to life what the government describes as a “supercharged” proposal for affordable, reliable power. It could add 2,000 megawatts of hydro-electric energy to the grid, and carries a tentative $2 billion price tag.

A feasibility study due in December involved up to 250 people at its peak, including a host of international experts.

Snowy Hydro chief executive Paul Broad said the project involves digging a 200 metre-long cavern – the length of two football fields. It will be fed by 27 kilometres of tunnels, which may be up to 12.5 metes wide.

Depending on the width of the tunnels, rock in “the order of 10 million cubic metres” would be excavated, Mr Broad said.

“Where are you going to put that?” asked Labor senator Kim Carr.

“Presumably you are not going to leave it in the [Kosciuszko National] park?”

The rock’s resting place would be determined after “an enormous amount of community consultation” and would be outlined in an environmental impact statement, Mr Broad said.

Constantly varying rock types – volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic – could wreck tunnel boring machines. Once stuck, tunnel bores cannot be reversed. In some cases, tunnels will have to be blasted open.

“The other issue is quite a number of fault locations, which also prove challenging,” chief operating officer Roger Whitby told the inquiry.

Senator Carr’s ears were pricked.

“You have used the word ‘challenging’ several times now, perhaps you could explain to the committee what you mean?” he asked.

“Well, simply not easy,” Mr Whitby replied.

About 6,000 people are expected to be employed by the project, which may take six years to build.

The scale and challenges of the proposal meant it was generating excitement “on a global scale”, Mr Broad said.

“We are going to give a lot of Australian, young engineers fabulous experience in building this project,” he said.

Even if Snowy 2.0 itself proves feasible, the cost of upgrading power transmission lines to transport the energy to Sydney and Melbourne is yet to be determined.

Snowy Hydro executives have estimated the upgrade may cost $2 billion, effectively doubling the total project cost.

It has been expected the upgrade would involve lines into Sydney and Melbourne, however Mr Broad told the inquiry it was “feasible” that Snowy Hydro power could be transmitted to South Australia, which suffered a statewide blackout in September last year.