Experts Weigh In On The Snowy Hydro Expansion Plans

Image: Creative Commons

The Federal Government has announced a $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme, increasing the 4,000 megawatt output by 50 per cent - a plan that will power up to 500,000 homes.

The decision has been met with much impressed nodding from fellow politicians, and now here's what experts have to say about it.

Gregor Verbic, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Future Energy Networks at the University of Sydney

The anticipated closure of coal-fired generation in the National Electricity Market will likely result in a significant capacity shortage unless new capacity is built quickly. Due to the policy uncertainty, it is unlikely that there will see significant new investment from the private sector in the near future.

From that perspective, the Government proposal to expand the Snowy Hydro scheme is welcome. However, hydro projects have long lead times so other solutions are needed urgently. Another issue is the use of the pumped-hydro technology. Given that the water supply is limited, the proposed scheme will only provide peak power capacity but the net energy contribution will be limited.

Professor Ken Baldwin, Director of the Energy Change Institute and the Deputy Director of the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University

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.

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.

Providing more pumped-hydro storage by enhancing the Snowy Scheme is one part of securing supply. It will take energy generated elsewhere – potentially by renewables like wind and solar when they are in plentiful supply – and store it by pumping water from an existing dam uphill to another existing dam using new tunnels. At times of high peak demand when energy systems are under stress, the water is then released from the higher dam and flows downhill through the same tunnel to electricity turbines at the lower dam that then generate electricity. The efficiency of this cycle can be as high as 80%, and involves little loss of water to the environment.

This "closed-loop" energy STORAGE system is to be contrasted with "once-through" energy GENERATION from dammed rivers.

Indeed, off-river pumped hydro can also be used for storage which only requires a reservoir tank at the top of a several hundred metre high hill, and another reservoir at the bottom connected by pipes and a generator turbine

Dr Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW Australia

I support the expansion of of the Snowy Scheme, which does not require new dams. However I must add that the government publicity is misleading, in three ways:

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 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 Business School at Griffith University

Energy Security will be more uncertain by upgrading the Snowy Hydro scheme as water availability in the Murray-Darling basin dries up. With competing uses for water and the increasing likelihood of draught 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% (10.1%) 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 John Cole, Excecutive Director of the Institute of Resilient Regions at the University of Southern Queensland and is an Honorary Professor at the UQ Business School

The Prime Minister's vision to turn the Snowy scheme into a massive renewable energy battery represents on the one hand resourceful sustainable energy innovation and on the other national policy failure.

That a country that once billed itself as the next energy superpower of the Asia Pacific could get to a point where affordable energy security is no longer assured reflects a decade of cheap point scoring by both sides of politics.

The loser has been Australia's national interest and well-being.

In their rush to a clean energy world, the left perversely will secure higher emissions outcomes.

The setting of accelerated mandatory renewable energy targets is killing off the possibility of a gas fuelled lower emissions transition and locking in longer lives for coal fired power stations.

In terminating a carbon price, the Coalition parties have scuttled the potential technological and economic efficiency to be played by markets in facilitating lower emissions power generation.

The upshot is an energy policy schmozzle likely to generate more energy system fragmentation, government intervention, loss of investor confidence and higher prices for consumers.

It is essential that the major parties stop the buck passing and achieve a workable bi-partisan consensus on how to stage a technological and economic transition to a low carbon future.

Dr Ariel Liebman, Deputy Director of Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute at Monash University

The Prime Minister just announced a long overdue strategy for increasing energy storage capacity in the National Energy Market (NEM). This has the potential to be a game changer for the NEM and for integration of renewables. The announced plan will increase the capacity of the Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme from about 4000MW to about 6000MW, if reports are correct. We are assuming this would mean an additional 2000MW of pumped storage above the NEM’s existing pumped storage capacity of over 2000MW.

This is a massive investment and could help shave off wholesale market price peaks in NSW and Victoria, and possibly even Queensland, thus leading to a reduction in prices to consumers. However, the exact impact of thix initiative is unclear as significant modelling should be done both on the market using detailed half-hourly price resolutions as well as power systems modelling to identify the benefits to grid stability.

We note that the existing transmission network from Snowy to Victoria, as well as NSW, will need to be upgraded at a cost of several 100's million to deliver the peak power to where it needs to go. What could be tricky is getting the scheme funded quickly, as this requires agreement between the 3 shareholders of Snowy: the Commonwealth government and the NSW and Victorian governments. Additionally, it is unlikely that this scheme alone will easily provide stability benefits everywhere.

For example, in South Australia during hot summer days the transmission link from Victoria to SA is likely to be at its limit, making it difficult for Snow's power to flow beyond Victoria without more network investment. We therefore should look at similar schemes in SA and other states to optimise the total portfolio of options over the long term.

Having said all this, overall, this scheme would provide a massive boost to renewable energy investment and the NEM’s storage capacity. It is also a welcomed addition to the energy storage debate, which has long been dominated by discussion of batteries only, while this program will invigorate pumped storage as a fantastic complement to the renewable energy system that is developing in Australia.

Professor Andrew Blakers, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University

Pumped hydro energy storage (PHES) is the 97 per cent worldwide market leader in energy storage because it is much cheaper than alternatives. The announcement of increased PHES in the Snowy Mountains is welcome.

Deployment of wind, solar photovoltaics (PV), pumped hydro energy storage and increased high voltage (HV) interconnectors between the states allows the National Electricity Market to reach 100% renewable electricity with high reliability and at zero net cost. Wind and PV will replace retiring coal and gas plant at lower cost than the alternative replacement (new coal and gas).

Wide distribution of wind and PV from Qld to South Australia and everywhere in between to access different weather, coupled with increased HV interconnection and PHES, confers high reliability at modest cost. Any desired degree of grid stability can be achieved at modest cost by adding more PHES at multiple locations.

A clear retirement schedule is needed for existing coal and gas power stations to allow for smooth uptake of PV and wind. This retirement schedule should be consistent with the national emissions reduction target. Retirement could be accomplished through carbon pricing, an emissions intensity scheme or similar.

Dr Jamie Pittock, Associate Professor at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at The Australian National University and UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance

Re-engineering the Snowy Hydro Scheme to provide greater energy storage is a great move for supplying non-polluting electricity to the grid. This will enable much greater use of wind and solar power generators on the national electricity grid. Physically the Snowy Mountains are one of the best places in Australia to do this because of the great changes in elevation and potential to better use existing dams.

It is also good to see former climate change and renewable energy skeptics embracing an off the shelf technology that enables wind and solar generators to provide base load power.

However the proposed hydro development is located in Kosciuszko National Park, a very environmentally sensitive alpine area. Construction of infrastructure like tunnels, power stations and powerlines inevitably has environmental impacts. The state and federal governments must ensure that the project results in an additional environmental dividend.

This is possible because more electricity generation will be decoupled from once-through flows of water since pumped storage hydropower recycles water. Greater environmental flows should be provided to key alpine rivers, building on the 2002 Snowy Deed of Agreement deal, to lift environmental flows in the Snowy from 21% to the foreshadowed 28 per cent. The Mowamba aquaduct should be decommissioned as it blocks migration of threatened migratory fish into river headwaters below Jindabyne. Snowy Hydro should also invest in removing weeds introduced through the hydro scheme along the rivers and roads.

To balance the socio-economic benefits with the environmental impacts of the Snowy 2 proposal, scientific oversight is required to provide independent advice to the Federal and NSW governments, for example, through reinstating the Snowy Scientific Committee that was axed by the NSW Government in 2014.

WATCH MORE: Science & Health News


    What a surprise! Politicians trying to get political mileage out of a "disaster" of their own making.

    Wierd to think their solution is a sustainable energy (despite all their bitching about SA renewable enwrgy market) hydropower thats buult on an unsustainable river. If you think open Energy markets are bad... just look at the Water Market and land rights fiasco that makes up the murray river scheme. We have water hungry crops and fish farms building their own damns to siphon off insane water volumes while rate payers see increase water usage fees while we experuence back to back droughts.

    This doesnt add up... complain about energy security and reliability only to jump on this as the solution seens really odd.

      Speaking of adding up:
      Would you care to supply some figures to support your claim?

      It's not odd... it’s a calculation

      A: Force all water rights from the states to federal (you’ll see quotes, “A national energy emergency… has forced us to… federalise…”)


      B: Funding wise, future Wind/Solar projects will be sidelined as this solution is being looked at (and 12-24 months later this solution will have an issue that means it can’t go ahead)…. oh look we’re forced to keep using Coal


      C: (and I think this maybe the real game here) B will occur and we'll be forced to REALLY push along with the nuclear solution. No one really wants to green light nuclear (if there's a issue it will effect their party for decades) but a major issue like this gives them coverage as it's seen as a "We had to" decision.

        Yes it really amazes me.

        The public propping up privatized companies that scream of not being able to turn a buck despite having 20,30 + years of foresight that a revolution was coming.
        Its like a fruit market selling it own fruit screaming poor because they didn't plant any pineapples and can only sell oranges, despite pineapples being the new black.


    They haven't announced the expansion, they have announced a feasibility study for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to conduct. That will take a minimum of 12 months to complete and then all vested interests have to agree to a funding method, if the study concludes it is viable.

      Yep, the feasibility study is to choose the potential sites for the plan. (They are choosing between four areas during the study period).

        Rae reputable journalist like you need to raise awareness of other technologies like Thorium plants that is available everywhere specially Australia that has most of the Thorium in the world! Its safe as efficient as Uranium with absolute minimal wast and its safe wast! Other countries are already building and testing Thorium plants why isn't Australia when we have the largest resource?

        Please get your colleagues to raise this question with the prime minister.

    Water supply concerns along with planning/construction time make this an odd move to me. On top of that there would have to be a fairly long time for such an expansion to be carbon neutral - the amount of cement used alone would push it way past solar/wind not to mention all the transportation and construction vehicle emmisions.

      Agreed. This is whats wrong with the whole debate about closing the 'dirty' energy and opening 'clean' energy creation. The infrastructure to make the materials, maintaining, replacing (yes battery power will mean replacement) has not been publicly compared. The feel good energy creation only helps politicians who can say 'see we are doing something' even though they have no idea weather its better or worse than what we have.

    Just do nuclear FFS. While this snowy scheme sounds valid, like some of the scientists, I too am worried about a lack of water for the dam, for the river and for agriculture. Putting all your eggs in one basket is always a bad idea.

      It will take at least 7 years to plan and build a new nuclear plant.
      Look at the cost of solar, wind and batteries, they are plummeting. Nuclear is already the most expensive option and it's only going to be more expensive. The sun shining on my roof is not.

        And those solar panels are certainly kinder to the environment... or are they hmmm

    I'd just like to say, Dr Liam Wagners idea of "increasing likelihood of draught brought on by climate change" is one I personally welcome...

    I have to admit, on certain evenings in late spring, a Cool One can be very refreshing.. Mmm Draught, now that is a Cold One.... (paraphrasing Strong Bad Email - Property of Ones).

    Funny how the power from Loy Yang can't make it to SA. but the Snowy Mt will. #Snowjob

    I quite like the idea of Snowy expansion and pumped hydro, if it works like they claim.

    However, the Snowy scheme isn't designed to be baseload generation and it's not going to fill the shortfalls created by the closure of coal power plants unless they do a complete re-think of their operations.

    This scheme is going to take too long to build, even if it does stack up. So it's only part of a solution, and more needs to be done much sooner. Turnbull can't just sit back and relax now - he's still got a lot more work to do.

    Last edited 18/03/17 8:26 am

    Whatever happens costs will rise, some economist will say that we are undercharged and we are not paying a realistic price.

    Why are egg-heads being touted as experts. Surely the experts are the engineers working on this. The academic comment is largely empty and similar to what the politicians have to say.
    So 2000 MW; is this just a number or does it come from somewhere? Can you build this system in 10 years with no money (the budget is already negative).

    Is it even a reasonable solution given how tight the money is? The government does not own much of the network so is this something they can do (and so look to be doing something) rather than something that is needed.

    Are there any real experts left or do we just stand back and let the pollies proclaim themselves to be expert? Remember the mess that is the NBN

    South Australia has always had a water problem. Their response has historically been to convert the water problem to an energy problem. For example: the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline.
    SA then goes about solving the energy problem. For example: the power station at Port Augusta. The latest is renewables back-up by gas with a big battery.
    Snowy 2.0 is the opposite to what South Australia is doing. It will turn an energy problem into a water problem.

    As life passes us by, new life forms are created including the population of human beings. Therefore, an expansion of the water storage facility is necessary to ensure every single home gets enough resource supply every single day. High costs may be an issue but with careful planning, the costs will get reimbursed over time.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now