Experts Weigh In On The Snowy Hydro Expansion Plans

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The $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme, dubbed "Snowy Hydro 2.0", is set to be fast-tracked - with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing today $8 million in funding towards a $29 million feasibility study on the project. So we thought we'd take a look back at what the experts had to say about the project when it was first announced in March - Rae

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.

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