Snowy hydro 2.0: nation-building game-changer or giant red herring?

Just after we had heard about 100 MW batteries being installed in South Australia to keep the lights on, Malcolm Turnbull announced a giant ‘battery’ in the form of pumped hydro in an expansion of the Snowy hydro scheme.

    “In one hour it could produce 20 times the 100MW per hour 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.

Michelle Grattan reports that the media were dragged up to Talbingo in the Snowy Mountains for Thursday’s big Hydro announcement. But then his press conference couldn’t be beamed direct because there was no way of transmitting the signal.

    Meanwhile the news cycle was taken up with the pictures of the extraordinary biffo between South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill and federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg when they appeared together in Adelaide.

    It was all a metaphor for the shambolic national energy debate, in which the process is chaotic and politics trumps policy.

Jay Weatherill was not impressed. He called it a 2 billion dollar insult to South Australia. An admission that the NEM was broken and that public investment was required. Required now, not in five to seven years time.

The scheme proposed is to link two existing dams in the Snowy Hydro system with a tunnel 27 kilometres long at a cost of $2 billion. The resulting pumped storage would provide 2000 MW of capacity in addition to the existing 4100 MW.

Giles Parkinson was impressed in Turnbull drives stake through heart of fossil fuel industry.

Parkinson consulted Andrew Blakers, who led the study I outlined by Blakers et al from the ANU in Gas, pumped storage and energy futures.

I’m a bit confused by the claim that we need 450GWh of storage for 100% renewables (sounds a lot), then saying 400GWh could from cars, and 6GW more of pumped hydro will be needed, in addition to the 2GW proposed, assuming that battery storage and demand management accounts for the rest. Parkinson says that small-scale pumped hydro is not cost competitive with batteries. Actually the Blakers et al article says:

    The retail market for household storage batteries such as Tesla’s Powerwall is growing, but large-scale storage batteries are still much more expensive than PHES. “Off-river” pumped hydro has a bright future in Australia and many other countries, because there are very many suitable sites.

If you follow the link you get to Blakers’ How pushing water uphill can solve our renewable energy issues, an article from July 2014, where he says:

    A system comprising twin 10-hectare reservoirs, each 30 m deep, with a 750 m elevation difference, can deliver about 1,000 megawatts for five hours.

    Between 20 and 40 of these systems would be enough to stabilise a 100% renewable Australian electricity system.

So that’s 20 to 40GW.

There is an advantage in distributing grid-scale storage around the grid, as it improves grid stability.

The paper reporting the ANU study was published on February 2, 2017. The point of the whole thing was that 100% renewables could be achieved economically using solar, wind and pumped hydro, not a grid-scale battery in sight.

There is an assumption in all of the above that 20 to 50% of storage will happen behind the metre, no-one knows how much.

What was announced by Turnbull was emphatically not Snowy Hydro 2.0, rather a feasibility study to be conducted by ARENA and finished at the end of the year. It is implied that construction could start soon after.

The money interview was Patricia Karvelas talking to Max Talbot, former executive officer of strategic engineering, Snowy Hydro. They did a desktop study in 1991, and concluded that the scheme was too expensive. The idea has been brought forward now by Snowy Hydro, presumably after a similar desktop study.

The feasibility study will presumably sort out the issues raised above as to how this project fits into broader energy futures. Then, says Talbot, you need exploratory drilling to see what is below the ground. He says the area has limestone caves. Tenderers need to know what they will encounter. Then a specification needs to be written, but the power needs to be connected to the grid above ground in the middle of a national park. Ben Potter says today that environmental impact studies can take 2-3 years.

Talbot says the tender period can be up to a year, after which the tenders need to be evaluated and a contract signed. At that point the successful tenderer starts ordering the equipment and setting up the infrastructure out there inside and outside the park to undertake the project.

The tunnel will need to be lined, which is expensive.

Talbot says 7-10 years, it sounds to me more like 10. And from a rough consideration of tunneling around Brisbane recently, I suspect the cost could be two or three times greater.

Turnbull says all that is needed is money and leadership. That is frankly ridiculous.

Meanwhile Weatherill was at a project launch of the AGL virtual power station, linking solar and batteries in 1000 homes to form a virtual power station with 5MW capacity. You’d need at least 20 of those to make a difference in the recent blackout. He’s being goaded and lectured by Josh Frydenberg, saying that the state needs to take responsibility for the stability of the system. He’s being told that his $560 million plan is an admission of failure, but the Commonwealth is showing the way with a $5 million contribution to a 5MW scheme, and a feasibility study for a $2 billion scheme that will help to keep the lights on in NSW and Victoria. Sometime in the future, if it happens. Neither will have any material effect on what happens in South Australia next summer.

Weatherill’s response was calm and deadly (transcript here).

Michelle Grattan is right, the whole thing is a metaphor for the shambolic national energy debate, in which the process is chaotic and politics trumps policy. Chief scientist Alan Finkel is beavering away on a report due mid-year, but what was to be one of his main recommendations, an emissions intensity scheme, was ruled out because Cory Bernadi didn’t like it.

Thing is, by the time Snowy Hydro 2.0 will be finished, if it happens, we really need a whole economy that is at net zero emissions, let alone an electricity grid, if we are serious about saving the Great Barrier Reef.

8 thoughts on “Snowy hydro 2.0: nation-building game-changer or giant red herring?”

  1. On balance, I think the Snowy Hydro is worth a feasibility study, but Turnbull has been waxing lyrical and milking it trying to look visionary. A bit embarrassing, really.

  2. Excellent summary Brian, and to the point. Turnbull has sold us duds and told fibs for a long time (NBN … ute gate). Therein lies the problem; even if the Snowy scheme would if feasible, we can trust Malcolm not to push a costly dodgy number, just to save his skin again.

    Our Kidston pump storage project in Far North Queensland will be commissioned in 2018, cost US$282 million and a capacity of 330 MW. It has the potential to be built with an increased capacity of 450 MW. So the price tag of the snowy scheme could be invested into quite a few regional projects with suitable and cost efficient sites, such as an old mine site.

  3. Ootz reading about Malcolm’s fibs made me muse that perhaps Trump is copying Turnbull.

    Nice to see alternative energy action around the place. I do worry that many of the benefits will be victim to elite capture, often with discreet government help.

  4. Geoff, the Snowy thing, when the feasibility is done should really be run passed Infrastructure Australia. This government has a record of bypassing IA.

  5. I think the con in the Turnbull’s lock on the Snowy is in his claim that expanding the energy storage capacity of the Snowy Scheme is for Renewable Energy purposes, when in fact it is more that certainly to improve the viability of the Fossil Fuel Power infrastructure. Remember Howard increased the pumping capacity of the Snowy during the last big drought as the Snowy’s water delivery was dropping off dramatically and the loss of base capacity had to be made up by driving coal power harder by powering back less at night.

    The situation now is that due to the “great energy efficiency” of the early climate change awareness, when electricity consumption actually fell away by more than 10% followed by the solid uptake of wind ad rooftop solar, the number of coal power stations has been allowed to decline. So I am postulating that behind the scenes the fossil fuel operators have done their sums and decided to drive their coal plants to maximum capacity and use increased hydro storage to facilitate that. I am willing to bet that the extra hydro capacity will do little to nothing for wind energy. If my thoughts are true then Turnbull is being disingenuous in his presentation of a Snowy Expansion for renewable purposes.

    Wetherill is right for SA to “go it alone” into battery storage and believe that this reality is what triggered his “robust” presentation at the press meeting.

  6. Bilb I suspect you are right. Turnbull could not have just pulled this idea from his butt – someone has done a fair bit of work already. Anyone knew the Snowy move was coming? – news to me anyway.
    And typically low on detail, no idea what the externalities will be. The detail will be in the squabble. Actually is it possible that by the time the Snowy is up that it won’t be needed, a bit like the desalination plants?

  7. Geoff, if you look at power generation at any given time, NSW and Victoria are dominated by coal, with a bit of gas.

    They say that storage becomes critical when renewables hit 50%.

    Snowy 2.0 could be relevant in the later stages of transition, but those states should be doing it along the way now, in smaller chunks, I would think, if they want a stable grid.

  8. In the past electricity production was largely controlled by state governments with the system being dominated by large fossil power stations which depended on the grid to get power to the consumers. Locations were determined on where the fossil fuel was and the undesirability of having power stations near home.
    This old model is now being challenged by solar PV and batteries that can be located very close to where the power is consumed. to make matters worse the old power companies will struggle to make a profit as the challengers whittle away their income.
    The Snowy proposal is part of the big old mindset and will help to protect or even expand the profit making grid that is barely needed by the challengers.
    Looks like the old guard got to Malcolm first.

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