Pumped hydro: schemes, rhetoric and confusion

There’s plenty of talk around pumped hydro, but so far it’s only adding to the confusion.

GRAPHIC: Australian Renewable Energy Agency

GRAPHIC: Australian Renewable Energy Agency

Politics and commerce are all about negotiation, but man-made climate change is essentially non-negotiable. When they come together, a mess is all but inevitable.

Science has determined a “safe” warming limit and the world’s nations including our own have committed to actions to help that to happen. But our leaders are locked in furious argument about what that commitment looks like. If they’re confused, imagine how the rest of us feel.

The Turnbull government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee scheme is designed to be all things to all people, which means it pleases nobody. It will probably pass Parliament because the major party leaders understand the need for a price signal and this is all that’s on offer.

That’s a whole other story, for another time. But the Coalition’s chronic division over this scheme reflects confusion across government – in states and territories as well as Canberra – about how to deal with the climate-energy conundrum. For confusion, read absence of leadership.

Take Tasmania, for example. Fifteen months ago a study by energy bureaucrat John Tamblyn, jointly funded by the federal and Tasmanian governments, questioned the economic viability of a second Bass Strait interconnector.

Tamblyn concluded that a second interconnector should only go ahead when certain conditions were in place, such as the Australian Energy Market Operator identifying a long-term market or South Australia becoming more integrated into the National Electricity Market.

In February, the Hodgman government announced it intends to leave the NEM by mid-2021 to help keep retail prices down. So it does not want prices determined by the marketplace, but still wants Tasmania to take advantage of that market by exporting power into the national grid.

Similar mixed messages are coming from Canberra. Does the Turnbull government support more coal power or more renewables? No-one knows. Poorly articulated, constantly shifting positions around electricity generation further destabilise an already-uncertain market.

Investors in renewable power crave a firm government position on Australian carbon emissions, which are now at their highest level since records began in 2002. The nearest Malcolm Turnbull has come to a firm position was his enthusiastic backing of pumped hydro schemes last year.

Pumped hydro is a way of enhancing hydro’s energy storage value by getting water to produce electricity not just once, as in conventional hydro-electricity, but many times using two impoundments at different levels.

Water released from the upper storage generates power at times of high demand. It is then held in the lower reservoir until it can be pumped back to the higher reservoir during times of low power demand when prices are lower. Excess wind or solar power can serve this purpose.

The idea of pumped hydro is old, dating from the 19th century. It has never been implemented here, but at both federal and state levels it has now become the go-to policy position for conservative MPs wanting to display renewable credentials.

Soon after spruiking pumped hydro for the Snowy Mountains early last year, Malcolm Turnbull did the same for Tasmania. The Hodgman government heartily endorses the idea and the slogan that comes with it, “the Battery of the Nation”.

Last month we got the first glimpse of what the nation’s battery might look like when Hydro Tasmania released an analysis, funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, of how Tasmania could generate pumped hydro power and export it into the National Electricity Market.

The report listed 14 possible pumped hydro sites at eight locations, mostly in the West and North-West. But the big surprise was that getting maximum benefit from exporting pumped hydro power would require as many as four more of those expensive Bass Strait interconnectors.

Hydro Tasmania asserts that even with the new interconnectors its pumped hydro option would still be far cheaper than the multi-billion dollar Snowy proposal. If so, and if the scheme can deliver as promised, it could only be good for Tasmania’s economy and we should all get behind it.

It’s gratifying to see pumped hydro, which I first reported on in 2012, now getting such attention from politicians. But these same politicians have pointedly ignored less spectacular, much cheaper and eminently sensible responses to the challenge of getting emissions down.

For instance, while enthusiastically promoting pumped hydro, energy minister Guy Barnett has shown no interest in encouraging household solar by improving the meagre 8.5c per kilowatt-hour feed-in tariff, despite a promise it would be reviewed immediately after the March election.

Nor has the government yet done anything of substance in over four years about the major source of Tasmanian emissions, road transport, apart from taking a belated interest in electric vehicles.

Climate change calls for real actions with verifiable outcomes. Instead we get little more than grand schemes, grand rhetoric and grand confusion.

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