Snowy 2.NOTHING: Giant Pumped Hydro Scheme Becomes Costly & Pointless Disaster

Along with giant batteries and ‘green’ hydrogen, pumped hydro is touted as the solution to wind and solar power’s hopeless intermittency. Five years ago, Australia’s PM, Malcolm Turnbull pitched his very own mega-pumped hydro project, tagged Snowy 2.0.

The numbering was meant to be a nod to computer program upgrades and signal an improvement on the original Snowy scheme – without doubt – the single greatest renewable energy project ever built in Australia – with a mammoth 3,950 MW of capacity, which is available on-demand (unlike the pointless nonsense that is wind power). It cost $1 billion (in today’s money) to build.

Except that five years later the 0 in Snowy 2.0 looks more like a quantification of the amount of power the scheme is likely to deliver.

The plan never stacked up economically – see our posts here and here – and is never likely to.

One of the tunnel boring machines (TBMs) critical to the project, Florence had barely struck a blow before grinding to an embarrassing halt, a hundred metres or so from the entrance, as the roof of the tunnel collapsed in and around the machine (see above). Snowy 2.0’s boosters are calling the debacle an unscheduled “pause”.

Ted Woodley is calling the whole fiasco an unmitigated disaster that needs to be terminated before any more taxpayer’s money gets squandered on Australia’s greatest white elephant.

Why it’s time to cut our losses and forget Snowy shambles
The Australian
Ted Woodley
5 May 2023

The hapless Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project is again making headlines for all the wrong reasons, with this week’s announcement of a further one- to two-year delay pushing completion back to sometime in 2029.

This announcement comes on top of a one-year delay in January. So, in fact over the course of the past five months the official completion date has been delayed by three years, from 2026 to 2029.

Further delays are pretty well inevitable, extending completion into the 2030s.

When heralded as “Australia’s nation-building electricity game-changer” way back in March 2017, Snowy 2.0 was to be built in four years, unbelievably fast for such a large, complex project.

Ever since, there have been numerous updates, with completion always expected to be in four to six years’ time. Snowy 2.0 has been an engineering disaster from the start – obvious underestimates, exaggerated claims, obfuscation and ineptness – with the latest delay compounding the fiasco. Not one of Snowy Hydro’s pronouncements or project estimates over the past six years has turned out to be anywhere near true.

The standout debacle is Florence, one of three tunnel boring machines. Florence remains “paused” (Snowy Hydro spin) just 150 metres in from the start of the 17km headrace tunnel. Florence has been paused for nearly the entire 14 months since her commissioning in March 2022, despite multiple assurances that she was specifically designed to handle soft ground conditions.

Even if Florence miraculously started tunnelling at the “pace” of the other two TBMs, she would take eight years to complete the tunnel. As critics have been warning ever since its announcement, Snowy 2.0 doesn’t stack up economically, technically or environmentally.

Economically, Snowy 2.0 will never pay for itself. The initial cost estimate of $2bn has blown out ten-fold to around $20bn – $10+ billion for the plant (when Snowy Hydro finally includes all costs and overruns) and another $9+ billion for 1000km of 500kV transmission connections to Sydney and Melbourne.

This $20bn will be borne by taxpayers and electricity consumers. The federal government has already contributed $1.4bn to the project, with much more to come.

Technically, Snowy 2.0 is not a renewable generator nor does it provide baseload power, as some mistakenly believe. It is the equivalent of a battery, and as such will be a net load on the National Electricity Market.

And Snowy 2.0 will be a very inefficient battery, consuming about 1.5 kilowatt-hours for pumping for each 1.0 kilowatt-hour it delivers, due to losses in the pumping/ generation cycle and in transmission (two ways). Further, its claimed cyclic storage capacity will be constrained by the unequal volumes of the upper and lower reservoirs and the need to integrate operation with the existing Tumut 3 pumped hydro station.

Environmentally, vast construction sites and roads/tracks across 35km of Kosciuszko National Park have destroyed thousands of hectares of native alpine habitat. Twenty million tonnes of excavated spoil will be dumped in the Park and reservoirs, enough to cover a football field to a height of three kilometres.

Pest fish and pathogens will be transported from Talbingo Reservoir to Tantangara Reservoir and then across the alps into the Murray, Snowy, Murrumbidgee and Tumut headwaters, overwhelming native species and devastating trout fishing. Four 330kV transmission lines on two sets of 70-metre towers will traverse eight kilometres of the Park over a cleared easement swathe up to 140 metres wide. This will be the first time transmission lines are erected in a NSW national park for 50 years.

So far, all that has been constructed are two access tunnels to the location of the underground power station cavern, lots of roads and building sites, and tens of thousands of stockpiled tunnel lining segments. A few billion has been sunk, including the public’s $1.4bn, but there are many more billions to go.

It is now clear the project will cost at least $20bn, far exceeding its benefits, and not be completed till the 2030s, incurring extensive environmental, social and community costs. There is no question that significant energy storage is required to support the transition to renewable energy. But it is patently obvious Snowy 2.0 is the wrong project in the wrong place – there are better alternatives.

There is no easy solution. Should the government pull the plug, or soldier on regardless?

At what point does the project become ridiculously unviable, if not already as I and others contend has been the case since inception? What is in the best interests of all Australians, who are being lumbered with the risks and costs?

With so much more public money yet to be spent and environmental destruction yet to be wrought, it would be irresponsible for the government to continue to rely solely on Snowy Hydro’s advice and just blithely allow the project to stumble on regardless, thinking it is too far gone to stop. The minister must address this folly, not just express his “deep concern” with each damning revelation.

The immediate priority is for the government to commission an independent review, as experts have been urging for years. Regular independent reviews are standard practice for major infrastructure projects, but have never been undertaken for this project.

Not till there is a comprehensive reassessment of the costs, benefits, time frames, technical risks, etc, will the government be in a position to make a well-considered decision with all the facts before it, in this case regrettably to choose the least-worse option.

With construction still in the initial stages and completion not till next decade, there is time to comprehensively reassess the project.

Surely the point has been reached when enough is enough.
The Australian

2 thoughts on “Snowy 2.NOTHING: Giant Pumped Hydro Scheme Becomes Costly & Pointless Disaster

  1. “Surely the point has been reached when enough is enough.”
    Reason and practicallity mean nothing to those that believe in the ideology that is unreliables.
    More public money, (ours) down the drain.
    Yet the voter will still continue to vote for either of the liberals, labor or the greens. These 3 parties have all swallowed the unreliables scam. Stop voting for those 3 parties!

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