Turnbull fibbed about Snowy Hydro 2.0

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An "electricity game-changer" or just a desperate attempt for votes?

Far from being the solution to Australia's energy crisis, bureaucrats have confirmed the upgrade to Snowy Hydro may never even go ahead, reports Mark Hipgrave.

RECENT TURNBULL GOVERNMENT announcements about renaming the 457 Visa system, toughening the citizenship test, and the one from Fiona Nash about decentralising Govt Departments, made me think about last month’s big announcement – the Snowy Hydro Scheme Expansion.

You will recall that, on March 16, the PM announced plans for a $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Hydro scheme that could add up to 50% to its capacity.

In his media statement, Turnbull outlined the basics of the project — a plan to ‘supercharge the Snowy Hydro precinct’, with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), charged to

‘... examine several sites, which could support large scale pumped hydroelectric energy storage in the precinct.  These sites would involve new tunnels and power stations, connecting existing storages.’

In a speech in front of the penstocks feeding the Tumut 3 Power Station, he sounded positively Churchillian puffing out his chest, malsplaining to us all that the new Snowy Hydro scheme was the

‘... result of the vision and the courage of the generation that won the Second World War … they defended our freedoms …. and they came home and built this …. these are big dreams in these mountains, real courage...’

(He ignored the reality that around two thirds of the workforce employed in the construction of the scheme were immigrant workers, originating from over 30 countries. Not the winners of WWII, they were mostly the losers — displaced persons from Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia and other parts of Eastern Europe. They came with little English and no knowledge at all of Australian values. The work was largely managed by U.S. engineering contractors and, while an engineering triumph, it was achieved with what we would now regard as a shocking safety record).

The PM then contradicted his media statement, now telling us the projects were designed and engineered decades ago (so presumably no need for site selection studies), and that all that was missing was leadership and money, and that his government has both.  He told us the projects were ‘thoroughly commercial’ and the task now was now to provide extra funding for the feasibility study to review the geological studies and the tunnelling technology now available.

At the end of the speech he climbed into a helicopter, gave a cheery wave and flew off.

Various mainstream media reports at the time told us that construction work would commence immediately the feasibility study was complete and take four years to complete.

Energy Minister Frydenberg added that the scheme's expansion would "run into the billions of dollars". But the ABC reported that when asked repeatedly where the funding would be sourced, the best he could come up with was that "projects like this make money"

(To think Frydenberg is being touted as a future Liberal Party leader.)

It all sounded like an episode from ABC TV's Utopia.

The proposed timetable of seeking approvals before the feasibility study is complete and commencing work as soon as it is, allows no time for review of the study by the majority stakeholders (the Victorian and NSW state governments who, interestingly, were unaware of the announcement until the day it was made) or by the community.  But there is a precedent for this; after all, the NBN was reportedly conceived on the back of a napkin, with the LNP very upset that no business case had ever been prepared.

The feasibility study period, from mid-March to mid-December is around 40 weeks. It’s a tight timetable. Six weeks (15%) of this period has already gone. So what has happened so far?  Not much it seems.

There are no press releases announcing the commencement of the feasibility study or any other progress on the project, on the websites of Minister Frydenberg, his department, ARENA or Snowy Hydro.

After fruitless emails to Snowy Hydra and ARENA, a spokesperson for the Department of the Environment and Energy gave me an update on April 20:

The Australian Government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), is supporting a feasibility study that will examine the available options for the expansion of pumped hydro storage in the Snowy Hydro Scheme. This study is expected to be delivered by December 2017.

As in any other major scale engineering project, this feasibility study, conducted by Snowy Hydro Limited, is a first assessment of options and sites. It will include a cost benefit analysis considering specific engineering and technical details as well as environmental and social concerns from developing the project. At this stage it is not possible to comment further about specific details or sites to be considered on it.

The Australian Government is looking forward to the outcomes of the feasibility study and will explore further any issues as appropriate.

So we are back to square one. The project is not fully designed. ARENA is doing a ‘first assessment of options and sites’. It’s not ready to go, nor is it fully commercial.  We are at an early ‘cost benefit analysis stage’.

Fizzer was fibbing.

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