Snowy 2.0 doesn’t stack up

Gary Dunnett, Executive Officer, National Parks Association of NSW

In Australia the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme stands head and shoulders above every other nation building project, with the possible exceptions of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It shouldn’t be any surprise that, back in 2017, Prime Minister Turnbull responded to Snowy Hydro’s pitch by proudly announcing the ‘electricity game-changer’ Snowy 2.0 project. Virtually no environmental impact, just dig a tunnel and build an underground power station and what you get is massive storage to counteract the Achilles heel of renewable generators, intermittency. A wonderful new chapter in the nation building saga of the Snowies.

Australians respect leaders of foresight and vision. We also expect their visionary projects to deliver on their promises. The National Parks Association of NSW, along with a group of environmental, energy and economic experts, has been scrutinising Snowy Hydro’s lofty claims for the project.

On the environmental cost side of the ledger, far from a negligible impact on the iconic Kosciuszko National Park, Snowy 2.0 would demolish hundreds of hectares of threatened species habitat, drive the Stocky Galaxias into extinction, spread the noxious Redfin Perch and a virulent fish virus into the headwaters of the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Murray rivers, interrupt stream flows above the tunnel and dump 20 million tonnes of contaminated spoil into Kosciuszko National Park. Snowy Hydro cheerfully downplayed these impacts, offering glib assurance that only a tiny percentage of the Park will be destroyed. The stark reality is that Snowy 2.0 is the largest and most destructive development ever proposed in an Australian national park.

As to the claimed benefits, Snowy Hydro argues that Snowy 2.0 is essential to the transition to a carbon neutral future. The implication is that it is so critical to our future that it justifies sacrificing the Park.  So, do these claims stack up?

Not at all, according to the eminent experts who’ve looked under the hood of the Snowy Hydro case. (Open Letter to Prime Minister and NSW Premier and Open Letter to Ministers Stokes and Kean). They point out that the storage provided by Snowy 2.0 simply isn’t needed until 2030, and that the existing Tumut 3 pumped storage station has barely run since constructed half a century ago. Surely this untapped capacity should be the first cab off the rank?

The commercial processes of the National Energy Market dictate that, far from drawing upon ‘excess’ renewable energy, while-ever coal fired power stations are running, that’s where Snowy Hydro will draw its pumping energy. Rather than reducing emissions, Snowy 2.0 will add more than 50 million tonnes of greenhouse gases during construction and the first decade of operation.

Even when there is no coal fired power on the system, is a single massive storage the best idea? The best place for storage is right at the point of generation or as close as possible to consumers. This is why most renewable projects are now incorporating on-site batteries.

Who knows what new storage solutions the next decade will bring. The rest of the world is fast turning away from pumped hydro, with batteries, demand management and potentially renewable hydrogen rising as the preferred options.

Snowy 2.0 is incredibly inefficient, losing around 40% of energy that makes the cycle between generator, pumps, turbines and consumers. That inefficiency is built right into Snowy 2.0, a function of water friction along the 27 km tunnel and the long transmission to consumers.  There are numerous cheaper, more efficient, less polluting, and less environmentally damaging storage alternatives, some within the existing Snowy Scheme.

Snowy 2.0 is not a necessary evil to be inflicted on Kosciuszko National Park for the sake of reduced national greenhouse emissions. The devil is in the detail – Snowy 2.0 is an environmentally damaging, inefficient, unnecessary and polluting project.

The destruction of so much of Kosciuszko National Park for a phantasmic benefit would be truly perverse. Kosciuszko, our alpine icon, is suffering from the abuses of past development, feral pests and the ravages of fire. Planning Minister Stokes needs to give Kosciuszko National Park a chance to recover, not assault by a Snowy white elephant.  

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