Ted Woodley, NPA Executive Committee member
In a staggering act of environmental vandalism of epic proportions, the Commonwealth and NSW Governments have just approved the construction of new overhead electricity transmission lines through Australia’s iconic Kosciuszko National Park to connect the Snowy 2.0 pumped storage project.
This reprehensible decision overturns a long-standing ban on new overhead transmission lines. The last overhead transmission line built in a NSW national park was in 1976.
The NSW Government’s own Determination Report states, ”development of this scale inside an established National Park is unprecedented in recent times”.
The tragedy is that the destruction of pristine alpine landscape is totally unnecessary. The rest of the developed world turned to the far less damaging technology of underground connections decades ago. Underground cable technology is well suited for rugged Snowy Mountains’ conditions.
Snowy 2.0 itself is already undergrounding significant portions of its electrical and telecommunication lines. In fact, the main works of Snowy 2.0 is all underground, with water tunnels and an excavated station adding $billions more to the cost of equivalent above-ground infrastructure.
Nowhere else would overhead transmission lines be even contemplated in a national park or area of natural significance and beauty.
The statutory Plan of Management (POM) for Kosciuszko expressly requires any new transmission lines to be underground. No problem for the NSW Government – it has just amended the Plan to exempt Snowy 2.0. And the Commonwealth Government has recently followed suit with its approval of the project under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Not only will the new overhead lines be the first for nearly half a century, but the largest and most environmentally devastating every built in a NSW national park.
What has been approved are four 330 kV high-voltage circuits traversing eight kilometres of Kosciuszko. Two side-by-side sets of steel lattice towers, up to 75 metres tall, will be visible over 200 square kilometres. The cleared easement swathe will be 120 to 150 metres wide. These new lines will be three times the size and visual blight of existing overhead lines in the Park.
TransGrid, the constructor on behalf of Snowy Hydro, acknowledged that overhead lines will have far greater environmental impacts than underground cables, but argued they were preferred primarily because they are cheaper.
It simply comes down to Snowy 2.0’s construction costs being prioritised ahead of everything else.
That does not come as a surprise given Snowy 2.0’s soaring cost blowouts (from $2bn initially to well over $12bn now with transmission).
But Snowy Hydro well knew the statutory requirement for underground transmission. It should have accepted its corporate responsibility as a uniquely privileged tenant of Kosciuszko National Park and incorporated undergrounding in Snowy 2.0’s business case.
If Snowy Hydro was not prepared to abide by the rules, then both governments should have stood up for Kosciuszko and said NO, new overhead transmission lines are banned from national parks, end of discussion.
The governments may have been swayed by a mistaken impression that a higher cost for the transmission connection would somehow be passed on to electricity consumers. But that’s not so.
The project cost for Snowy 2.0 and its transmission connection, and any other new power station for that matter, has no bearing on the price of electricity – the National Electricity Market cannot be manipulated by Snowy Hydro or any other market participant to gain extra revenue to offset capital construction costs.
Saving Snowy 2.0 costs will have no influence on electricity prices, just Snowy Hydro’s (ever-deteriorating) bottom line.
For the record, TransGrid estimates the cost of underground cabling to be around $1.0 – $1.4bn, compared to overhead lines at $0.3bn. The underground estimates seem way too high for such a relatively short distance, especially when compared with the total cost for Snowy 2.0’s main works ($5bn), which already includes three kilometres of underground cables.
A call for expressions of interest from international suppliers is the only way to determine a realistic cost for undergrounding.
Overhead lines have been universally condemned.
An Open Letter from two dozen environmental organisations and fifty experts calling for the lines to be underground, has since been echoed by the NSW Labor Party, Greens and most other opposition parties and independents. Not one EIS submission supported the project.
It is relevant to note that whilst underground cables have a higher capital cost, they also have substantial benefits in addition to incurring significantly less environmental and visual impacts, as they are not subjected to bushfires, lightning strikes or wild weather and are highly reliable.
TransGrid/Snowy Hydro has magnanimously offered to pay $16 million compensation to “improve the biodiversity and recreational values of the National Park”. This is less than 0.2% of the total cost of Snowy 2.0 – a pittance and an insult.
By meekly acceding to Snowy Hydro the Commonwealth and NSW Governments have set an appalling precedent for the first time in half a century. The legacy of a scarred Kosciuszko National Park will be evident for generations to come, just to save costs for the hapless Snowy 2.0 White Elephant.
New overhead lines have no place in any national park, let alone Kosciuszko National Park.
Ted Woodley is an Executive Member of the National Parks Association of NSW and a former managing director of PowerNet, GasNet, EnergyAustralia and China Light & Power Systems (Hong Kong)