MUSWELLBROOK Shire Council has emerged as a key player in energy company AGL’s plan to close its Liddell power station in 2022 and replace coal-generated electricity with renewables and dispatchable power.
The council has announced AGL as preferred operator for a pumped hydro energy storage project on Bells Mountain, north east of Muswellbrook, after identifying the site’s potential as an upper reservoir for a pumped hydro facility in 2017, and working on the proposal as a council economic development initiative.
The announcement today comes after AGL and Muswellbrook Coal owner Idemitsu in May confirmed they were working on a separate but linked proposal to use a mine void below Bells Mountain for the lower section of a pumped hydro storage power plant.
The Upper Hunter council area which has generated billions of dollars in coal mine royalties for NSW throughout the coal boom and beyond said AGL had shown the commitment to deliver a pumped hydro project, while weathering a political storm over its decision to close Liddell.
As the Federal Government attacked AGL for sticking with its plan to shut down the ageing Muswellbrook power station, the power company and Idemitsu considered the feasibility of the Muswellbrook Coal site, where mining is scheduled to end in the near future.
At the same time Muswellbrook Council engaged the University of Newcastle to produce a pre-feasibility report on a possible scheme.
Pumped hydro uses the gravitational potential of water to store and quickly release water to generate power using two reservoirs, one at a higher elevation than the other. The Muswellbrook project could generate 250 megawatts of power. Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Snowy Hydro 2.0 proposal aims for 2000 megawatts.
Muswellbrook mayor Martin Rush said the Upper Hunter wanted to continue being a part of Australia’s energy future.
“Australia is a pioneering and innovative country. We’re not afraid of the future and we’re looking forward to the next generation of electricity assets, and continuing to be a part of this country’s energy future,” Mr Rush said.
AGL will oversee a full feasibility assessment of the Bells Mountain proposal which could see water from an upper reservoir in a 600m vertical drop to the lower reservoir where turbines generate power. The water is pumped to the upper reservoir during times of low demand and surplus power generation.
Mr Rush said the Bells Mountain site was considered a significant opportunity because of its geography, scale and proximity to existing infrastructure. The Australian National University and University of Newcastle assisted the council with identifying the site and analysing its potential. The council acquired an option for the land to explore its potential.
“Projects like this are central to council’s strategy to encourage investment from a broad range of industries. It highlights the collaborative role of the energy sector to diversify their markets and embrace new opportunities,” Mr Rush said.
A pumped hydro facility has the potential to create 50 operational jobs, he said.
Australian National University Research School of Engineering Professor Andrew Blakers said the Muswellbrook proposal’s 250 megawatts was significant because “It can support 500-800 megawatts or so of local solar PV and wind, with some of the solar PV and wind being stored and some going to Sydney in real time”.
“For context, Snowy 2.0 is 2000 megawatts with 175 hours of water so that it can run flat out at 2000 megawatts for a week. But it is useful to have storage in many parts of the state to avoid ‘all the eggs in one basket’,” Professor Blakers said.
Australia is installing renewables at four times faster per capita than Europe, China or the United States, with wind and solar PV being installed at a rate that continues to accelerate, he said.
“We need to get cracking on installing large scale storage and stronger interstate transmission lines. The cost of these facilities is much less than the PV and wind that they support. However, because they are shared facilities the approvals process is more complex and slower than for a solar or wind farm,” he said.
Professor Blakers said the lack of a national energy policy “doesn’t matter so much provided there is a supportive state government that is willing to move things forward quickly”.
“Hopefully both the Government and Opposition in NSW will offer supportive policies in the lead-up to the March election. Top of the list for supportive policies is to facilitate more transmission and storage, while the private sector gets on with building solar PV and wind.
“It’s akin to facilitating the building of new roads to remove bottlenecks. The concept of a renewable energy zone is important, where you group the solar PV and wind in a few areas, then facilitate storage and transmission in those areas.”
The Hunter region has been identified for its potential because of its history of power generation and ready availability of transmission infrastructure.
In May AGL said bringing energy storage like pumped hydro into the electricity grid would put downward pressure on power prices.
The company has announced a $1.4 billion three-stage plan to replace electricity lost when Liddell is closed, but is yet to commit to all stages of its replacement, which includes new solar, wind, batteries and gas-fired generation.
In a statement on Monday AGL executive general manager group operations Doug Jackson said the company could not comment on the specifics of the Muswellbrook proposal.
“We are continuing to investigate the feasibility of several pumped hydro project options in the Upper-Hunter Valley of NSW. We will provide more details including scale, timing and process when the projects progress further,” Mr Jackson said.