All posts by Jen

Pumped hydro: this could just be the solution to the energy storage problem


One hundred percent renewable energy to power Australia? It sounds like a pipedream—unless you were in the audience at the Bermagui Institute Dinner at Il Passagio on 21 September to hear Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering at the Australian National University, speak about pumped hydro energy storage.

When talk turns to renewable energy lately, the next question is always storage. There’s no question that Australia can harvest massive amounts of wind and sunshine, but how to store excess energy for when the wind doesn’t blow, the sun doesn’t shine? Banks of Tesla lithium-ion batteries? Expensive, and with limited lifespans.

But anything that stores energy is a battery. And Blakers and his team have identified 22,000 potential sites in Australia for pumped hydro energy storage (PHES), all outside national parks and urban areas. There’s an excellent site near Bombala. Fast track development of several Gigawatt-rated sites could be complete by 2022 in time to stabilise the grid as Liddell and other coal-fired power stations close.

Put simply, two reservoirs, sized between 10 and 100 hectares, are built at different altitudes—say at the top and bottom of an escarpment. They are connected by a pipe with a pump and turbine. When there’s plentiful electricity (from solar or wind), water is pumped up to the top reservoir. When power is needed, water is allowed to flow back down, turning the turbine.

Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘Snowy Hydro 2.0’ is a PHES system on a grand scale. The difference with Blaker’s PHES is that the reservoirs will be ‘off-river’—they can be built anywhere there’s suitable ‘head’, the difference in altitude between reservoirs.

Annual water requirements of a PHES-supported 100% renewable electricity grid would be less than one-third that of the current fossil fuel system.

Of the 22,000 sites that Blakers has identified, only a few dozen will be needed to support a 100% renewable energy system for Australia. ‘We found so many good potential sites that only the best 0.1 per cent will be needed,’ said Blakers. ‘We can afford to be choosy.’

The plan also requires strong interconnection of the electricity grid between states and territories, using high-voltage power lines spanning long distances, to take advantage of varying weather conditions across the country at any one time.

On the night, Blakers got a grilling from the floor. MC Doug Mein tried to close down question time three times but the audience kept firing them off. It sounded too good to be true. Lots of crossed arms around the room, studied frowns. But he had an answer for every question. It stacks up.

I had a copy of a press release from Blakers in my inbox; he’d sent it out at 5.56 that morning. Apparently he’d done interviews all day, then driven down to the coast to keep his appointment with us at Il Passagio.

Obstacles? The coal lobby will run interference. ‘I don’t know how they look their children in the eye,’ said Blakers.

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The EDO’s Sue Higginson: solastalgia, subplots and lawfare

Trials and tribulations: Sue Higginson spoke of her work with the Environmental Defenders Office
Trials and tribulations: Sue Higginson spoke of her work with the Environmental Defenders Office at Il Passaggio in February.

NSW Environmental Defenders Office CEO Sue Higginson paints a picture of EDO lawyers, haggard and caffeinated, racing between their office on Clarence Street and the Land and Environment Court on Macquarie Street, chasing “mining companies with the deepest pockets you can imagine” and “lawyers who lodge Notices of Motion at 1 am”.

It’s comical until you realise the gravity of the work. The Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) concentrates its resources on the cases that other lawyers don’t take on. Important public interest cases. Cases where there’ll be a lasting or permanent impact on the environment, where governments haven’t followed the law. Blowing the whistle, holding governments to account.

Continue reading The EDO’s Sue Higginson: solastalgia, subplots and lawfare

A club you don’t want to join

roadsideShrineI was at a meeting in Cobargo one Monday afternoon in August last year. A committee member was running late. Eventually she arrived, grim-faced; there’d been an accident at the stock crossing on the Bermagui-Cobargo Road. A little boy had been hit by a car after getting off the school bus.

The next day I heard that the boy, ten-year-old Noa Jessop, had died of his injuries. And soon it filtered through that another of my friends, Rosemary, had been one of the first at the scene, and that she’d performed CPR on the child while waiting for the ambulance.

Continue reading A club you don’t want to join

Quaama Express


You’d laugh to see us on the street
The scooter, me, my doggies dear
The small one, Wookie, leads the way
The big one, Rudy, in the rear.

They’re both tied up, I’m sad to say,
Can’t trust either not to stray,
Rudy cos he hunts down chooks.
That’s cost me dearly. As for Wook,

Abandoned in Kiama town,
He learned to live upon his wits,
And feasted daily on remains
Of battered fish and salty chips.

And now when winds of freedom stir
His shaggy coat, this ratbag cur,
Don’t bother chasing. If you do,
He’ll grin, ‘Oh, good, you’re coming too!’

But as for Rudy, ridgeback hound,
Sixty kilos go to ground.
Unless his sights are on a chook,
He’ll plod and give the lead to Wook.

‘You hardly need a battery!’
Some wit will call, reliably.
I muster up a laugh. I’m sure
I’ve heard it ninety times or more.

On to Plan B: adapting for a radically changing planet

towersIt was pretty clear to scientists in the 1990s that man-made carbon emissions were causing climate change—it had started with the Industrial Revolution. Two plans of action were mooted. Plan A: reduce emissions (mitigation). Plan B: adapt to the changes. But we weren’t going to need Plan B, were we? The fix was clear, and there was plenty of time …

Continue reading On to Plan B: adapting for a radically changing planet

Something to lean on

wheelchairI was listening to a podcast of Richard Fidler interviewing Tim Ferguson the other day. You may remember Ferguson as one of the Doug Anthony Allstars. Long and lanky with a sweep of black hair across his brow, he was often referred to as ‘the good-looking one’—so he says, anyway. Fidler was an Allstar too, and that moody, misanthropic genius Paul McDermott was the third.

I’ve been watching Ferguson’s career a lot more closely since I learned he had MS. I bought his memoir, Carry a Big Stick (2013), and it was good to read about someone just getting on with it, despite. Lately he’s written and directed a movie.

Continue reading Something to lean on

To: Tim Winton. Re: Island Home

island-homeTim, I live in Yuin country on the East coast. The black and white communities here keep to themselves, in the main, and my contact with the locals is fleeting and superficial—a nod exchanged with the group who drink at a picnic table beside the carpark in Bega; a closer yet single-themed half hour a week I used to spend with kids in the literacy program at the school.

My strongest awakening, till now, was reading Kate Grenville’s The Secret River then stepping outside into an altered light, wondering for the first time what bloody events of dispossession may have occurred on my own half acre.

Continue reading To: Tim Winton. Re: Island Home

An open letter to author Sara Baume

BOOKS_Baume_05_web-ex_COVER_July-AugDear Sara Baume,

When I heard about Spill Simmer Falter Wither I thought, lovely, a book I’ll enjoy, then lend to all my dog-loving friends.

It’s not a long book. I finished it, breathed for a while, and went to scratch the heads of my own two dogs—both reprobates. The larger one has gained notoriety as the local chook killer and must now be kept on the lead at all times when off the property. Lucky it was only chooks, I guess. The other one, a terrier of some sort, once returned exhilarated from a run in the bush, snout and bib drenched in blood. We had to rinse him off at the tap in the cemetery before we could walk him back through the village.

Continue reading An open letter to author Sara Baume

A sprinkle of charged glitter

The Scream, Edvard Munch
The Scream, Edvard Munch

Neuralgia again. Or is it? I’ve written about neuralgia—nerve pain—before, but this time it’s different. In the past it has started slowly—the occasional subtle ping, gaining in intensity and frequency, rising to a crescendo of penetrating stabs, seconds apart, with little relief between. Then subsiding again over hours, or a few days at most.

But this one has a different personality altogether. It strikes at random, speeds up and slows down at will. It can disappear for minutes on end, but as soon as I dare hope it’s gone, it’s back—tricked you! Conversely, it can cease just when I place attention on it. It can feel like a perverse, extended game of hide-and-seek with a toddler.

Continue reading A sprinkle of charged glitter