Category Archives: Coverage/comment

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.

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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.

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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 …

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A clear answer to an unclear question: Helen Caldicott on SA’s nuclear future

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Dr Helen Caldicott: “Education is key” to curtailing the nuclear industry

Dr Helen Caldicott, anti-nuclear activist, humanist, physician, returned to Bermagui on 10 February during a week when South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission was preparing to deliver its “Tentative Findings”. Dr Caldicott was speaking at the Bermagui Institute dinner; her topic was “Nuclear South Australia”.

The speaker shared anecdotes from her forty years of campaigning, detailed the hazards to human health and the environment presented by the nuclear industry, and advanced three main points: one, that the recent search for a site to store radioactive waste from Australia’s only nuclear reactor is premised on a lie; two, that Premier Jay Weatherill’s pursuit of a nuclear industry for SA is unnecessary and dangerous; and three, that public education and the democratic process are the only means by which nuclear expansion can be curtailed.

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Will Steffen: a chilling message about a warming climate

Will Steffen spoke at Il Passagio in September 2015
Will Steffen spoke at Il Passagio in September 2015

Upon hearing that the planet had warmed by one degree Celsius, a conservative politician said that he could get on a plane in Melbourne and get off in Sydney an hour later and find the temperature higher by a comfortable six degrees, so what’s the problem?

In fact, a global rise of one degree has increased the incidence of extremely hot days in southeast Australia by a factor of ten. It’s because temperatures, like most natural phenomena, arrange themselves along Bell curves. And a shift to the right of just one degree has massive ramifications, not at the height of the curve but at that very low, very sensitive-to-change high end. If it seems that bushfires are starting earlier in the season and becoming more frequent lately, that explains why.

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The other side of Anzac

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Bill Keefer of Dr George Mountain, guest speaker Graham Walker AM and Dave Gallan of Tathra at the dinner in August 2015

Recently I heard the story of an American social worker whose job in the 1990s was to scour the mountains of Alaska, seeking the bolt-holes of Vietnam veterans who had decided to remove themselves from society, living off the land in isolated shacks. In the 20 years since the Vietnam War, more and more American vets had come to the grim realisation that they were now unable to coexist with their families and friends; to hold down jobs; to partake in society in any meaningful way.

Post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD.

The social worker’s task was to bring the vets into Anchorage to live in a halfway house and receive psychological therapy until they were willing and able to re-enter society. Of the degree of his success, I’m not sure.

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Reclaim the “boat people”

In 1991 I was 25, a B.Sc under my belt, a brand new sales rep at a medical company in North Ryde, NSW. I was to meet with medical professionals in major hospitals and sell them consumables for kidney dialysis, including bloodlines – the tubing sets that take blood from patients, pump it through artificial kidneys and return it, purified. At my new company these tubing sets were assembled in a small factory downstairs, and the CEO deemed it necessary for me to spend a few days becoming familiar with their production before I was sent out to sell them.

It was thus I found myself, one morning, a cleanroom gown and elastic shoe covers over my smart suit and heels, my neat blonde bob in a hairnet, at a big, white, laminated table. I was surrounded by women from the Subcontinent and the Middle East chattering in various languages over the hum of the laminar airflow system while gluing lengths of medical-grade PVC tubing to drip-chambers, injection sites, T- and Y-pieces according to diagrammatic instructions on charts in front of them.

Having mastered my task of applying a smear of glue and attaching a short length of tubing to a drip-chamber, I turned to the middle-aged woman to my left. I learned that her name was Salma. She had arrived in Australia two years previously with her husband and daughter. They were refugees from Afghanistan.

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Richard Denniss: Whatever happened to just in case?


Photo of Richard Denniss
Director of the Australia Institute Richard Denniss spoke at the Bermagui Institute dinner in February 2015

The world’s sluggish response to climate change is a mystery to many. After all, overwhelming evidence of a problem usually results in mitigation of the problem. Witness the global response when scientists suggested in the 1990s that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) might be busting a hole in the ozone layer, leading to high rates of skin cancer, amongst other consequences. The reaction was swift; CFCs were banned from aerosol cans. In America, consumers voluntarily switched away from aerosol sprays, resulting in a 50% loss in sales even before legislation was enforced.

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Ten years lost: Ken Henry on the economics of climate change

Photo of Ken Henry and his wife with two audience members
Ken Henry, Carol and Harry Bate, Naomi Henry

It was an unseasonably balmy night at the Bermagui Hotel. The speaker was Ken Henry and the subject “The Economics of Climate Change”. We’d all been congratulating the Bermagui Institute’s Jack Miller on his orchestration of the China-US emissions reduction deal just in time to create a dramatic backdrop for the talk, when Henry told us, “it won’t make any difference” to Australian government policy on climate change action.

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