A proposed $1.5 billion 600 megawatt battery storage project in the upper Macleay plans to use the power of falling water to take advantage of inexpensive midday power prices and turn that into value-added electricity for peak periods.
Last week at Bellbrook, Armidale and Kempsey residents and graziers had the chance to drill the proponents about the risks of such a project, designed and developed by a private development firm of three directors, each of them experienced in the renewable energy development and construction space. The project's major partner is the Hong Kong owned, Australian energy retailer Alinta Energy.
Patricio Munoz, community engagement manager with the Oven Mountain Pumped Hydro Energy Storage project (OMPS), made it clear that the project would be "major infrastructure" - which is why it has already attracted state government funding to scope out its potential.
"Major infrastructure projects bring change," he said.
OMPS is also taking advantage of government grants available since the creation of The New England Renewable Energy Zone, the state's second such entity, announced by former deputy premier John Barilaro 18 months ago, during which he predicted $12.7 billion in investment for the greater Armidale region.
OMPS director Brian Hall, who has been involved in the development, delivery and operation of 2000mw of large scale generation in the Australian and international renewable energy space, answered questions at the Macleay public meetings.
He told a small group assembled in the Bellbrook School of Arts hall that: "Government policy is for more renewable generations in the New England Renewable Energy Zone and this is one project in response to that call.
"Energy zones are what's driving these developments. We have a ten year window by 2030 to transition from thermal power generation."
Mr Hall confirmed that OMPS' intention is to develop the Oven Mountain project and then on-sell it to a company who will manage the 50 plus year life of the completed scheme. It is expected 30 to 50 permanent jobs will remain after the 600 to 1000 construction phase workers pack up tools and drive out of the valley.
OMPS' head office in Sydney recently hired environmental scientist Andrea Kanaris for her knowledge as a sub-contractor on the Snowy 2.0 scheme and now part of EMM Consulting, to create the very necessary Environmental Impact Statement, anticipated to be on public exhibition for comment in early 2023.
If all goes well they hope to begin construction in 2024 and be up and running before 2030.
Public concerns raised included the potential for compromised environmental studies, given the lack of a large corporate parent company and the potential for antimony and arsenic to be naturally present in the parent bedrock. Another was the link between Alinta Energy and its Hong Kong owner, in light of federal government sparring with China; and the suitability of the site given its remote nature.
Others said renewable energy was necessary and the regions had to shoulder some of the burden while many looked forward to an upgrade of the Kempsey to Jeogla road, which runs right through Bellbrook.
OMPS says it has committed to surveying residents formally (off the record) and informally and is keen to hear what people say.
Oven Mountain, bordered by Cunnawarra national park and the Oxley Wild Rivers not far from the historic East Kunderang Homestead, looks down on the Bicentennial trail which follows the river and winds through some of its most remote regions.
The project's intention is to tuck two dam walls away, behind a spur and would be all but invisible to campers at Georges Junction, except for construction traffic during the build-phase, which is expected to require 600 to 1000 workers - most of those living on-site in dongas.
Turbines and transformers to take the rush of water and turn it into electricity will be housed in a machine hall carved out of solid granite and , made from water falling 600 meters through a six-metre diameter tunnel bored right through the mountain.
Connected at both ends will be modest reservoirs - the top is 12 hectares and the bottom, situated in a naturally occurring hanging valley, will measure 16.8ha.
At the moment a drilling team is collecting "good granite" rock samples from the site by accessing the remote Carrai Plateau road, but if all goes to plan, construction equipment will travel from Kempsey along the Armidale Road and cross the Macleay River by newly built bridge upstream from Georges Junction.
To access the top reservoir trucks may travel along a newly constructed ridge road, because entry from Rasberry Road via Jeogla and thence down the eastern fall via Haydons Trail would be too treacherous.
"One of the key challenges is to get safe access to the site," said Mr Munoz
To get the energy to the Armidale sub-station, OMPS will tap into the existing 132kva line to Kempsey by building a 12km link line. Negotiations with neighbouring landholders are already in progress.
Pumped hydro has a long history in other parts of the world, but has not been widely used in Australia to date. ANU engineering professor Andrew Blakers, co-authored a 2019 report that outlined suitable sites for pumped hydro showing hundreds of suitable locations - with the critical fall in height of 400 to 600m and the ability to space the upper and lower reservoirs in close proximity.
"We would need only 30 of these facilities Australia-wide to meet renewable targets," he said at the time. "The amount of water used would be very small."
A recent government tender process received many more proposals from developers than projects required, which points to the profitability such schemes can afford.
Three existing pumped hydro schemes are in operation the Kangaroo Valley, Tumut, and Wivenhoe, Qld producing 2000 megawatts between them.
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