Tasmania’s electricity woes

8 01 2016

Before putting my dear other half on a plane back to Queensland, I took her for a tour of the North West. We unfortunately didn’t have enough time to visit the Tarkine, so we’ll have to do it again some time when Glenda returns to Tassie.

We drove through the high country hydro electric network as part of the sight seeing trip, and made some interesting discoveries. Not least that Tasmania could be in a whole lot of strife thanks to a prolonged drought following what I think was the driest winter on record. No climate change here though, move right along…. the drought is so bad, there’s a huge hay shortage for this season’s animal feed, and hay bales are going for three times the normal price, causing, apparently, some thieving to occur. There’s even talk of importing feed from Indonesia, causing some concern for Tasmania’s bio-security…. and if all the farmers start destocking at the same time, the price of lamb and beef will probably collapse.

The alarming thing we saw though was just how low the dams are. We stopped at Lake Burbury for a break, and saw a brand new concrete boat ramp probably one hundred metres long recently built to the water line which is now at least twelve metres below the maximum (and I expect normal) water line…..


Lake Burbury, way down at the water line

When I worked for the Irrigation and Water Supply Commission at the start of my working career, I used to manually calculate the capacity of various water reservoirs and plot this volume against the depth of the water. Half the capacity resides roughly in the top 20% of the dams, so it comes as no surprise to me to be told Tasmania’s dams are at 24% capacity today.

As a result of such low dam volumes, Tasmania has been importing dirty brown coal power from Victoria. This wasn’t supposed to happen, in fact the opposite of this was the whole idea behind Basslink, Tasmania was supposed to export clean hydro power to Victoria….. but there you go, the future is now, and it’s full of surprises.

You see, Bass Link is broken. “TASMANIA’S electricity highway has come to a costly standstill because of a fault in the $800 million Basslink ­undersea cable” says the Mercury. All this technology everyone so foolishly believes in has its problems, and they can be costly to fix. This could go on long enough that the powers that be have decided to stall the sale of a gas powered back up power station up North in the Tamar so that it can be restarted to bolster generation capacity. Where’s the gas coming from? Well, not Tasmania, let me tell you….

I have to admit though that the hydro infrastructure is mightily impressive; and much older than I realised. I guess Tasmania must’ve had electricity for most of the 20th Century, but I had not really thought about when all this stuff was built.


Waddamana Hydro Museum

I knew from visiting the Waddamana museum two years ago that the 7MW hydro power station was built in 1910, for a Zinc smelter no less. But much of what has since been built happened during the depression…. which is when the 90MW Tarraleah station was built. About as close as you can get to smack bang in the middle of Tasmania, this 80 year old bit of technology still impresses. The penstocks feeding the turbines down below on the Nive River fall over 200 metres, accelerating the water to a staggering 270 km/h…. it’s a wonder any of it holds together still!


Tarraleah Station on the Nive R


Tarraleah penstocks









Meanwhile, listening to the radio down here in the far South, you can hear the electricity industry’s captains of industry moaning about the high cost of the feed in tariff, all 8c/kWh of it!

These people are clearly not interested in generating the clean power we all think we have to have, they’re only obsessed about the profits they can derive from it. Obviously, this is what happens when you privatise essential services. And still the majority votes for the capitalist parties. It’s mind blowing, really.

Back on my own in Geeveston now, it’s back to the grind as soon as I save this post. More tree clearing to be done, black currants to harvest, cherry trees to de-slug, getting chooks today; and tomorrow I’m finally meeting the structural engineer for our house building, and Monday hopefully will see an order put in for our double glazing before the economy tanks. The signs aren’t good, this early in the year too. Wish me luck!




10 responses

8 01 2016
Chris Harries

The signs aren’t good indeed. As much as Hydro Tasmania (formerly the HEC) assumed too much political power and didn’t know when to stop the Tas hydro system is very impressive. The drowning of forested river valleys has a significant climate impact that would have to be accounted for it building dams nowadays, but the system does provide Tasmania with some 90 percent of its power supply, and this is renewable base load power that has not intermittency problems. In fact it has the capacity to deal with intermittent power inputs, so a marriage with solar and wind is almost perfect.

At the same time, Hydro Tas is in trouble. Back in 2009 following the millennium drought the system’s generating output (long term average yield) had to be wound back by 10 percent, or over 100 MW, it being assumed that lower water inflows are not an aberration but something we have to live with.

Looking at hydro systems around the world some are benefitting from glacial melt and are going gangbusters (lie that in Iceland) whereas others are suffering from unreliable rainfall and increased evaporation. http://grist.org/business-technology/does-hydropower-make-sense-in-a-warming-world/

Low storage levels in Tasmania are caused by two factors, the lesser one being reduced rainfall. The major factor is increasing soil dryness. Increased winter temperatures are rendering soils drier than normal and since most of Tasmania’s western areas receive their in in short frontal showers, if soil is dried out it absorbs those showers and not much turns into river flow. I expect the system output will be reduced further when the situation does not improve over time.

Regarding the Basslink outage, it’s worth noting that in nearly every year since Basslink was built the net energy flow has been from Victoria to Tasmania – not the other way around. The current Liberal state government wants to install a second Basslink and I’m presuming the Basslink outage will send political signals that we need another one. It could send a signal that we ought to be more autonomous, but that signal will be ignored.

8 01 2016

Gee, those bloody protesters! We’d have all the water we need if the dams were all built! So runs the script bla bla bla.

8 01 2016

Sounds like you’ve got things well underway at Geevo Mike. Good stuff.
Yes, a week into 2016 & the global death culture looks mighty shaky.
Might not be too long before the stock brokers, property developers & bankers start leaping out of the windows of their skyscrapers.
Better go charge my camera batteries!!!

9 01 2016

RE: I’m finally meeting the structural engineer for our house building, and Monday hopefully will see an order put in for our double glazing before the economy tanks. The signs aren’t good, this early in the year too. Wish me luck! – Luck to you, Mike! Which will also be luck to me! I am hoping to sell a home before the Canadian housing bubble bursts. If we can just hold on until June. We both better also hope David Korowicz is wrong, though his analyses look airtight to me.

9 01 2016

Hooray. Just in time we are saved by the experts who have just landed on our part of the planet from Mars or somewhere. Funny how all newcomers know what is good for us all after being here 5 minutes. I also didn’t know Tasmania’s power had been privatized. But how would we know.

11 01 2016
Chris Harries

Hi Laurie,

No Tasmania’s power hasn’t been privatised. It has shifted from being a government department (Hydro Electric Commission) to being a Government Business Enterprise (Hydro Tasmania), and the retailing arm is structurally separate but also government owned. There have been moves to privatise it.

I wouldn’t be surprised in the Tas Government sold it for a song though, only to find that they had sold off a gold mine when the asset becomes more valuable over time.

11 01 2016

Thanks for the correction, I didn’t understand/know the subtlety of what occurred before I moved here……

16 01 2016

The Tasmanian government is looking at long-term renewable energy options as the state’s energy security woes worsen.

Hydro Tasmania’s dam levels were already falling and the company was importing 40 per cent of the state’s power when the Basslink undersea cable failed in December.

Now the state-owned renewable energy company is rolling out plans for further gas-fired electricity, with the Basslink cable potentially out of action until March 19.

Hydro Tasmania does not have any plans for more wind farms, after it ditched its proposal for a project on King Island in 2014.

Private proposals could be on the cards.

Solar energy ‘needs better support’

Jack Gilding from the Tasmanian Renewable Energy Alliance said solar power was an option that would benefit individuals and energy security.

But he has called for feed-in tariffs and policy certainty.

“With the proper level of support it could make a big difference to the amount of energy we generate or reduce the amount we have to import from the mainland,” Mr Gilding said.

Josh Tomlin and his father Nigel built a hydropower scheme with a generation capacity of 520 kilowatts in south-west Tasmania.

Mr Tomlin said now was the perfect time for the Government to make the process for smaller hydro schemes easier, so more Tasmanians are attracted to the idea.


16 01 2016
Chris Harries

Hydro Tas is forecasting that storage levels will be down to a very risky 16 percent capacity in April, if rainfall conditions are average per Summer. This is starting get quite hairy for them. Reading their update (http://www.goannaenergy.com.au/documents/20160114BasslinkMediaStatement.pdf) this is a major challenge to repair the connector.

However, on the plus side, I think this could bode well for Tasmania. There’s been a lazy attitude in government for many years that there’s no need to do much on the energy front because Basslink can always come to the rescue. It is this attitude that has meant that for most of its life the net energy flow across Basslink has been from the mainland to Tasmania – not the other way around as it was planned for.

On the negative side, I half suspect that this debacle may persuade the state government to work with urgency to install a second Basslink and this may well further entrench Tasmania’s dependence on brown coal for its electricity supply.

13 02 2016
Tasmania’s electricity woes revisited | Damn the Matrix

[…] all seems to be going from bad to worse……  Basslink may not be fixed in ages due to poor weather and visibility at […]

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