Australia has over 120 operating hydroelectric powerstations, with an installed capacity of nearly 8,800 MW. Despite declining generation in previous years due to low rainfall in key catchments, hydropower generation rebounded strongly in 2016, contributing to over half of the renewable electricity generated and up to 9 per cent of the total electricity generated in the National Electricity Market (NEM).
The country’s hydropower resources are largely concentrated in the states of Tasmania, which is heavily reliant on hydro for its electricity generation, New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, which spans both NSW and Victoria, is Australia’s largest hydropower scheme, consisting of 16 major dams and nine power stations with a combined capacity of 4,100 MW.
As the driest inhabited continent on earth, water availability is a key constraint on future growth for hydroelectricity in Australia, with the majority of suitable sites having already been developed. Growth in the sector is expected to be limited to small-scale hydroelectric projects and upgrading and refurbishing existing infrastructure but pumped storage may prove to be an increasingly important component of Australia’s electricity market.
The proposed Kidston pumped storage project in North Queensland is one such example and its developers are hoping to secure its financing arrangements in 2017. Using two disused mine pits, it would be the first such project in the world to be combined with a 50 MW solar farm which will have the potential to power the storage plant’s waterpumps.
With an optimal capacity of 250 MW of rapid and flexible power, the plant would be able to help manage the growth and increasing penetration of intermittent forms of renewable energy. Kidston would add to Australia’s three main pumped storage plants, and given there are roughly 50,000 disused mines across the country, this off-river solution could be employed elsewhere.
In Tasmania, months of below-average rainfall from September 2015 and into the early months of 2016 causing record low water levels in hydro dams were compounded by an extended outage in the Basslink cable connecting the state to the NEM. In response to the severe pressure placed on the state’s hydro storages, Hydro Tasmania deployed several measures including re-commissioning a gas-fired power station to protect the state’s energy supply.
Hydro Tasmania’s storages recovered strongly from May onwards though, as heavy rain causing flooding for some catchments meant the state ended 2016 recording its second wettest on record in what was a year of rare and extreme weather events.
On the national front, while the Australian government has ratified the Paris Agreement, having set a 2030 target of reducing emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels, it remains unclear how it intends to achieve it. A review of Australia’s climate change policies is set to take place in 2017, but the government has already indicated that it would not support any form of carbon tax or emissions trading scheme.
Australia’s renewable energy target of sourcing 33,000 GWh of electricity from large-scale renewable sources in 2020 (equivalent to about 23.5 percent of the expected electricity generated) remains the key driver of the country’s transition to a low-carbon electricity sector. In addition, a number of state governments have separate renewable energy targets in place, complemented by a suite of initiatives.
Finally, in 2016 the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the largest and most complex engineering project ever undertaken in Australia, was honoured with its inclusion on the National Heritage List. Constructed between 1949 and 1974, and built by more than 100,000 people from over 30 countries, the Snowy Mountains scheme joins other Australian icons on the list, such as the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef. Its inclusion recognises the scheme’s significant contribution to the country’s development following World War II.
This country profile is featured in the 2017 Hydropower Status Report. You can download the full report here.
This profile was last updated in May 2017.