FARMERS have welcomed the federal government’s intervention of the energy crisis with today’s announcement of a $2 billion expansion of the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme – but have urged caution around secondary impacts for irrigated water supply.
National Farmers’ Federation vice-president and water taskforce chair Les Gordon said he no real detail of Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s plans to boost the Snowy Hydro’s electricity generation capacity by 50 per cent, for supply to the national market.
Mr Turnbull says a feasibility study will be commission to examine where new tunnels and power stations would be located, to pump water for added power-generation, and the project’s associated costs, in the $2b plan.
Mr Gordon said that part of the announcement was “good news” and a “no brainer” given the significant impacts of higher power prices for farm production; especially in the irrigation sector.
“Is there an energy crisis?” he said.
“At the moment we’re on the cusp of one that’s pretty clear.
“The price of energy is part of the crisis and that’s making it incredibly difficult for many businesses and if reliability starts to fall away, as it’s showing some signs that it might do, then absolutely we’re in crisis and if we’re not in a crisis now, we’re certainly heading for one.
“If you really want to muck up investment in businesses and agriculture particularly then making the power supply really expensive and unreliable is a sure-fire way of doing it.”
Mr Gordon said from an irrigation perspective, the Turnbull government’s Snowy river hydro 2.0 plan raised several questions that needed to be addressed in the feasibility study process.
He said there must be “no detrimental change” to the timing of water releases to irrigated farming businesses and the overall allocation and price of water.
“I don’t understand all of the details of the proposed changes at this stage,” he said.
“I would assure it’s about more efficient turbines and re-pumping water.
“But having said that I’m guessing some sort of re-negotiation of the Snowy agreement would be required and that raises a whole range of questions around irrigation water, and in particular the price, timing of release and volumes.
“Secondly, there’s also a lot of money involved and that could lead to a change in the ownership structure for Snowy Hydro.
“At the moment NSW (58 per cent) is the majority shareholder but how they intend to raise money and whether that has any implications for the ownership structure is still a question to be answered.
“So the whole process has probably raised more questions that it has answered but I also need to acknowledge it’s very early on in the process.
“But we need to recognise there are a range of questions - outside the obvious ones - that the feasibility study would need to address.
“We’re keen to ensure that whoever is doing the feasibility study understands the details of we’re interested in around price, volume and reliability.”
The scheme is operated by Snowy Hydro Limited that is company that’s 58pc owned by NSW, 29pc by Victoria and 13pc by the commonwealth.
Mr Gordon said a lot of the water for irrigated farm production in the Murrumbidgee and Murray valleys came from the Snowy scheme and their interests needed protecting.
“The major issues they’re worried about in those valleys are a change to the timing of water releases, a change to the volumes and change to the prices,” he said.
“The Snowy underpins a lot of what they do; particularly the high reliability shares in both valleys, so it’s incredibly important.
“It is working well and the agreement has stood the test of time and worked pretty well for a long time and they’ve been flexible when they’ve needed to be.
“I’ve seen some commentary this morning from other irrigators also saying the agreement has stood the test of time and served us all very well so any tinkering with it - or changes to it - we’ll be taking a very keen interest in.”
Mr Gordon said for farmers in general and especially those in the irrigation sector, energy prices had been going up “significantly” particularly those using pump systems.
“Something has to be done about it - it can’t just keep escalating like it is,” he said.
“Reliability is also starting to become an issue and if you really want to cruel investment into irrigated agriculture particularly, and business in general, making the power supply terribly expensive and terribly unreliable would be the best way to do it.
“Anything they can do and everything they can do, within reason, that’s not going to push prices up, and is going to improve reliability, has to be a positive.
“That part of the announcement is welcome but we do want to understand the details and the detail of access to water, out of the scheme.”