The Macleay River is a major river on the Mid North Coast of NSW and is an integral part of the proposed Oven Mountain Pumped Hydro Energy Storage project (OMPS). Locals are concerned about the proposal that plans to draw water from the Macleay River to fill the two large reservoirs needed for the project. The Macleay River was declared dry at the end of 2019 and stopped flowing due to the dry conditions at the time. Recent concerns about the local mishandling of the NSW Water, Property and Housing Portfolio by local State Parliament member for Oxley, MP Melinda Pavey, resulted in her losing the portfolio in late 2021. Wide-ranging problems with NSW water mismanagement in 2020 led to a damning report that blamed NSW Government for water shortages in regional towns. Questions have also been raised in the NSW Parliament by MP Helen Dalton about the selling of water licences to overseas countries, including China. These issues have local residents and farmers on edge about such an energy project utilising their water from the Macleay River.
The Kempsey Shire website outlines the Oven Mountain Pumped Hydro Energy Storage project, which is a proposed $1.5 billion 600 megawatt pumped hydro energy storage and generation project located alongside the Macleay River in the Armidale LGA. Although the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project is still in its early stages, it has received fast-tracked planning approval by the NSW Government and has been declared a (CSSI) Critical State Significant Infrastructure on the NSW Major Projects planning portal. Once completed, the EIS is expected to be lodged with the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) in late 2022. The EIS will be based on the project Secretary’s Environmental Assessment Requirements (SEARs), which was issued by the DPIE in February 2021. The SEARs outline the key matters the project team is required to assess in the EIS: factors such as biodiversity, water resources, cultural heritages, transport infrastructure, and community consultation.
On behalf of the Australian Government, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency provided OMPS with $951,000 in April 2020 to undertake a study analysing the benefits that Pumped Hydro Energy Storage would have on the development of the New England Renewable Energy Zone in northern NSW. The total cost of the study was $2.2 million. It has been undertaken with the help of consultants Lloyd’s Register, EY and SMEC. Australian Energy Market Operator and TransGrid have also been involved.
The Oven Mountain Pumped Hydro Energy Storage Project’s (OMPS) major partner is the Hong Kong owned, Australian energy retailer, Alinta Energy. It already owns and operates several power stations around Australia, including the Braemar Power Station in Queensland, Wagerup Power Station in Western Australia, and Loy Yang B Power Station in Victoria. The OMPS director, Brian Hall, has said 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.
Information about the proposal can be found on the OMPS website ompsyhydro.com Oven Mountain Pumped Hydro Storage where it outlines the plan to build an underground pumped hydro-electric power station complex, lower and upper water reservoirs and intakes from the Macleay River, spillways, and power waterway and access tunnels, chambers and shafts. If all goes well, the OMPS hopes to begin construction in 2024 and estimates that the project it will take four years to complete.
The process of Pumped Hydro Energy Storage is where water reservoirs are used as a method of storing energy. Water taken from the Macleay River would be stored in the lower reservoir and then pumped uphill to the upper reservoir using off-peak energy. This water would then be released from the upper reservoir to generate hydroelectricity through underground turbines built into the hill during peak times. The lower reservoir will be 16.8 ha (168,000 m2) and the upper reservoir 12 ha (120,00m2) in area. To put that into perspective, the larger lower reservoir will be the size of approximately ten Sydney Cricket Grounds. The ABC reported on the new hydro power project to be fast-tracked in Northern NSW in October 2020. It said that the reservoirs will be filled with six gigalitres of water when the river flow is high. To put that into perspective, it is the same amount of water as 2400 Olympic sized (50m x 25m) swimming pools!
The exact location of the proposed Oven Mountain project is 70 km north-west of Kempsey and 60 km south-east of Armidale on private land via the Kempsey-Armidale Road. The proposed project area is surrounded by the Carrai National Park and Conservation Area, with the Macleay River to the west and the Carrai Tablelands to the east. The New England National Park is nearby, along with the Cunnawarra National Park, Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, and the historic East Kunderang Homestead. There are a whole variety of different sacred Aboriginal sites in the area, according to Arthur Bain, the chief executive of the Dunghutti / Thungutti Local Aboriginal Land Council. This includes massacre sites and traditional camping sites.
Some community consultation with Armidale and Kempsey residents and graziers has occurred at a meeting with the OMPS director and community engagement manager at Bellbrook in January 2022. This was reported in the The Land article ‘Oven Mountain pumped hydro scheme for upper Macleay enters EIS phase’. Public concerns raised included the link between Alinta Energy and its Hong Kong owner, considering the federal government’s fluctuating relationship with China. People are concerned about the potential for compromised environmental studies. The public also have concerns about the suitability of the site, due to its remoteness and the potential for antimony and arsenic to be naturally present in the parent bedrock that could be released into the environment as toxins. Concerns about the water being taken from the Macleay River, which is important to many farmers in the region and has a history of running dry, were also raised.
Unfortunately, many locals have not even heard of this proposal. Locals are suspicious about the use of Macleay River water for the energy project, given the recent reports of water being sold to foreign companies. Australia’s water is a valuable resource which must not be wasted or sold off to overseas investors. Many people of the Macleay Valley consider that this project is being advanced without adequate consultation, which is particularly disappointing when the OMPS claim that a key matter for the project team is community consultation.