THE POLITICAL WAR over coal-versus-hydro electric power for North Queensland could have farmers as the unintended casualty.
Aside from paying the world’s highest price for electricity and water, Burdekin farmers could find a hydro scheme leaves their water supply less reliable.
The federal government (and Queensland opposition) want a coal-fired power station (largely privately funded, with some government ‘kick start’ money). They say that is the only way to ensure better base load electricity for unreliable North Queensland power.
But, last week-end, Premier Anna Palaszczuk said her government would fund a study of hydro power if the Burdekin Falls Dam was extended. And that would be backed-up by more solar, wind and gas-fired power stations. Then federal opposition leader Bill Shorten promised $200 million for the Burdekin hydro.
Given various companies have not been able to justify a gas power station at Collinsville or Townsville before the recent doubling of Australian gas prices, that might depend more on sun and hydro.
Aside from the minuscule Tinaroo hydro plant west of Cairns, the main hydro in Queensland is on Wivenhoe Dam west of Brisbane.
Cheap coal-fired electricity is used to pump water from Wivenhoe to a higher storage dam. That water is then released down to a small hydro generating plant at peak electricity demand periods.
This is a miniature version of the ‘hydro battery’ Prime Minister Turnbull recently announced funding to study (yet another consultant fee fest for a study) in the Snowy Mountains.
Such schemes are well-proven engineering and reasonably cost competitive with Australia’s high electricity prices (if governments fund the capital works).
But, as any irrigator in the Murray and Murrumbidgee schemes or lower Brisbane River or in the Tasmanian hydro schemes knows, power comes before irrigation when water is short.
Dams used for hydro as well as irrigation need to hold more water back to ensure there is enough water to recycle for hydro electricity generation.
That results in no or far more limited water available for irrigation — and even that available is at a far higher price. Prices in the last drought headed into the thousands of dollars per megalitre for Victorian, NSW and Tasmanian dairy and crop farmers. And, at any price, not enough water was available for irrigation because the water had to be preserved for hydro-electric generation.
Farmers in the Burdekin struggle to pay tens of dollars a megalitre for their crops of sugar cane and vegetables, far lower value add than crops down south.
Higher cost water that’s less reliable in dry times might be a big price to pay for farmers for more reliable hydro-power for North Queensland.
Certainly that’s a question to be asking Anna Palaszczuk and her consultants about their proposed Burdekin Falls hydro.