Australia: from mines to clean energy

Snowy and the others: here are the "green" facilities that will change Australia.

As a major exporter of minerals and other raw materials, Australia has its fair share of mines whose service has long expired.

Depleted of what they have had to offer the world, they have fallen into disuse.

But a growing number of them are being given a second life. They are coming to play an important role in the country’s shift from coal and other fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in order to power a more sustainable future.

Indeed, a number of them have the potential of becoming power stations in the form of solar power farms or pumped storage schemes, according to two academics from Monash University in Melbourne.

“For abandoned deeper mines, tapping into geothermal energy could even make it viable to resume mining”, added Mohan Yellishetty and Peter Marcus Bach in a joint article recently published in The Conversation, an online academic platform.

To emphasise this potential, Yellishetty and Bach cited a 2020 study in which they participated that identified more than 80,000 inactive mine sites across the country.

They are not the only academics convinced of the role mines could play in creating a greener future.

In addition to the 4,000 greenfield locations that they had identified as potential sites for pumped storage, Professor Andrew Blakers and two researchers from the Australian National University identified last year 1,500 new so-called bluefield sites. “Bluefield refers to locations with one reservoir already in place, meaning only one new reservoir needs to be built,” read an article published last year on the same online platform.

Making the most of the geological characteristics of the land, as well as old industrial sites, is therefore an opportunity to develop a new generation of hydroelectric pumping schemes in Australia, as is happening with the Snowy 2.0 maxi project.

From mines to Snowy 2.0

The reuse of abandoned mines is just one of the possible solutions to support the construction of new hydroelectric plants.

According to ARENA data, hydroelectric power currently covers between 5% and 7% of the country’s energy needs, a figure expected to rise in the coming years with the implementation of new facilities. Presently, 120 hydroelectric plants are operational in the country, with the most well-known being the hydroelectric scheme built in the Snowy Mountains in the 1970s. In addition to this, Snowy 2.0, the largest clean energy production project in Australian history, is currently under construction.

Built by the Webuild Group with its Australian subsidiary Clough, Snowy 2.0 is designed to connect two existing dams, Tantangara and Talbingo, through 27 kilometers of tunnels, accompanied by the construction of an underground power station. In times of energy overproduction and low demand, the plant pumps water from the lower dam to the higher one. Conversely, when demand rises, the water is released downstream, generating energy. This system minimizes fluctuations in energy supplies and significantly increases the available energy for citizens and businesses. According to the project, the stored energy from Snowy 2.0 will meet the needs of 500,000 households for over a week of maximum energy demand, revolutionizing the Australian energy production system.

Australia's race towards clean energy

While the largest “green” energy project in Australia is underway, the country continues to invest in clean energy, particularly leveraging hydro-pumped schemes. In addition to projects under construction like Snowy 2.0, there are already operational ones (such as Wivenhoe in Queensland or Tumut 3 in New South Wales), and others are planned for construction in the coming years, according to various national government plans.

As stated on the ARENA website, according to the Australian government, Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES) facilities, or hydroelectric plants that produce and store energy, “will play a crucial role in supporting the Australian energy transition.” This ambitious transition is a significant investment for the country, aiming to achieve 100% clean energy by 2050.