Pumped Storage: A Game Changer for New Zealand’s Electricity Needs?
Earl Bardsley is living proof that one man can make a difference, in this case to New Zealand’s electricity supply.
In 2002, Bardsley, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Waikato, came up with the idea of using Lake Onslow in central Otago as a reliable energy storage facility to meet the nation’s electricity needs for the dry years.
The “dry year problem” refers to the fact that, although blessed with an abundance of hydrogen-generating lakes and rivers, New Zealand experiences problems when lake levels are low.
At such times, electricity must be generated by expensive and polluting fossil fuels, which the government has pledged to phase out by 2030.
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“I was always looking for possibilities by which we could obtain alternative means of storage away from our scenic natural lakes,” says Bardsley. “That’s why I started thinking about the Onslow Lake Basin.”
By the end of the year, the government will have decided whether or not to go ahead with the $4 billion project that could turn Bardsley’s vision into reality. The decision to proceed will be based largely on the findings of a feasibility study known as the NZ Battery Project, the results of which will be announced next month.
As Bardsley told Frank Film, at the heart of the Onslow Lake project is the concept of pumped storage.
“That’s like saying we’re using Lake Onslow as a battery,” says Bardsley.
“When prices are low and there is plenty of water, we pump water into the lake. When there is a dry year, we will have all this potential energy available that we can redirect to the Clutha River.
“By running it, we can generate 1,000 megawatts, which means we can get rid of fossil fuels as a power source in dry years.”
Megan Woods, Minister for Energy and Resources, is unequivocal about the significance of the project and what it could mean for the government’s commitment to New Zealand’s energy being 100% renewable by 2030.
“Look, this is going to be a game changer. Not only will this allow us to decarbonize and access this 100% renewable electricity system, but, more broadly, through our energy system,” Woods told Frank Film.
As Bardsley further explains, “An example could be the dairy industry and the production of powdered milk, which consumes a lot of energy.
“If we use this energy from electricity rather than, say, coal, then it’s better for the whole country.”
The scale of the project is illustrated in Bardsley’s assertion: “The culmination of water storage volume and height of the River Clutha means you could have the potential energy up there equal to all the lakes New Zealand hydropower combined.”
Both Bardsley and Woods acknowledge that the wetlands adjacent to Onslow Lake would be a casualty of the project, with Woods also noting that any cultural significance to the local rūnaka will need to be considered and addressed.
Local fisherman Andrew Moore directs the Frank Film crew to the point on the hill where the new lake level would be.
Even if, if the project went ahead, the hut in which he has been for 30 years would have to be moved, he is a philosopher – while not missing an opportunity to search the townspeople of the north.
“Well, we need it. We now have electric cars. All those Auckanders and Wellingtonians [with] their electric cars plugged in at five o’clock.
“[You’ve] you have to get power somewhere, right?
No Elon Musk, Earl Bardsley may not fit the mold of today’s visionary hero. But the sincerity, clarity and intellectual rigor of this old-school academic are compelling.
Bardsley’s belief in the project is clear.
“It would be nice to see all of this moving forward. This will change the New Zealand energy scene for the next 50 years.