By Matt Walsh
CANBERRA, March 17 (Xinhua) -- Questions are being raised about the Australian government's plan to spend 1.5 billion U.S. dollars upgrading the nation's Snowy Mountains pumped hydroelectric power scheme, with some MPs and experts concerned the expected five-year turnaround could leave Australia vulnerable to blackouts during construction.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced his legacy-defining plan in response to an ongoing energy crisis which has led to a number of serious blackouts in the nation's major cities.
Turnbull said the investment in the existing Snowy Mountains hydro scheme would boost its capacity to increase electricity production by 50 percent, but those in government have thrown caution to the wind.
On Friday, Liberal Democrat Senator, David Leyonjhelm said it would do nothing to protect Australia's power supply over the next four years.
"I think it's policy on the run," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) on Friday.
"Technically there's nothing wrong with the idea, (but) I think there is an issue over whether it will 'keep the lights on' over the next four summers before it's introduced."
NXT Senator Nick Xenophon, who has previously spoken out about South Australia's energy woes, said the plan was "fair enough" but agreed that it would take too long to implement.
"It's a plan to have a feasibility study, which is fair enough," he said on Friday.
"Then all going well, it's going to be at least five years before it's online. This country cannot wait five years, given the energy crisis that we're facing."
Energy and climate change experts also weighed into the debate after Turnbull's announcement; Dr Jamie Pittock from the Australian National University's (ANU) Energy Change Institute said a shift to renewables was an important step for the government, and upgrading existing infrastructure would increase efficiency within the Snowy Mountains scheme.
"Re-engineering the scheme to provide greater energy storage is a great move for supplying non-polluting electricity to the grid," he said in a statement late Thursday.
"This will enable much greater use of wind and solar power generators on the national electricity grid. Physically the Snowy Mountains are one of the best places in Australia to do this because of the great changes in elevation and potential to better use existing dams."
However some experts agree with Xenophon and Leyonhjelm, in that while the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme '2.0' is being constructed, Australia will continue to suffer preventable blackouts.
Gregor Verbic, senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, said the government needed an effective 'stop-gap' while the Snowy Hydro project is being planned and developed.
"The government proposal to expand the Snowy Hydro scheme is welcome, (but) the anticipated closure of coal-fired generation in the National Electricity Market will likely result in a significant capacity shortage unless new capacity is built quickly," he said in a statement.
"Hydro projects have long lead times so other solutions are needed urgently."
In addition, Dr Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW, said while the scheme would work well at "peak times", it would not be a "24/7" solution, like existing coal powerplants.
"Coal provides much more energy per year, since it's designed to operate 24/7. The Snowy Scheme only contributes to supplying the peaks in demand," he said.
The government has said it hopes construction will be complete within five years, with further details of the plan to be made public when the results of a feasibility study are released later this year.