by Matt Walsh
CANBERRA, March 16 (Xinhua) -- The Australian government will carry out a 1.5 billion-U.S. dollar expansion to the nation's Snowy Mountains hydroelectric energy scheme, the government said on Thursday, following weeks of debate about how to prevent crippling power blackouts.
Described as an "electricity game changer" by the government, the pumped hydro development could provide up to 50 percent more electricity on top of the project's current output - providing power to an additional 500,000 homes.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said electricity will be the "defining debate" of the year, following a number of blackouts in South Australia and fears the major eastern cities of Sydney and Melbourne could struggle to cope with existing power supplies in years to come.
He said the four-year project would involve the construction of a number of pipelines so water can be pumped uphill and into dams, so it can be released through electricity turbines to generate power.
"This will ultimately mean cheaper power prices and more money in the pockets of Australians," Turnbull said late on Wednesday night. "By supercharging the Snowy Hydro precinct, we can ensure affordable and reliable electricity for Australian households and businesses.
"In one hour, it could produce 20 times the 100 megawatts an hour expected from the battery proposed by the South Australian Government, but would deliver it constantly for almost a week.
"The unprecedented expansion will help make (renewable energy) reliable, filling in holes caused by intermittent supply and generator outages. It will enable greater energy efficiency and help stabilize electricity supply into the future."
On Thursday, Kane Thornton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council, described the government decision as a "really smart move," while the nation's Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) the announcement would be welcomed by "all Australians."
"This new project will have the potential to ensure that there will be the necessary energy supply, renewable energy supply dare I say, to those on the east coast at the times of peak demand," Frydenberg said on Thursday.
"This is a game-changing announcement, something that is iconic in Australia, namely the Snowy Hydro scheme and I think it should be welcomed by all Australians."
However, not everyone is pleased by the announcement; the Australian Conservation Council's chief executive, Kelly O'Shannassy told the ABC the environmental impact of the project must be investigated prior to construction.
"We are talking about the Murray and Snowy Rivers here which were incredibly damaged by the scheme, and we are slowly repairing that damage and we need to make sure any scheme does not take us back to the 1950s," she said on Thursday.
Meanwhile the Grattan Institute's energy program director, Tony Wood said while the expansion of the Snowy Hydro project was a good option in the long term, there was still concerns regarding the immediate security of electricity in major cities Melbourne and Sydney.
"There's going to be quite difficult economic issues to see whether or not such a large facility can actually work and make money, and to what extent it can contribute to solving the short term power crisis issues that have been plaguing the east coast in the last six months or so," Wood told the ABC on Thursday morning.
The government has announced a feasibility study for the project would be completed before the end of the year, with construction to begin not long afterwards.
The Snowy Mountains hydroelectric scheme is currently made up of nine power stations, 16 dams, and more than 140 km of tunnels, powering more than a million homes in Victoria, New South Wales and the nation's capital city, Canberra.