By Kieran Cusack, CEO, Queensland Hydro

Kieran Cusack, CEO, Queensland Hydro

The $62 billion Queensland Energy and Jobs Plan (QEJP) was launched in September 2022 and laid out a detailed blueprint for Queensland’s transition to a clean energy future. One of the new entities created in the QEJP to deliver the transition is Queensland Hydro. It was established to design, deliver, operate and maintain two long-duration pumped hydro energy storage assets. These assets will be the cornerstone of the transformation of Queensland’s energy system.

It is Queensland Hydro’s job to provide the pumped hydro assets to make the shift to renewable energy a reality for Queenslanders. We have commenced planning for two proposed projects, one at Borumba, west of Gympie in the south east, and the other at Pioneer-Burdekin, west of the major North Queensland city of Mackay.

In addition to Queensland’s plan, the agreement at COP28 to triple renewable energy capacity worldwide was supported by the Commonwealth. It means proven technology such as pumped hydro will be integral in enabling and delivering the historic shift in our energy system that is required to maximise the benefits of renewable energy.

We possess a unique opportunity to shape the future of energy and Queensland Hydro is driven by an unwavering commitment to lead and deliver positive change – not just for the energy system itself, but in how we support and partner with the communities in which we operate, how we care for the environment and how we provide employment opportunities in the developing renewable energy sector.

The proposed Borumba Pumped Hydro Project and Pioneer-Burdekin Pumped Hydro Project represent our best opportunity to both reduce carbon emissions and to provide the long duration storage we need to harness the high levels of renewable energy that will be fed into the new Queensland SuperGrid. These assets can have lifespans of up to 100 years with appropriate maintenance so the benefits of this technology are long lasting.

The proposed Pioneer-Burdekin Project alone could store nearly the same amount of energy (120,000MWH) as is collectively used across Queensland each day (about 150,000MWH). This can provide the deep storage capability required for Queensland’s renewable energy system. Pumped hydro is a tried, trusted and proven technology that’s been used to store energy worldwide for many decades.

It works like a large, rechargeable battery by using water, geography and the force of gravity to generate energy when the grid needs it most. Pumped hydro stores excess energy that is generated on windy and sunny days that would otherwise be lost, and it can very quickly provide power on-demand into the grid for businesses and homes when they need it, like at night when solar and wind generation reduces.

The power output produced by the wind and sun can change quickly, but fast and flexible pumped hydro has the tools (inertia, frequency control, black start, reactive power, voltage control) to keep the energy system reliable and secure. These proposed projects bring with them an exciting opportunity for the future – jobs, regional development, community benefits, the emergence of new industries and diversification of current ones, and an undeniable huge multiplier effect for small businesses in the regions.

As a renewable energy project, Queensland Hydro’s intent is to be nature positive and deliver benefits to the environment over and above the long-term climate benefits of the pumped hydro projects. The proposed Borumba Project itself will enable up to 4 million tonnes of CO2 to be avoided each year.

Queensland Hydro holds community information sessions where the community can speak with staff directly

Borumba Pumped Hydro Project

This clean energy journey started with the proposed Borumba Pumped Hydro Energy Storage Project, which was initiated by Powerlink in mid-2021 and was then transferred to Queensland Hydro when it commenced. Queensland Hydro understands the proposed Borumba Project is in an area with ecological significance.

As it progresses through each stage from environmental approvals to exploratory works to main works, we will work with community groups and other stakeholders who have local knowledge to seek their input as we plan the best ways to deliver environmental offsets from the outset.

We’ve already undertaken a vast body of initial work including ecological surveys, environmental investigations, geotechnical drilling and surveys, groundwater monitoring and hydrological studies. These studies culminated in the Detailed Analytical Report (DAR), which we submitted to the Queensland Government in March 2023 for their consideration. In June 2023, the Queensland Government made its final investment decision and committed $6 billion to progress the project. The Borumba Project is targeting first power in 2030.

In late December 2023, The Federal Minister for the Environment and Water decided that Queensland Hydro’s proposed Borumba Project is a controlled action, meaning that further assessment is needed before a decision can be made to approve the proposed project or not under the Commonwealth’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act)

The proposed project will be assessed by accredited assessment under the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971 (QLD). Accredited assessment by the Queensland Government will provide for one integrated Environment Impact Statement (EIS) process, rather than there being two separate EIS processes. The decision whether to approve the proposed project or not under the EPBC Act will be made by the Federal Minister.

This means Queensland Hydro will build upon the initial studies and continue its assessment of all relevant environmental, social and economic impacts of the proposed project, which will be documented in the EIS. The EIS will also set out the proposed mitigation measures to avoid and minimise adverse impacts.

Lake Borumba

In addition, the EIS assessment process includes a public consultation phase allowing the public to comment on the proposed Borumba Project. Late last year we also released for tender the most significant package of works to date for the Borumba Project – with the new phase of the critical and robust exploratory works program, designed to run until mid-2026.

Procurement for the Underground Works – Tunnel Drilling package was undertaken in two phases with leading proponents invited to submit a request for proposal in February–March 2024. From there, the contract is expected to be awarded in August and work set to commence in November 2024.

Work on the exploratory tunnel drilling package will only occur if and when Queensland Hydro receives all necessary environmental and planning approvals.

Pioneer-Burdekin Pumped Hydro Project

Our other site is at Pioneer Burdekin, outside Mackay and the site is an ideal location due to its upper and lower reservoirs being incredibly close together – meaning short tunnel lengths – delivering a capacity of 5000MW. The proposed PioneerBurdekin Project has three stages:

» Investigation, including compiling the Detailed Analytical Report for Government
» Exploratory phase, including the Environmental Impact Statement
» Main works phase, which results in the delivery of power.

Just like the Borumba Project, we know the ecological significance of the Pioneer-Burdekin Project area. We want the natural environment to be ultimately improved by our project, from threatened ecological communities to the restoration of waterways and flora and fauna habitat. We possess a unique opportunity to lead positive change and support the communities, the environment and the well-being of the places in which we operate.

During the current investigation phase, we’re undertaking a range of technical studies to build our understanding of the environmental, cultural, social, economic, and technical aspects of the proposed project and the site, including geotechnical investigations and front-end engineering design.

It is important to note that no final decisions have been made about whether the Pioneer-Burdekin Project will proceed. That will be done after we follow a similar process to the proposed Borumba Project and deliver the Detailed Analytical Report (DAR) to the Queensland Government by mid-2024.

Based on the findings of the investigation phase, we will review the design of the project to avoid and minimise impacts to the greatest extent possible and are working with stakeholders, including key environment, community and First Nations groups to co-design best practice biodiversity offset solutions.

Queensland Hydro is conducting a range of ecological studies to survey existing groundwater bores, water quality, soils, and both land-based and aquatic plants and animals

Queensland Hydro values

We cannot deliver these projects alone. Collaboration forms the bedrock of Queensland Hydro’s strategic approach to both projects. We are committed to working productively with the communities where our proposed projects will be located, particularly landholders, other residents in the local community and local businesses and industry.

Ensuring that both proposed projects deliver enduring benefits for regional economies and the environment is important to us. We are actively forging strong partnerships with contract partners and organisations who share our vision and values.

Our focus is to truly work as “business partners” rather than a traditional contractor-client relationship. We’ve spent a great deal of time learning from other similar projects globally in Austria, Switzerland, Iceland, Spain and Portugal, as well as drawing on experiences from other major infrastructure proponents such as Queensland Transport and Main Roads and Sydney Water.

The lessons learned are informing our approach. We want to make our projects attractive and ensure we have great working relationships with all of our stakeholders so that we can collectively realise the opportunities available to us all.

At Queensland Hydro, we’ve been mindful from the outset of the skills shortage challenges being faced around the nation with a plethora of major infrastructure projects (many in the renewables sector) commencing over the next two to five years. We are doing the planning to address this now.

There is always speculation about the volume of work in the market or work about to enter the market. We believe that by ensuring we have a fair and collaborative offering to our construction partners, we can attract the essential support both of our projects need.

Just as we want to work collaboratively with industry, we are actively engaging our communities and listening to their needs and incorporating their insights into our projects because we know that social licence is a critical part of the pathway to success in any community.

We have established stakeholder reference groups for both of our proposed projects to engage in two-way dialogue with our communities. We want to be good neighbours and we are committed to doing just that. We are also looking at ways to give back to these communities and planning for a community benefits framework is already underway.

We are collaborating with local educational institutions, and will continue to do so, to create a legacy for generations to come. For example, we’ve already brokered a local partnership in North Queensland with the Resources Centre of Excellence in Mackay to collaborate on innovative training projects that will support the delivery of critical underground training opportunities for regional workforces. The QEJP will also focus on future jobs in the renewable energy sector, ensuring training and employment opportunities are available.

Long duration pumped hydro energy storage is a critical contributor to the clean energy transition which will provide a stable and reliable renewable energy system for the future in Queensland. It is proven technology and will ensure that Queenslanders can continue to stay connected 24/7 to a system that does the job we all expect it to do while doing that job in a clean, reliable, renewable and affordable way.

These projects really do offer a world of opportunity – to deliver nature-positive outcomes, new jobs, new industries, regional development, local investment and community benefits. This is our chance to build assets that leave a valuable legacy while also creating real benefits in real-time for our industries and communities. Queensland Hydro is privileged to take on this task for all Queenslanders.

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