The Guardian November 21, 2001


Basslink national electricity casino comes to Tasmania

by Bob Briton 

Basslink is a massively expensive project to connect the power grids of the 
Australian mainland's east coast with that of Tasmania. While the 
"consultative process" that precedes commencement of the project grinds on, 
big business and governments continue to sing its praises. Security of 
supply, competitive pricing and all manner of other benefits are being 
promised to citizens on both sides of Bass Strait. However, the project has 
caused widespread community opposition.

It involves laying a 280 km undersea interconnector cable, the longest of 
its type in the world, to join the Loy Yang power station in Victoria's 
Gippsland with the Bell Bay station on Tasmania's north coast.

The main cable could provide 480 megawatts continuously or up to 600MW 
during peak demand periods, and would also contain a fibreoptic 
telecommunications sub-cable for future use. 

The project involves the Federal Government and the Governments of Victoria 
and Tasmania, and would result in Tasmania being included in the National 
Electricity Market (NEM), which is subject to the surveillance of the 
Australian Consumer and Competition Commission.

National Grid International Ltd (NGIL) won the tender with a proposal to 
build, own and operate the Basslink Project for A$500 million. While much 
of the contract remains secret, NGIL will have a guarantee from the 
Tasmanian Government that it will use electricity via the interconnector 
for 40 years.

What could possibly go wrong?

NGIL's publicity reassures us that the project would satisfy the rising 
demand for electricity, maintain "competitive pressure" on electricity 
prices, increase the mainland's access to renewable energy sources (i.e. 
Tasmania's hydropower), secure Tasmania's electricity supply against 
drought and provide cheap imported "off peak" power.

Of course, all this access to extra power would enable Tasmania to seek 
further investment in industries requiring "significant power inputs", as 
NGIL puts it. Potential extra jobs is the reason generally given by the 
Tasmanian Government for its unflagging support of the project.

Despite all these claimed benefits, there is widespread opposition to 
Basslink on both sides of Bass Strait. A number of very active 
organisations have sprung up and are drawing attention to the serious 
shortcomings of the planned interconnector.

The Greens have campaigned against it, inside and outside the Federal 
Parliament. Greens leader Bob Brown has even been to London to argue the 
point with NGIL.

The environmental cost

The proposal involves underwater monopolar (single cable) High Voltage 
Direct Current line between the two States.

As the Greens website explains, "This method employs one, single conductor, 
high voltage cable and passes the return current through the seawater and 
the seafloor by use of two large electrodes placed on the seafloor on both 
sides of the under water section. The resultant electrical current passing 
through the sea ...will alter the natural geomagnetic field in Bass 
Strait."

The effect of this electro-magnetic barrier on the migration patterns of 
whales, dolphins, sharks and other marine life is unknown, but it will 
certainly be negative.

The monopolar cable method also generates "stray current" which leads to 
corrosion of metallic structures such as natural gas pipelines.

Worrying, too, is the potential for the cable's positive electrode to 
create organochlorines which then enter the food chain 

These concerns have led the European Community to discontinue the use of 
monopolar cables. A recent proposal to lay an interconnector between Sweden 
and Poland was rejected in favour of a two-cable (bi-polar) design, which 
avoids hazards to the marine environment and metal structures.

Moreover, the cables would cross the Gippsland countryside underground for 
only 6.9 km. For the remainder of the 64 km route the cables would be 
carried atop 45m high pylons. 

The future operators of Basslink insist that the monopolar design is the 
only one that is economically viable.

Even though study after study confirms the link between high voltage pylons 
and cancer in local inhabitants, the debate appears to be closed on this 
aspect of the project.

Local agriculture would also be disrupted because the pylons pose a hazard 
to cropdusting aircraft. 

NGI also plans to run its transmission lines across a 100 Ha easement of 
the beautiful Mullungdung Forest, and over a causeway across the pristine 
Jack Smith Lake.

NGI has responded to criticism of the visual impact of the pylons with 
statements that it intends to grow trees big enough to hide the pylons 
(presumably like the Amazon jungle). They also maintain that if you stand 
back far enough the pylons are only as big as a box of matches!

Groups in Victoria opposed to the proposal have mushroomed. They include 
Community Action Against Basslink Pylons, Gormandale and District No Pylons 
Group, Gifford No Pylons Group and Woodside No Pylons Group. Even local 
shire councils have expressed their opposition to the project.

In Tasmania there is serious concern that the "on again, off again" demand 
for large amounts of hydro power will damage areas like the Gordon Splits, 
with large flows affecting riverbank species of flora and fauna. The 
project's own environmental impact statement (IIAS) concedes this 
likelihood. Sudden rushes of very cold water, low in oxygen and high in 
sulphur, may compound the damage. 

Tasmanians are also concerned that their electricity generating capacity 
would have to be increased to meet the demands of the National Electricity 
Market, and that some of this capacity would have to be met with the 
construction at Judbury of a generator fuelled with wood chips from old 
growth forests.

Large and undisclosed amounts of public monies are being committed to the 
project in addition to the $500 million to be spent directly on the 
interconnector.

A alternative such as gas power generation, wind energy, the retrofitting 
of solar hot water services, and a range of efficiency measures, have been 
given very little attention or totally ignored.

For Tasmania's green image and greenhouse friendly status to be sacrificed 
so willingly by interconnection with sources of dirty coal fired energy, 
other priorities are clearly at work.

The economics of Basslink

National Grid is an electricity and telecommunications transnational 
corporation (TNC) that grew out of the privatisation and deregulation of 
the UK electricity system in 1989. The organisation is frank about its 
objectives, noting:

"National Grid is seeking opportunities around the world to create 
shareholder value by building on the company's core skills...The Group is 
pursuing profitable opportunities world-wide by leveraging these skills and 
expertise internationally."

NGIL is about profits. The company's directors have considerable experience 
in the industry and other fields of TNC endeavour, in companies such as BP, 
British Borneo Oil, Exxon, the Ford Motor Company and various international 
banks and finance companies.

There's only one thing that TNCs like more than profits, and that is big 
profits guaranteed by governments. NGI will, no doubt, appreciate the 
security to be had as part of Australia's National Electricity Market.

As previously mentioned, it has guaranteed customers for the power 
travelling along its interconnector for the next 40 years.

The volumes to be carried would result in Basslink being considered as a 
generator in its own right and able to add an estimated 2c per 
kilowatt/hour onto the costs of power travelling up and down the undersea 
cable.

It is not known whether the project is actually underwritten by the Federal 
and State Governments. However, in view of the commercial risk involved it 
would be surprising if the Governments were not stitched into contracts 
underwriting the interconnector in the same way that the Victorian 
Government was for CityLink and the Loy Yang generator.

In any case, interconnection will join Tasmania up to the national 
electricity casino where, as we now know, generators chase the highest 
price on offer for power in the eastern states and South Australia.

So that the Apple Isle can become a more considerable player, the 
Government of Tasmania is planning to expand its capacity.

Aside from the Judbury woodchip-burning generator, it is likely that 
taxpayers will have to reinforce elements of its existing hydro capacity to 
deal with the extra flows. "Coffer dams" below the main dams will have to 
be built and riverbanks stabilised.

It is not known which way most of the power will flow. The public will 
almost certainly lose out, especially with regard to the environment. 
Tasmanians might end up consuming cheap "greenhouse-unfriendly "off-peak 
power from the lignite-fired Victorian generators during the night, in 
order to have plenty of hydro power available the next morning as mainland 
demand peaks.

Losses of electricity of up to 10 per cent along the cable are inherent in 
the proposal.

The Tasmanian Government is also gambling on attracting large energy-
consuming industries to the island and is hoping that they will bring jobs 
with them.

Most commentators see the repetition of this 1950's style pattern of 
development as highly unlikely in this day and age. Many economists are 
concerned that Tasmania will lose its marketing edge as a clean green 
producer. 

As South Australians now realise, when huge profits enter the equation, a 
state's real power needs become harder to establish. Alternative visions of 
development are met with derision.

Another concern is that the prospect of big profits may cause the 
privatisation of Tasmania's hydropower system to be put back on the agenda.

Again, the South Australian experience confirms that privatised power and 
membership of the National Electricity market is no way to ensure reliable 
supply or cheap electricity, in fact quite the opposite!

As the "consultative process" that accompanies such projects nears its 
conclusion, overseen by an "independent Joint Advisory Panel" , it is up to 
those who have a voice and resent corporate domination of our society to 
protest at this latest outrage.

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