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.