About 10,000 hectares of Kosciuszko national park will be cleared for giant power transmission lines, visible for many kilometres, after New South Wales altered a park management plan to allow a link between the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project and the wider grid.
The revision to the 2006 park plan, which environmental groups say they only learned of weeks later, altered a provision requiring “all additional telecommunication and transmission lines to be located underground”. The state government inserted “except those constructed as part of the Snowy 2.0 Project”.
The planning minister, Anthony Roberts, referenced the move in a 14 September statement on “vital” energy ventures. The government had approved 9km of transmission lines for Snowy that would create 140 jobs, he said, without referencing the amendment.
“It’s just unbelievable and reprehensible. It’s in arguably one of Australia’s most iconic national parks,” Ted Woodley, a spokesperson for the national parks Association of NSW. “It’s like putting in a transmission line over the Opera House.”
“It’ll leave a legacy there for future generations, permanently despoiling a large part of the park,” Woodley, a former senior energy executive, said. “No one has built a transmission line in a national park for almost 50 years. It sets an enormous precedent.”
Proponents of Snowy 2.0, with its 2,000 megawatts of on-demand generating capacity and 350,000MW-hours of storage, say the project will support the decarbonisation of the grid. Transgrid, the transmission operator, says the dual 330kV overhead lines are needed to connect to a new substation located in Bago State Forest, and to bury the lines would add multiples to their cost.
Jamie Pittock, an Australian National University professor said the plan’s revision, resulting in towers as high as 75 metres and requiring an easement of 140 metres wide, was “an appalling decision”.
Alternative routes for a subterranean cable to an existing substation near the Talbingo reservoir would require less underground work and need much less land clearing. While potentially more than the cost of the overhead lines, the total sum “would only be a tiny proportion” of Snowy 2.0’s total bill, Pittock said.
Woodley said the full tab for the project, including the HumeLink transmission and hundreds of kilometres of new overhead lines, could top $12bn, or six times the amount cited when then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the plan in 2017.
Guardian Australia approached the environment minister, James Griffin, and Snowy Hydro for comment.
A Transgrid spokesperson said the project was declared critical state significant infrastructure to NSW for economic, environmental and social reasons.
“Our team has assessed the option of placing the proposed overhead transmission underground, considering numerous factors including technical feasibility, constructability, network planning requirements, cost to consumers and environmental impacts,” the spokesperson said, adding Transgrid’s response to the submissions was backed by a separate options assessment report that considered “all potential feasible connection options”.
In an email dated 30 September – 29 days after the plan was amended – Barry Hayden, a NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service manager, alerted environmental groups to the amendment.
“234 submissions were received during public exhibition of the draft amendment,” Hayden said. “Many of these highlighted concerns about the environmental and visual impacts of overhead transmission lines associated with the implementation of the Snowy 2.0 project within the park. These submissions have assisted in the preparation and consideration of the final amendment which is now adopted.”
Sue Higginson, a NSW Greens MP, said the government had “completely ignored the outstanding natural values of the Kosciusko national park time and time again”.
“If the NSW government was serious about investing in our renewable energy future then they would commit the money needed to underground the electricity infrastructure in line with the original plan of management,” Higginson said. “This move is harmful, shortsighted and does not save costs in real terms.”