Member for Oxley Melinda Pavey is clear on her reasons for supporting the renewable energy project that has some in the Macleay Valley deeply concerned.
Situated on private land halfway between Armidale and Kempsey, the Oven Mountain Pumped Hydro Energy Storage project is being developed by Australian company OMPS Pty Ltd, in partnership with Hong Kong owned Alinta Energy.
Their aim is to use the area's steep topography and two naturally occurring granite basins to create a closed-loop pumped hydro plant providing up to 12 hours of storage.
The plant will pump water from a lower reservoir into an upper reservoir using excess power from other renewable energy projects. The water is then released to generate up to 600MW of hydro power during periods of peak demand.
Community information sessions were recently held ahead of the project entering its Environmental Impact Statement stage. The developers are hoping to start construction in 2024 and begin operating by 2030.
Ms Pavey said she supports the project's intentions of creating renewable energy in the region.
"I'm in favour of ensuring that we have an energy supply that is both affordable and meets our obligations in terms of emissions, and banks and the financial services sector are saying coal is not an option anymore," she said.
"We just had a very strong signal that something like this is needed when we nearly ran out of electricity for New South Wales, so we need something that can help when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining, and pumped hydro is that option.
"This project falls into the New England Renewable Energy Zone, and 20 per cent of that [design's] goal will be achieved in this one project. [It] is around 25 per cent of the size of Snowy Hydro, but is potentially going to cost a lot less and it's not going to be through national parks, it's going to be on private land."
I'm hearing a lot of people saying, 'Oh, it's China'. Well, it's not China. It's actually an Australian invention by a former local.- Member for Oxley Melinda Pavey
In October 2020, the project was declared "Critical State Significant Infrastructure".
During the community consultation sessions run by the company, Macleay Valley residents expressed concerns about the project's relationship with China. However, Ms Pavey wants to make it clear that Australia is leading the project.
"I'm hearing a lot of people saying, 'Oh, it's China'. Well, it's not China. It's actually an Australian invention by a former local who has since passed, and now his sons are continuing his dream... which is supported by Australian engineers and Australian intelligence.
"This is an Australian man who saw this potential about 40 years ago. He bought this land here and this is the ultimate respect of his vision, and which his kids, who own the farm, want to continue.
"There is a company associated with Hong Kong that is funding the exploration and the design of the project. Alinta [Energy] is a major worldwide company that was started in Hong Kong by a gentleman who was originally a jeweller. So it's old Commonwealth money.
"It is yet to be seen how this project actually goes to market but whatever happens, [it] will be determined and run by the laws of Australia. If it's part of the national energy market, there will be rules it has to follow and no foreign country can come in and tell Australia what to do on its land."
As the project is an "off river" scheme, it will have additional need for water over its operational life. Water from the Macleay River will be used for the initial fill and will be drawn under high river flow conditions.
But some people fear the project will run the river dry.
Ms Pavey said that although she understands the community's concerns, water from the Macleay River will only be taken on rare occasions.
"I would share concerns with the community if I felt that it was going to be taking water from the river all the time and keep Kempsey short in a drought, but that is not the plan.
"It is one take of six gigalitres over a high flow time. We've probably had thousands of gigalitres go through since the rain started and the two lots of floods we've had, and we wouldn't have missed a thimble of that, which is effectively what a six gigalitre take would mean.
"They might need to top it up but, if they did, it would be infinitesimal and they would only take it during times of high flow. I think people have really got to understand it's not going to be taking water all the time.
"In fact, there could be the potential to give Kempsey some security with that water sitting there if we were in a desperate situation and needed to use it."
We should have a goal as a region between Kempsey and Armidale that the road be sealed, which I believe could happen under the benefits of this project.- Member for Oxley Melinda Pavey
Ms Pavey said the project will create thousands of jobs during construction, with a further 30 ongoing jobs once the plant is completed and commissioned.
Upgrades of up to 60km of existing road between Armidale and Kempsey will also be required, to allow for safe access throughout construction.
Ms Pavey said these are just some of the many benefits within the project.
"This project will have the potential of creating up to 3000 jobs during construction," she said.
"I know there won't be that many jobs after it's constructed, but the training that the people get on this job - and I want it to be as many locals as possible - will be the type of training that can go with them to any other project throughout Australia and the world.
"I also want to see the road improved. We have now guaranteed $227 million in natural disaster relief funding to improve the Kempsey to Armidale road, so this is a really important opportunity.
"We should have a goal as a region between Kempsey and Armidale that the road be sealed, which I believe could happen under the benefits of this project, and if we seal that road we provide another route across the Great Dividing Range.
"That's a safer road for people going to UNE (the University of New England) who are wanting to come back to the Macleay Valley."
Ms Pavey said she want the developers to work closely with the community.
"I encourage the company to put an office in town," she said. "I also encourage the company to let the locals be the [project's] champions. And I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about people that live up river, as a lot of the people up river want this project.
"It's a dual responsibility... it's up to the company to explain the project and they've had lots of community consultations to do so, but it's also up to the community to learn for themselves and not be told by others, and I'm sure their concerns will be allayed.
"I just want the community to learn as much as they can about it, and I want the company to be there explaining it every step of the way.
"The beauty of this project is that it is not decided yet. It's still going through environmental impact statements, so it is a project that can be developed with everyone in mind."
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