A game changer for New Zealand’s energy needs?
WATCH: Could the NZ Battery Project save us from dry winters and burning fossil fuels? The Changing South team talks to the man who came up with the idea.
In 2002, Earl Bardsley, Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Waikato, came up with the idea of using Lake Onslow in central Otago to meet the country’s electricity needs during dry years.
Twenty years later, his plan is about to be a reality.
New Zealand has struggled with ‘the dry year problem’. Although blessed with an abundance of hydrogen-generating lakes and rivers, the country faces problems when lake levels are low. At such times, electricity must be generated by expensive and polluting fossil fuels, which the government has pledged to phase out by 2030.
“I was always looking for possibilities by which we could obtain alternative means of storage away from our picturesque natural lakes. That’s why I started thinking about the Lake Onslow basin,” says Bardsley.
By the end of the year, the government will have decided whether or not to go ahead with the $4 billion project that could turn Bardsley’s vision into reality. The decision to proceed will largely be based on the findings of a feasibility study known as the NZ Battery Project, the results of which will be announced in June 2022.
“That’s like saying we’re using Lake Onslow as a battery,” says Bardsley.
“When prices are low and there is plenty of water, we pump water into the lake. When there is a dry year, we will have all this potential energy available that we can redirect to the Clutha River.
“By running it, we can generate 1,000 megawatts, which means we can get rid of fossil fuels as a power source in dry years.”
Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods is unequivocal about the significance of the project and what it could mean for the government’s commitment to New Zealand’s energy being 100 % renewable by 2030.
“Look, this is going to be a game changer. Not only will this allow us to decarbonize and access this 100% renewable electricity system, but, more broadly, through our energy system.
As Bardsley further explains, “An example could be the dairy industry and the production of powdered milk, which consumes a lot of energy.
“If we use this energy from electricity rather than, say, coal, then it’s better for the whole country.”
The scale of the project is illustrated by Bardsley’s assertion that: “The highest point of water storage volume and the height of the River Clutha means that you could have potential energy up there equal to all the lakes New Zealand hydropower combined.”
Bardsley and Woods acknowledge that the wetlands adjacent to Onslow Lake would be a casualty of the project, with Woods noting that any cultural significance will need to be considered and addressed.
Bardsley’s belief in the project is clear: “It would be nice to see this all go ahead. This will change the New Zealand energy scene for the next 50 years.