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Snowy 2.0: Building on a Legend and Legacy

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The massive multi-billion-dollar expansion of the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric scheme has broken ground this month, following the federal government’s recent announcement of shareholder approval for the project.

Dubbed “Snowy 2.0”, the project will see new tunnels and power stations as well as supporting infrastructure constructed to deliver a pumped storage hydro-generation facility. Snowy 2.0 will be capable of dispatching 2,000 MW of energy into the National Electricity Market, with a start time to energy delivery of mere minutes from flicking the on-switch.

It is expected to create up to 2,400 construction jobs and support thousands more indirect jobs across the Snowy Mountains region.

Local councils report they are already seeing an increase in economic activity from the feasibility study works,  environmental impact assessment activities, and preparation for the first stage of early works. These include the construction of a 3.1km tunnel to assess geological and geotechnical conditions ahead of detailed design. NSW Government granted planning approval for the early stage exploratory works in February.

The local councils are also gearing up for boosts to local infrastructure in towns. Adaminaby, for instance, expects an increase in economic activity over the seven-year construction timeframe.

What’s more, a digital portal for imminent and ongoing business opportunities and employment opportunities has already been created by Snowy Hydro Ltd, the majority partner in funding Snowy 2.0. The company will have ownership and operation of the finished asset.

Engineering Success Stories

As with the original Snowy Scheme, the project involves overcoming enormous technical, logistical and environmental challenges.

For example, as part of the geological assessment, proposed exploratory works will include taking horizontal core samples at a depth of around 1km below ground. This will generate data to inform the precise location of the underground caverns for the two new power stations.

The early stages have seen one of Australia’s major engineering success stories, SMEC (originally the Snowy Mountains Engineering Company, now part of the global Surbana Jurong Group), return to its roots.

In May 2017, SMEC was engaged by Snowy Hydro to help undertake the Feasibility Study for Snowy 2.0. This saw SMEC re-open its Cooma office and the engagement of around 350 personnel. The feasibility study included preparing designs for 50km of tunnels, 280 design drawings, and delivering a 1,500-page project report.

In January, the preferred tenderers for Snowy 2.0 were announced. They include Future Generation, a partnership between Australian construction and engineering company, Clough, and global hydropower and tunnelling specialists, Salini Impregilo, to undertake the civil works.

Voith Hydro, global hydropower engineering and equipment supplier, is the preferred electrical and mechanical tenderer while South Australian company Leed Engineering has been awarded the contract for exploratory works pre-construction activities.

Former Chief Operating Officer of Snowy Hydro, Ken Lister, tells Jobsite ANZ that although there are many changes in technology, environmental requirements and safety practices since the original Snowy’s construction, one thing hasn’t changed—the passion the people involved feel for the project.

“In speaking with people, I can see the passion there is for the project,” he says. “It is another nation-building project that will have benefits for decades into the future.”

“In speaking with people, I can see the passion there is for the project,” he says. “It is another nation-building project that will have benefits for decades into the future.”

Lister prepared a paper that reflected on the original Snowy and its legacy, The Snowy Mountains Scheme – More Than Engineering Heritage, which was presented at the 11th National Conference on Engineering Heritage in 2001.

Safety Cultural Change

In his paper, Lister observed that although the project saw 121 workplace fatalities among the approximately 100,000 workers involved in the 25-year construction effort, this was still a “remarkably low” number for the 1940s-1970s era in the industry.

A number of the safety innovations introduced on the project were instrumental in keeping the toll low. In fact, some of them are now standard across Australia, even in sectors beyond construction. Thiess Brothers introduced the first safety belts in vehicles ever used in Australia, similarly to the first use of safety bars to reduce the impact of equipment rollovers. Safety messaging was widespread, and a culture prioritising safe practices was born.

Lister says the cultural change has been crucial to Snowy Hydro’s ongoing management of safety and improvements in safety outcomes. Undoubtedly, looking at archival construction photos from the original Snowy is enough to make a contemporary safety officer’s hair stand on end—and highlights the overall shift in practices and expectations.

The original project also created a legacy of expertise that is still delivering benefits today, he explains.

In his paper, he highlighted the development of project management, skills, technology transfer, improved safety, and environmental management public relations and tourism as key legacies.

Civil Engineering Wonder  

Snowy 2.0, he says, will also deliver a legacy of training and experience for the new generation of engineers in fields as diverse as tunnelling, mechanical and electrical engineering, control systems and digital technologies.

According to Lister, a major difference between the two projects is the original Snowy was designed around the need to ensure reliable water supplies for a booming agricultural sector downstream from the project. Snowy 2.0, on the other hand, is focused on the power supply. It also aims to ensure the reliability of the National Electricity Market as more intermittent renewables come online. Snowy 2.0 will not impact water releases from the current Scheme, fulfilling the Water License requirements.

However, international expertise and engagement will be an element the two Snowy projects have in common, Lister explains. Engineers on the original Snowy were sent overseas to learn from projects and firms in the US and Europe. Moreover, offshore expertise was also engaged locally. This is already an element of the group of companies with preferred tenderer status.

Innovations in engineering were another part of the Snowy legacy, for example, the technique of “rock bolting” in tunnelling. This safer and cheaper alternative to concrete lining for supporting rock in tunnel walls has by now become a mainstream practice across projects including road, rail and other infrastructure.

The project’s overall scale and engineering excellence were recognised by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1967 when it became listed as one of the civil engineering wonders of the modern world.

Digital innovation was also a feature—Australia’s first transistorised computer, Snowcom, was designed and built by the University of Sydney for the project Authority to use for design and engineering calculations. The computer had a memory capacity equivalent to 8,000 bytes and could hold 2,048 words.

By contrast, Snowy 2.0 will be able to leverage the cloud-enabled, interconnected and high-speed data processing power of the 21st century.

Lister says Snowy Hydro is continually innovating in the digital space. Over the recent years, it has invested substantially in advanced control systems as well as digital technologies for use by workers out in the field, such as maintenance and operations personnel.

Snowy 2.0 will make a “terrific contribution” to the national economy through its contribution to reliable power supplies. Lister points out that while a hydro project of this scale has high capital costs, its operating costs are minimal. The assets are also long-lived and reliable.

“In speaking with people, I can see the passion there is for the project,” he says. “It is another nation-building project that will have benefits for decades into the future.”

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