This is a tall-tale-but-true story of a micro-hydro dream which confronted every form of bureaucratic challenge…
Graham is very proud of the fact that as a young man in 1967 he was the Hydro Electric Commission’s apprentice of the year. He came to marvel at the power of water and the elegance of harnessing the strength of flowing water to produce electricity. You can read more about Graham’s passion for hydro power here.
The Water Saga (2001 to 2011)
Our newly purchased property had no council services in 2001; no water, no sewage and no garbage collection. Despite survey documents showing our property within the Branxholm town boundary and water district our council refused to connect us to town water. Furthermore, the town water supply pump was just 10m from our front gate.
But like many small regional towns, our local Council was not consistent in its justification for providing services. For example, our neighbour’s property over the river is outside the town boundary and water district, yet had been using town water for their stock for many years.
What was the logic here? Some local residents told us that old Dolly–who had owned the land about 70 years ago–never had power or Council services. Apparently local town residents offered this as a justification. So this sad state of affairs was an accepted fact of history!
RULE ONE: never try to change the status quo in a small country town.
In search of water
Meanwhile we went in search of water. But, isn’t Tin Dragon Cottages surrounded by the Ringarooma River? Well, yes, it is. However the Ringarooma River flows through rich agricultural land and consequently the water is not safe to drink.
Anyway, in the hills above our property we found a small clear-flowing creek called the Guiding Star. This creek flows over a rock base through native regrowth forest. So this made it ideal for a gravity-fed drinking water supply.
Branded as outcasts by local community
By questioning the historical logic we became outcasts. Consequently we suffered a long and sorry set of woes including extensive criminal damage. Despite having all the required licenses and leases, we only enjoyed our new water supply for a few months. At least two local residents chopped up our pipeline into 186 pieces.
But it didn’t end there. In an apparently random act, our Council raised the height of their weir upstream of our water intake. Of course this dried up the creek and denied us the water for our tourism business.
Finally we took our Council to a Land Management Tribunal in 2011. This latter event is crucial background to the present story, because it was the final step in gaining access to our water licence and getting water to flow in our pipeline.
The Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment (DPIPWE) required us to submit an environmental impact assessment in order to apply for a water licence. Consequently, interesting observations recorded in this document prompted the Dorset Waterwatch to undertake an environment audit, Report on environmental flows in Guiding Star Creek, Branxholm, Tasmania, Australia (2007).
OK. Enough about our water woes and the vandalism inflicted on us. I will save this story for another blog.
The Micro-Hydro Project
Did I mention that the Guiding Star Creek was in the hills above our property? In fact it is about 100m above our property (and 2.5km away). Graham set his heart on harnessing this water for power. I thought he was crazy.
At 2002 electricity prices I estimated it might take at least 20 years to recover the cost of such a scheme. But he was so set on the idea, he purchased 3km of 150mm galvanized steel pipes and fittings second-hand from a mining company. We even traded our old diesel Mercedes 300D with the transaction to save some money!
Funny story about power poles and cattle
Did I mention our neighbour across the river? The property which uses the town water supply for all its stock and domestic requirements? Well our power is delivered on poles across our neighbour’s property and historically his cattle grazed on our property. (BTW these two facts are connected.)
Having a herd of dairy cows on our property was somewhat inconvenient when we wanted to put in the underground services for our cottages. So in response to our polite request to remove his cattle, our neighbour stated that he had an arrangement with all previous owners for the last 30 years. They could have electricity in return for his cattle crossing the river. Basically our neighbour’s cows were being agisted for free on our property!
Stream care grant
In 2001 DPIPWE was offering small grants for land owners to fence off riparian reserves, including along the Ringarooma River. Our Development Application required a 100m riparian reserve, so we were pleased to receive the funding for fencing materials and ~2000 native trees.
But although we put in the fence, we still had our neighbour’s cattle walking all over the river bank. Perhaps you haven’t seen the erosion and other damage that cattle can cause around rivers? We offered to help our neighbour apply for a grant and even offered to build the fence. We really needed to get those cattle off the river bank, so we could plant our 2000 trees!
But we had to use the grant-funding. So we planted our trees. Then Graham wasted many precious hours each day stringing up electric fences across the river and chasing cows. I kept imagining people looking down from the hill above the other side of the river, laughing at our efforts!
Many months later our neighbour built his riparian fence. Just in time to meet the deadline for the final Stream Care grants.
Who owns the poles?
Our neighbour had a power pole near the river to service a pump on the river. When we needed to change the low voltage lines on this pole to bring high voltage lines across the river to our property we received a letter. He would not allow the linesmen to access his property without payment. To keep the peace we paid him $1000. The linesmen were on his property for about 3 hours
But the poles became an issue on two more occasions. When our neighbour disconnected his river pump he suggested we would need to maintain the poles and eventually replace them. Then he was very quick to find another angle when we turned on our micro hydro generator. He wanted us to pay him a pole rental fee!
Of course all of this is non-sense. The poles carry high voltage and are owned by the Hydro Electric Company. Over the years we have reached a position of mutual respect with our neighbour, but he still has the ability to surprise us!
Now, take a deep breath for the bureaucratic rollercoaster. We would need a state government water licence to extract water from the Guiding Star Creek and a Forestry Tasmania lease for our pipeline.
As a pre-condition for the water licence we completed an environmental impact study during the driest summer months of 2002 and 2003. We did a lot of walking and exploring of the bush above our property, and on a few occasions met some unlikely bushwalkers. I still wonder whether these people were in any way linked to the disappearing water phenomenon we recorded in the creek at certain times of the day. Best not to speculate.
So having been granted a low-priority non-consumptive water licence in 2003, it was another ten years before water started flowing through our pipeline.
The Tribunal (see above) was a huge emotional drain, but now we had water flowing in the Guiding Star creek again. Next, we quickly completed the paperwork for a forestry Tasmania lease. After the nightmare of dealing with our local council, this seemed easy.
After having the pipeline approved, we started work on the 2.5km pipeline. This was really hard work, too. Graham, a 70 year-old family friend, and an excavator driver had the pipeline off our property and up the major hill within two weeks. This put us on track to be generating power over the entire winter period of 2013.
Then another hurdle
We had nearly completed the pipeline when we received a call from Forestry to stop work immediately. Strangely the guys at forestry Tasmania (FT) discovered that their assessment approving our pipeline was in error. Additional heritage values needed to be considered. #*&! What complete BS. We were very aware of the mining heritage and our pipeline was no where near any significant features.
It took three weeks to get the Forestry officers to meet us on site for a discussion. Their body language was fascinating: one apologetic, one angry, another determined. A week later we were informed that our existing pipework would (reluctantly) be allowed, but we had to direct our pipeline from one side of a gravel road to the other, then back again (four 45 degree turns) to avoid a short section of an old water race on one side of the road. Of course this water race had long ago been flattened by the road and exists on both sides of the road. Leaves me wondering why one side of the road is more important than the other?
See RULE 1 (above) I can see the FT guys sitting around with cups of coffee when some clever person comes up with the idea of making us put a U bend in our pipeline!
We were told to cease work till the amended paperwork arrived. Oh yes, we were also told that the final section of the pipeline entering the creek had to be dug by hand (about 50m).
So, we started the next day, used a mini excavator to dig the final section, completed the pipeline, purchased the generator and essentially completed the project in the next few weeks. The amended paperwork arrived during mid-summer about 10 months later (2014). By then we had had almost one winter season of power generation.
High tech calculations
Most important. We had a 150mm pipeline traversing 2.5 km up a 97m hill. Not straight up, but with some flat bits and some dips too; and a rotten big U turn! What capacity generator should we purchase? We made several enquiries of Chinese-based companies, but felt very uncomfortable about purchasing. They seemed too keen to give us the answer they thought we wanted.
We needed to determine the optimal flow rate for a winter season and the working head. That is, the actual head (97m) minus all the frictional losses. Oh! Should we purchase two 2kW generators, a 4 kW? 6? Given the high cost, we couldn’t afford to get it wrong!
Time for practical thinking
So we engaged our practical brains. Graham dug out some old water flow charts. These vaguely reminded me of first-year university physics. Yes folks I studied physics in 1st year uni. Long forgotten. About this time Graham contacted an Australian company who informed him that he could estimate the working head using water pressure and flow.
Then, armed with a $40 pressure guage, a second-hand mechanical water meter, some welding gear and some old charts from our filing cabinet, Graham determined a working head of 88m at a maximum flow of 20 L/sec. We made an informed decision to purchase a 7.5kW induction generator.
The generator and inverter were installed. Over the next few months Graham tested the pipeline and improved its performance with well-placed air bleeds and a gate valve.
Another hurdle – really?
We engaged a young electrician who boasted experience with solar and micro hydro systems to connect our system to the grid. There were some minor hic ups that were easily resolved. But it was a shame that the young guy was prone to lying rather than admitting mistakes.
Lesson for the younger generation: Better to quickly admit fault than making up creative excuses or lying.
Unfortunately one major mistake was made. Meanwhile, Aurora had given us permission to flick the switch. All systems go.
The inverter started recording a maximum generation of 4kW/hr. We had been expecting more. It wasn’t till several years later that we discovered why the generator was underperforming. I guess that is another story, too. If you are interested you can talk to Graham! Since the initial installation we have changed the jets, exciter and inverter…
Meanwhile, we noticed that the import-export meter wasn’t working. We registered a fault with Aurora. We asked the meter-reading guy why the meter was so silent. He had no idea. Two days later another Aurora guy turned up. We thought he was here to fix the meter. No, just to read our meter again.
An unexpected electricity bill
Then we received a bill from Aurora for about $1,500. Shocked disbelief. According to our inverter we had exported 3500kWhrs into the grid. Under the terms of our contract with Aurora we should have received ~$1000.
But we had been given an estimated bill because the Aurora guy stated he couldn’t access our meter. We registered a dispute with Aurora. The next series of events defies belief. Calm down madam I was told during one of my many phone calls. Does it ever end?
It took some time to uncover the problem. The wrong meter had been replaced with the new import-export meter. Meanwhile the meter connected to our generator was happily turning backwards as it delivered power into the grid. The difference between this meter’s previous reading and the new reading was equal to the amount of power we had generated.
Great. So now Aurora could change the meter connection, and re-issue the bill with a substantial credit. Wrong. They refused. We went to the ombudsman, who inexplicably agreed with Aurora. Aurora then threatened to cut us off from the grid. We ended up paying the $1,500 plus interest and fines. We just didn’t have any fight left.
The unfortunate electrician was left holding the can when we subsequently issued him an invoice. We may have recouped some of our loss, but we still believe Aurora acted in an unconscionable manner.
We generated our fist micro hydro power from July 2013 to mid January 2014. This resulted in the micro hydro generator producing 18MWhrs of electricity. Each summer we turn off the pipeline in order to maintain environmental flow in the creek. Since 2014 all our Aurora bills have been in credit – apart from that time during the pandemic when we received another or Aurora’s famous estimated bills!
You can see more images and read about our micro hydro set up in another Blog post on our site, powering a dream.
Increasing the reliability of our renewable power supply
In late 2018 we used Tasmanian Government finance to revamp our power supply. Our new supply incorporates the micro-hydro generator, 17.5kW of solar PV and 27kWH Tesla Power walls. This ensures the reliability of our renewable electricity for our tourism business.