One of the turbines at the laverty's Gap power station.
One of the turbines at the laverty's Gap power station.

Power and politics in Mullumbimby

POWER and politics have always proved a volatile mix.

Never more so than when the power in question is hydro electric and politics at play is the struggle between councils and state government for control over the generation and distribution of electric power.

Back in 1926 the tiny fledgling Mullumbimby Council was fighting the larger Byron Bay Council and State Government over ownership the then thriving hyroelectric plant at Laverty's Gap and the distribution network.

These days we watch Environment Minister Josh Frydenburg and SA Premiere Jay Wetherill, together with other political and industry actors play the blame game over renewable power generation in that state and across the country against the back drop of the Coalition government this week moving to scrap the Renewable Energy Target.

The story of the wrangling over the Laverty's Gap hydro plant is the subject of a new and meticulously researched book by Eureka historian Robyn Gray simply titled, The Struggle for Power.

Ms Gray's history work, available now at Mullumbimby Book Shop, is doubly relevant today in light of a recent ANU study highlighting pumped hydro as a way toward a clean energy future.

The ANU report has in turn put the long-abandoned Mullumbimby hydro electric plant back in the frame with local community energy group COREM investigating the steps required to recommission the plant.

"The debate about sources of generation, reliability and costs of supply (of electricity) are unceasing,” Ms Gray said. "What has changed, however, is the commercial climate we operate in.

"At the height of Mullumbimby's (hydro electric) enterprise, the state government was intent on centralising and controlling the system (as well as looking after its own commercial interests in generation).

"Now, since state governments began hiving off bits to private owners, the game has changed. In our region this has allowed small players like COREM and ENOVA back into the arena.

"But we have gone one step further, even. In times past, the national grid was the aim, now we are back to micro generators - houses with roof top solar, and farmers with a mix of whatever works their windmills.

Ms Gray said just like the water tank days, (before there was a mains water distribution system) and everyone had their own water tank, so it is now with electricity, "we are becoming a bit more independent, especially so in this part of the world.”

She is sceptical that the old Laverty's Gap hydro plant could come back into play operating as it used to especially as it's generation capacity was always augmented by diesel generators due to the variability in water flow on the North Coast.

Project Manager of the Mullumbimby Mini Hydro project Svea Pitman said the major impediment to the local project was access to water as the the current water sharing plan has no allocation for hydro.

"Pumped storage hydro is a way around this issue as it's closed system with the water re-circulated returned to the Laverty's Gap weir,” Ms Pitman said.


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