CopperString is back, with plan to unlock outback wind and solar

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New transmission line that could unlock major wind and solar resources in remote Queensland takes a big step forward.

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The so-called CopperString project in north Queensland is now firmly back on the state government’s agenda, with the $1 billion transmission line now declared a “co-ordinated” project, and with the promise of unlocking a vast tract of outback wind and solar resources.

CopperString is designed to link Townsville with the big mineral provinces around Cloncurry and Mt Isa more than 1,000kms to the west, along the way unlocking some major renewable energy projects and opening up new areas for copper and other forms of mining.

It had been a strong contender for state-backing a decade ago, when the then state government declared it to be a “once in a generation opportunity.”

But it was consigned to the bottom drawer in 2011 when the state government effectively handed the decision to Xstrata, the owner of the big Mount Isa mining operations, who – on the advice of current ACCC boss and then Port Jackson Partners director Rod Sims – chose instead an AGL proposal to invest in a new gas fired generator.

That decision is now proving to be a bad one, given the cost of gas-fired generation, which Xstrata, now part of Glencore, admits is putting questions about the future of mining in the city, and also making it difficult to unlock other major mining operations in the area.

Sims, who readers may remember worked with current energy minister Angus Taylor at Port Jackson Partners at the time, had told Xstrata that it was impossible to predict which way gas prices would go.

Some experts thought that was laughable at the time, and the report – although cited, accessed (as recently as October last year)  and linked from a new analysis reference by the state government, is now nowhere to be found on the Port Jackson website.

The Palaszczuk Government, however, now seems right behind the project, which is still being pushed by a company known as CUString Pty Ltd, and headed by John OBrien. It sees the potential in unlocking anywhere between 1,000MW and 3,000MW of large scale wind and solar, along with other renewable resources, and so cutting the cost of energy for other mining projects.

CUString will now have to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS) for the project, which state development minister Cameron Dick says could create up to 400 full-time jobs during its three-and-a-half-year construction phase and up to 30 full-time jobs once fully operational.

“The project is a 1,100-kilometre 275 kilovolt overhead high-voltage electricity transmission line connecting the North West Minerals Provence and Mount Isa to the National Electricity Market grid south of Townsville,” Dick said in a statement over the weekend.

“The proponent has stated the project will provide reliable electricity to communities and mines in the area, as well offering an alternative electricity supply to the North West.”

Subject to approvals, CuString proposes to commence the first stage of construction, a 720-kilometre overhead high-voltage electricity line from Woodstock, south of Townsville, to the Chumvale Sub-station, near Cloncurry, by the end of 2020, with operations commencing by the end of 2022.

CuString then proposes to extend the line from the Chumvale Sub-station to Mount Isa and south to the Phosphate Hill Power Station and Cannington Mine as early as the beginning of 2024, subject to demand.

A report published two months ago in support of CopperString notes the high prices paid by consumers in the North West Minerals Province (NWMP), which “inhibits the development of new mines, industrial development and reduces the economic life of current mineral production operations.”

It also noted the importance of the wind and solar resources to the state government’s 50 per cent renewable energy target

“The CopperString Project supports these objectives by providing a market for the large renewable resources available in the region as well as providing access to the current isolated gas fired generation in Mt Isa,” it notes.

This, the report notes, was clear to “informed stakeholders” way back in 2008, when the project was first conceived.

“Around this same time it became clear to informed stakeholders that the renewable energy resources in northern Queensland could make a valuable contribution to lower costs and carbon-pricing risk of energy supply in the region,” the new report notes.

“Particularly to large value-adding industries and the concept of the “Sustainable Resources Corridor” was created in conjunction with MITEZ and Local Government between Townsville and Mt Isa.”

But the chief advisor to the decision makers of the time, and the current head of our competition regulator, thought he knew better.

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