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Byron Shire
February 25, 2021

Northern NSW hydro co forced to close

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A micro-hydroelectric turbine manufacturing company has told Echonetdaily it has been ‘driven to bankruptcy’ by the state government and the Clean Energy Council (CEC).

Pelena Energy says politicians from both parties have largely ignored its technology, which can run 24/7 on a source of running water and requires no batteries or inverters, over many years.

Five jobs were axed last Monday at the Dorrigo based plant, which was to turn 15 years old in April.

Pelena Energy director Peter Lynch told Echonetdaily that after trying to obtain a production licence in Australia proved too difficult, he resorted to exporting to developing countries overseas.

‘Over the past 15 years,’ he says, ‘we have been forced to focus on high risk countries like PNG, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu for sales because there has been an active – almost campaign approach – by various Australian state and federal agencies to exclude our technology from the renewable energy mix in Australia.

‘The crunch point has come primarily due to the inability to finish a job in Vanuatu. We shipped a turbine package but it got stuck on a wharf due to a dispute between our client, the Vanuatu Department of Energy and the provincial government agency responsible for the wharves.’

He says the final straw was when another job offer fell through from the Pacific island’s government over a week ago. ‘It’s a great shame that what we do has been proven to work, and is wanted, especially in the Pacific.’

Mr Lynch claims his stainless steel turbines outlast many others available, and include universal sized parts.

‘The success we’ve had with these systems is unmatched because they’re all still working, whereas almost all other hydro systems have failed.

‘The systems continue to generate clean, renewable electricity for communities, schools, and health clinics [overseas].

‘This has resulted in significant development benefits for the communities such as electric lighting, which allows children to undertake homework after dark and people to generate income through the use of their own electricity generating system. We’re solving one of the world’s biggest problems – energy independence – yet I have had no support.’

How it was killed off

Mr Lynch lays much of the blame on the Clean Energy Council (CEC), which facilitates accreditation for hydroelectric installations on behalf of the government. ‘Pelena is, and has been, abused by the CEC from a number of fronts.’

He says the main issue is that ‘only those with photovoltaic (solar) accreditation can get micro-hydro accreditation’.

‘Hydro experts are excluded from accreditation, and only PV accreditation can be maintained through regular PV approved installs. Basically, the hydro experts are excluded from accreditation.’

A spokesperson from the Clean Energy Council confirmed the claims with Echonetdaily. ‘The Clean Energy Council is in the process of introducing a standalone accreditation for micro-hydro and this should be ready to roll out within the next couple of months,’ he said.

Notwithstanding, further claims by Mr Lynch suggest hydro’s potentials are being strangled further by CEC’s red tape.

‘A 100kw (kilowatt) PV solar system can be installed and connected to the electricity ‘grid’ without any issue in NSW,’ he says.

‘In fact, it has been promoted and significantly subsidised by state and federal governments.

‘However, a micro-hydro (generating electricity 24/7) cannot be installed to the grid, nor any of the electricity used for any income generating purpose, unless a full EIA (environmental impact assessment) has been carried out and approved – likely costing in excess of $120,000.’

Additionally he says, ‘A hydro that generates more than an average output per year of 2.8kw, or is larger than 6.4kw must be registered as a “power station” and subject to the same reporting requirements as all other power stations, like coal fired power stations. Solar PV systems under 100kw do not.’

Little to no political support from Nats

Mr Lynch says support from his local state and federal MPs – both of whom are National party members – has been underwhelming.

‘I have been totally unsuccessful with successive [coalition and Labor] governments over the years,’ he told Echonetdaily.

State MP for Oxley, which covers Dorrigo, is Nationals leader and deputy premier Andrew Stoner, who is also minister for trade and investment.

He advised Echonetdaily through his media spokesperson, ‘The closure of any business and loss of jobs is disappointing particularly in regional NSW’.

‘NSW Trade & Investment has provided advice, introductions and other business facilitation services to Pelena Energy over several years via our export advisers and business development managers on the north coast. The department also provided a grant to assist the company to develop a strategic marketing plan and website.

‘Pelena Energy contacted Trade & Investment on March 22 in relation to its current difficulties. It is understood that the decision to close the operation is purely a commercial decision.’

In reply, Mr Lynch says, ‘We received $2,549, which was less than half the total cost of developing the website at that time. No assistance has been provided to Pelena Energy in any way before or since this date in 2004, despite numerous applications and meetings.’

Hydro not entirely ignored by govt

But hydro hasn’t been completely ignored by the O’Farrell/Stoner government.

In 2011, the same year they were elected, Business Spectator reported that $300,000 was awarded to NSW hydro company Waratah Power, for ‘funding to pursue research in small-scale run-of-river hydro schemes in NSW’.

As of 2013, Waratah Power’s website is light on detail regarding its projects or achievements. Its chairman Graham Hart is also a former ‘career banker’.

Mr Lynch queries why his company was excluded from the funding. ‘Mr Stoner was noticeably embarrassed about this grant funding when I met with him in Dorrigo last year.

‘Prior to Mr Stoner’s election to government, he was literally punching the air in Dorrigo on one electorate visitation stating “Dorrigo – micro-hydro capital of Australia!” The enthusiasm for supporting an innovative company in his electorate has significantly, and demonstrably, waned.’

MP Hartsuyker: no political weight

As for federal Nationals MP Luke Hartsuyker, who represents the Division of Cowper, his spokesperson told Echonetdaily there is ‘no recent record of contact’ from Pelena Energy or Peter Lynch.

‘We made representations around four or five or years ago,’ he said. Mr Hartsuyker was unavailable for further comment as he was travelling by plane.

In return, Mr Lynch says Mr Hartsuyker has ‘made the statement a number of times that he has “made representation” in Canberra on our behalf’.

‘This has, without exception, resulted in no support or positive outcome. Our experience with Mr Hartsuyker has been one of the most disappointing aspects of relocating to rural NSW as he demonstrably has no political weight with either the Nationals or in Canberra.’

Meanwhile energy market advocate Mark Byrne from the Total Environment Centre told Echonetdaily that state and local environment planning instruments are prohibiting projects such as these from succeeding.

‘Specifically the Environmental Planning And Assessment Act 1979 needs to be amended to reflect hydro technology.’

Glazed Abbott

Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the disconnect with how hydro – a technology that has been around for at least a century – has been marginalised was the reaction of opposition leader Tony Abbott.

‘Last year Tony Abbott came to Dorrigo,’ says Mr Lynch.

‘I was with the chamber of commerce so I got to introduce myself and my invention.

‘When I told him of the issues I was facing getting it off the ground, a glaze came over his eyes. It was a significant point where I realised that the people talking to people like him are not showing them what is possible. The solutions are here and now.’

When asked by Echonetdaily why he doesn’t sell his units on eBay, for example, he said, ‘Each attempt has been thwarted by successive barriers in legislation to get them installed on a large scale in NSW, or thwarted by an apparent government incentive program only to have micro-hydro “specifically excluded” at the last minute in favour of PV solar technologies and, to a lesser extent, wind’.

Mr Lynch made the point that after media coverage on his technologies, he inevitably gets a barrage of calls for orders.

Due to planning legislation and CEC guidelines, however, he is unable to sell the units in Australia. For more information visit www.pelena.com.au while the website is still online.

 


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