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Meet the hydro engineer who wants to forge global ties

Hydropower could help Australia and India kick their coal habit.

By Samir Jeraj

“The first time I saw a hydropower station was at university – and it was a very inspiring moment,” said Tammy Chu, the managing director of Entura, a power and water consulting firm delivering projects throughout the Indo-Pacific region. “I was awestruck by the size of the infrastructure and what it was doing, and had done, for Tasmania,” she said.

Tammy Chu grew up on the island off the coast of Australia. Her love of maths, science, design and “finding solutions” led her to study civil engineering. “I felt that engineering had a strong future and would allow me to contribute to long-term positive impacts on communities,” she said.

While hydropower is around 80 per cent of Tasmania’s energy mix, it is just over 1 per cent of the UK’s. China is currently the world’s largest producer, followed by Brazil and Canada. Hydropower is not without its challenges, however, and while it can be used effectively to generate clean energy, some large-scale projects have led to settled communities and nature being displaced or destroyed. The UK Labour Party’s “Making the UK a clean energy superpower” briefing doesn’t mention hydropower, but Liverpool’s Labour metro mayor has been leading efforts to develop a tidal barrage system on the River Mersey that is claimed would generate energy for up to a million homes for 120 years. This proposal has attracted some criticism for its likely impact on local wildlife, but its huge estimated initial cost of £6bn means it has a long way to go before approval.

Hydropower had been the source of Tasmania’s industrialisation through the 20th century, and Chu was keen to be part of its future, enrolling as a graduate civil engineer with Hydro Tasmania, a Tasmanian government enterprise that provides much of the island’s electricity. “I could see that by working in hydropower I could leave a positive and enduring legacy for future generations,” she said. For her that meant helping to bring about the clean energy transition, mitigating flood risks, maintaining environmental flows and safeguarding water supply. Chu is currently part of the steering committee for Tasmania’s “Battery of the Nation”, a vision to expand and upgrade hydropower storage capacity to power mainland Australia as it transitions away from coal. “In a role like mine, it’s easy to be drawn to new projects,” Chu said. “But it is also deeply satisfying to reflect on the very long, productive lives that existing hydropower assets can have with the right stewardship.”

[See also: The grim consequences of Sunak’s green scepticism]

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At university, one of her lecturers was Sergio Giudici, the principal designer of the Gordon Dam (the highest concrete-arch dam in Australia). It was on a visit he organised to the dam that Chu had her epiphany.

The key role for hydro, she said, is its capacity to store energy. “Batteries will play a role, but it is really only hydropower that can offer the deep, long-duration storage to meet peak demand and stabilise the grid.” Existing hydropower stations are being repurposed along these lines, but new “pumped hydro” power stations are now being built for the first time in 40 years, and are designed to complement wind and solar, while also making use of former mining pits.

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One of the challenges is the global skills shortage. “Engineers are in very high demand, so it’s important that the engineering profession as a whole focuses on workforce planning, skill development, knowledge sharing and talent retention,” she explained. However, it does mean that there are both opportunities for young people as well as incentives for employers to support workers to progress in their careers.

“In Australia, we’re certainly already seeing the lived reality of a changing climate,” Chu reflected, “with increased frequency and severity of extreme climate conditions including drought, floods, fire and storms.” She finds the growth in global renewables and the drive to net zero “inspiring”.

Entura is already working with neighbouring islands and states in the Pacific that are feeling the more severe effects of climate change, helping them to build resilience. “We urgently need to accelerate our action towards climate resilience and climate-resilient infrastructure,” she said. Chu is also vice-president of the International Hydropower Association, which allows her to work across different countries.

“Lowering emissions is a global challenge, so we will need strong international collaboration to solve it,” she said. Entura has strong links regionally and with India – another country that is dependent on coal for its energy mix. During a recent visit, Chu proposed the idea of a joint renewable energy council between the two nations, which led to an agreement that the concept will be further explored during 2023.

“I think the next two decades will be a very exciting time for the sector,” she said, “and in ten to 20 years’ time, we’ll be seeing clean energy solutions as the norm.”

[See also: Could Brics Plus reshape the world economy]