The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme is recognised as one of the most complex integrated water and hydro-electric power schemes in the world. Taking 25 years and a workforce of 100,000 to build, the Scheme now consists of seven power stations with a total generating capacity of 3,756 megawatts (MW), which produces on average 4,500 gigawatt hours of renewable energy a year – around 70 per cent of the total amount of renewable energy generated on the Australia’s eastern mainland grid.

The Scheme stores water and snow collected in the Snowy Mountains and diverts it through tunnels and pipelines to power stations hundreds of metres below. Once the water has passed through the turbines, it is released into rivers to be used to irrigate farms in the dry regions west of the Great Dividing Range.

The development of water resources in the Snowy Mountains area was originally overseen by a committee of Commonwealth and state representatives that formed in 1944. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority was established in 1949 with construction commencing in October 1949. Then Prime Minister Ben Chifley and then Governor-General Sir William McKell were on hand to fire the first blast at the starting ceremony at Adaminaby where construction of the massive Snowy Mountains Scheme commenced.

In 2002, the Snowy Mountains Scheme was corporatised and Snowy Hydro Limited was formed. Today, Snowy Hydro Limited continues to maintain and operate the Snowy Mountains Scheme, as well as over 600 MW of gas plant and an electricity and gas retailer, Red Energy.

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However, as anyone close to the project will tell you, it is not so much the Scheme’s history as its innovation and originality at the time that really makes it special.

“With all the modern technology available to us today we wouldn’t do it much differently,” says CEO and Managing Director of Snowy Hydro Limited Terry Charlton.

The Scheme’s construction process pioneered several engineering breakthroughs, contributing to its rating by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1967 as one of the engineering wonders of the modern world.

The advancements included the development of a technique called rockbolting, a method of supporting rock in tunnel walls which involves pinning pieces of rock to the rock wall rather than lining tunnel walls with concrete. The Scheme also installed transmission lines of 330 kilovolts (kV) – more than double that of the standard 132 kV voltage at the time.

Recognised for its innovations and achievements, 60 years on the Snowy Mountains Scheme faces new challenges.

“How to keep the Snowy Scheme relevant and its history alive for future generations is today’s challenge,” Mr Charlton says.

“We have always to keep in mind that technology has evolved such that, gas-fired plants can now do everything a hydro plant can do. Moreover, the Snowy Scheme relies on increasingly problematic water inflows for our fuel, whereas our competitors control reliable and predictable gas resources, which they use for their fuel.”

Yet Snowy Hydro is still moving forward, recently embarking on a $300 million modernisation project. This will involve replacing ageing circuit breakers, high voltage transformers and cables with modern components. New turbine runners will also be installed to optimise generation capabilities and water utilisation efficiency. The modernisation project will take place over seven years and is expected to increase the capacity of the Snowy Mountains Scheme by at least 300 MW.

The Snowy Hydro Scheme’s 60th anniversary celebrations took place in late 2009, featuring a reunion of original workers and a re-enactment of the original starting ceremony.