River Power Tasmania: From little things big things grow

River Power Tasmania

River Power Tasmania’s small-scale hydro power station Thunderbolt is now generating power to the grid. We talk to Josh Tomlin, part-owner of River Power Tasmania about the project and what’s it’s like being a small-scale generator.

Named after the nearby Thunderbolt Mountain that feeds the river, Thunderbolt Hydro Power Station is a small-scale power generator that feeds into the Tasmanian grid, with a max output of 890kw and annual generation of 4.6GWh.

The developer of Thunderbolt, River Power Tasmania, specialises in run-of-river hydro power systems that supply energy to the grid.

River Power Tasmania was founded by Josh Tomlin and his father Nigel Tomlin in 2011, both with a background in agriculture and farming. As well as farming, Nigel spent 25 years working in the hydro-electricity industry in Tasmania as a fitter and power station operator.

Now, Josh says their business uses those principles of the larger-scale hydro projects Nigel worked on on a much smaller scale, being mostly self-taught.

They’ve built three of their own river hydro power stations, and Josh built another for a community group in Victoria, which was a smaller, underground system of 100kw.

Josh explains, “[The Warburton Community Hydro project] was built underground mainly for sound attenuation in the area and also for aesthetics.”

In general, River Power Tasmania’s systems are dam-less so without any storage. As a result each system is custom made.

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“Our setups are very nimble so they can perform efficiently during a big dump of rain or flood as well as the small flows you might experience over the summer,” Josh says.

“We had to put a lot of energy into researching and innovating to make it workable and profitable. That’s a key strength of the business – we’ve got a fair bit of IP [intellectual property] and a lot of real-world experience in making these systems.”

Although the power stations are on a small scale, Josh says the process of developing them is still a lengthy one.

River Power Tasmania
The modest power station

For Thunderbolt Hydro Power Station, Josh explains it was a five-year project, 12 months of which was construction and four years of planning and preparing.

“It was quite a lengthy process, you’ve got to jump through hurdles – any number of government ones, right from your general planning process, development application process and just to build a building …” he says.

“But then you’ve got other departments at play such as those interacting with river systems, so you’ve got the Water Licensing Board and the EA who have to take a look.

“Also because it interacts a bit with state forest we ended up getting a lease from state forest there – they call themselves Sustainable Timber Tas.

“Then we’re integrating with the grid and that has a whole suite of complications and compliance issues.

“Once you’ve got through the regulatory hurdles then you have to go through the commercial hurdles as far as finance and that sort of thing goes, which is not easy given the pioneering nature of what we do.

“That can be difficult to get finance across the line, and the right finance across the line. There’s so much work that goes into it.”

Once all of the ducks were in a row, River Power Tasmania then contracted out the mechanical manufacture of the turbines, pipeline, et cetera.  

“There’s a big lead time [for the mechanical manufacture] – it takes them 56 weeks from signing the dotted line to actually providing the turbine and probably two years of negotiations and stuff prior to that,” Josh says.

All components in the project including penstock piping, hydroelectric turbine and electrical control systems were manufactured exclusively in regional Tasmania, with the project receiving $587,865 in funding from the Federal Government’s Regional Jobs and Investment Packages.

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said the government’s investment in the Thunderbolt hydroelectric power station will provide long-term benefits to regional Tasmania as well.

“In addition to supporting 17 jobs during construction and using locally manufactured components and equipment, this project has up-skilled local labour and will allow River Power Tasmania to expand its business and unlock further opportunities,” Minister McCormack said.

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Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor said the Thunderbolt project complements other energy infrastructure that the government is supporting in Tasmania, including Battery of the Nation and Marinus Link.

“Hydro projects such as Thunderbolt are critical to our transition towards a lower emissions economy while, at the same time, providing reliable and secure energy,” Mr Taylor said.

Sentator for Tasmania Eric Abetz said Australian Government’s investment in the Thunderbolt hydroelectric power station will provide long term benefits to regional Tasmania.

“It has been exceptionally rewarding to work with Mr Nigel Tomlin from the very inception of this innovative and successful technology which further adds to Tasmania’s Hydro capacity. The facilitation of the partnership with the Federal Government has been extremely worthwhile,” Mr Abetz said.

Senator for Tasmania Claire Chandler said that the Thunderbolt Station was another exciting addition to Tasmania’s long heritage in hydro energy.

“The Coalition Government has made it a focus to invest in the next generation of hydro assets in Tasmania, both large and small, so that we can take advantage of the huge economic and job opportunities in this sector in the years ahead ” she said.

With four successful, small-scale run-of-river hydro power projects up and running, Josh says River Power Tasmania’s next project will be a 2MW one.

“That’s still in desktop stage and I think given its scope it will take some time,” he says.

Regardless, it shows the energy landscape is changing, with some people taking power into their own hands.