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Water power

The potential energy contained in water – lakes, rivers and in elevated areas – has long been used to generate electricity from hydroelectric power plants and is an important source of renewable energy. Now, technologies are being developed and commercialised to convert other forms of energy contained in the oceans to electricity.


Hydroelectric power uses energy from flowing water to turn a turbine that is connected to a generator to produce electricity. One of the most mature forms of renewable energy, hydroelectricity is capable of being used as both base load and peak load generation.

World hydroelectricity generation was 3,078 TWh in 2007, and has grown at an average annual rate of 2.3 per cent since 2000.

How it works

Water is stored in dams and when electricity is required it is dropped through pipes (penstock) to a turbine. The amount of electricity generated is determined by the volume of water and its height of the water in the dam above the turbine.

The hydro market in Australia

Australia’s hydro facilities are predominantly located in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Victoria – areas with moderate to high rainfall and elevation. These facilities represent one of the most important sources of renewable energy in Australia.

The ABARE Energy 09 report indicated that in 2006–07 hydro accounted for 6.1 per cent of Australia’s total electricity generation and about 17 per cent of Australia’s total renewable energy production. However, these figures are declining – in 2007–08, Australia’s hydroelectricity generation was 4.5 per cent of total electricity generation.

Future prospects

Hydroelectricity production has been a reliable and well established source of renewable energy for many decades, but the opportunities for further large scale hydro schemes is limited.

Today, expansion opportunities for the industry centre on the development of small scale run-of-river hydro power systems or retrofitting small turbines on existing agricultural and other water storage dams.

Ocean power

Ocean power uses the ocean’s waters to produce electricity, either by harnessing the kinetic energy contained in the motion of the waves, tides or currents, or by extracting thermal energy.

Wave power

The bobbing motion of the ocean’s waves, or the movement of the water below the surface, can be harnessed and converted to electricity using a range of devices that can be either floating or submerged. The energy contained in a wave is a function primarily of the wave height, wave speed, the distance between the waves and the density of the water.

Tidal power

Tidal power systems use a barrage built across an estuary with a high tidal range. The tide creates an uneven water level at either end of the barrage, and water flowing from the high side to the low side passes through turbines that generate electricity.

Ocean and tidal current power

Underwater turbines convert the energy in tidal and ocean currents in much the same way that wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind to electricity. The currents turn the underwater turbine blades, which rotate and turn a rotor.

Ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream and the East Australian Current, contain huge amounts of kinetic energy which could, in principle, be harnessed using turbines. However, these currents generally flow too slowly and are too variable to be viable sources of power at present.

The ocean currents in areas such as Bass Strait are much stronger, but are difficult environments in which to construct and maintain electricity generation infrastructure.

Ocean thermal power

Ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) systems use the temperature gradients between the warm shallow water and the deeper colder water in oceans to generate electricity using a Rankin closed cycle, open cycle or hybrid cycle heat engine.

Some of the warm surface seawater is pumped through a heat exchanger containing a fluid with a low-boiling-point. The fluid is vaporized as it is heated and expands, turning a generator. The vapour is then condensed back into a liquid and recycled through the system. Using the sun as the heat source, heat engines work like a refrigerator or air conditioner in reverse. Because heat engines work most efficiently when there is a large temperature differential, the commercialisation of OCET systems has been challenging.

The ocean power market in Australia

Australia's southern coastlines are highly prospective ocean power sites. However, the high upfront, research and maintenance costs mean that only a handful of companies in Australia have progressed past the concept stage. Companies are looking to commercialise their technologies in Australian waters, with wave and ocean current power the primary focus for development.

Future prospects

Commercialisation of some of these technologies is imminent and both state and federal governments have provided significant funding support to accelerate their commercialisation. Carnegie’s Commercial Demonstration Wave Power Project and Oceanlinx’s Port Kembla testing program are among the most advanced projects in Australia.
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