North Harbour sets sight on clean energy ‘missing link’

Tony Schultz spends much of his time focused on solving a fast-approaching problem: once coal-fired power plants close and we are relying more on wind and solar, what will we do when it’s not sunny nor windy?

Unlike water or petrol, electricity cannot be easily stored to be used at a later time. Nearly all of it has to be used as soon as it’s made. As the clean energy revolution gathers pace, some say the large-scale deployment of energy storage technologies to back up intermittent renewables looms as the missing piece of the puzzle.

“We know how to do wind and solar at scale, we know how to build transmission lines,” Schultz says. “Although we already have all the operationally proven technology … without the ability to deliver firm, carbon-free electricity at scale to match demand, we can’t shut the coal-fired power stations, and, without that, we can’t decarbonise.”

Tony Schultz is managing director of North Harbour Clean Energy, a company focused on developing grid-scale storage solutions including pumped hydro and long-duration vanadium battery projects.
Tony Schultz is managing director of North Harbour Clean Energy, a company focused on developing grid-scale storage solutions including pumped hydro and long-duration vanadium battery projects. Credit: Brook Mitchell

Schultz, a former KKR Australia managing director, decided to set up his own company, North Harbour Clean Energy, in 2019, with a focus on two long-duration, grid-scale technologies – pumped hydro and vanadium redox flow batteries – capable of soaking up renewable energy when it’s abundant during the day and dispatching it whenever it’s needed.

Already the Sydney firm has gained the backing of some of the biggest names of the corporate world. Three senior advisors and shareholders are former Origin Energy chief executive Grant King, former Rio Tinto CEO and Qantas chair Leigh Clifford, and former NSW independent planning commissioner John Hann.

Sitting on its board of directors is Robert Hill – a former federal defence and environment minister – and Allison Warburton, a former Australian Energy Market Commissioner and partner at Minter Ellison’s energy practice.

Qantas Super is North Harbour Clean Energy’s major institutional shareholder.

“We have $25 million on our balance sheet today, and the potential of substantially more, which leaves us well-positioned to grow,” Schultz says.


Across Australia’s eastern seaboard, the urgent need to scale up energy storage is coming into ever sharper focus. Coal-fired power generators, which today supply two-thirds of our electricity needs, are increasingly bringing forward their closures dates, owing to the influx of renewables pummelling their profitability during daytime hours, ageing plant infrastructure driving up maintenance bills, and pressure from their own shareholders to commit to faster and deeper emissions cuts. AGL retired its Liddell power plant in NSW earlier this year, and, by 2030, at least four more are due to close too.

The Australian Energy Market Operator, which is overseeing the grid’s transition, has declared that the grid’s “most pressing need” over the next decade is for dispatchable batteries, pumped hydro or alternative storage to manage daily and seasonal variations in the output from rapidly growing solar and wind generation.

Pumped hydro – a technology that pumps water uphill to a higher reservoir and then releases it downhill to spin turbines when it’s needed – has enormous potential. The biggest problem, however, is that it’s very difficult to deploy at a large scale. Suitable geographic sites such as steep mountain ranges are hard to secure, and are often in heavily bushed, remote and complex terrain. They also present significant challenges and costs in terms of construction and connectivity to the grid.

Seeking to minimise such hurdles, North Harbour is taking an approach of pursuing only mid-size, not mega-sized, pumped hydro projects, which they will locate closer to large customer loads, and on disturbed land where possible. One of its projects will repurpose a disused mining-related shaft as the pipe that connects its two reservoirs.

“I suspect we are a couple of years away to get to a final investment decision on our first pumped hydro project, then probably two or three years to get to operations,” Schultz says. “I think we will have vanadium flow battery installations before we’ll have pumped hydro projects in place – in fact, we are very well-advanced on a couple of those projects right now.”

Made from the little-known metal vanadium, this battery technology was invented at the University of NSW in 1983 by a chemical engineer, Professor Maria Skyllas-Kazacos. Japan’s Mitsubishi acquired a licence to use the technology in the 1990s.

In the years that came next, some flow batteries began being deployed commercially. Sumitomo has been manufacturing them, an Austrian company has had them running for 10 years, and a Chinese company has just completed the first stage of a 200-megawatt vanadium flow battery in Dalian. But demand for long-duration grid storage was not large, and its success has been eclipsed by the hugely popular lithium-ion batteries, which are storing power for everything from our smallest electric devices, to electric vehicles to energy grids.

Proponents of vanadium batteries agree that lithium-ion batteries are perfectly suited an array of applications, and will be in huge demand in the era of battery-powered electric cars, which are expected to suck up by far the biggest share of available global lithium supplies. But when it comes to stationary energy grid storage, vanadium flow batteries boast some meaningful advantages. They may have a higher up-front cost, but they are much longer lasting, can run up to 20 years without degrading, and are non-flammable.

As the 2030s approach, questions are being asked about our readiness to handle the reduction of coal power, and our ability to meet the federal government’s goal for the grid to be 82 per cent renewable.

We need concerted and collective action by the industry and by governments and the community to enable that to happen, and I think we are a ways away from that,” says Schultz. “It is still doable, but it’s a very large challenge – the sooner we get on with it, the better.”

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