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Australia’s first utility-scale solar farm officially opened in WA

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At about 11am local time near the Western Australian town of Geraldton this morning, Australia’s first-utility scale solar farm was officially switched on.

It was a suitably sunny day (blighted by three million flies) and although just 10MW in size, and built courtesy of funding from the local government, a state-owned utility and by one of the wealthiest companies on the planet, it may presage a dramatic change in the way this country produces energy.

For the last 100 years or so, Australian power companies have produced energy by burning something – mostly coal, sometimes gas, and occasionally sugar cane and other agricultural or forestry waste – to create steam and drive a turbine. Even with the advent of wind energy, this is the first large-scale energy plant that does not involve a rotating machine. It does not need water either, and it makes no emissions.

The 150,000 solar photovoltaic panels installed at the Greenough River solar farm, about 50km south-east of Geraldton, converts sunlight into direct current electricity via thin-film PV solar cells made by First Solar, which is then converted by inverters into alternating current suitable for feeding into the grid.

While this is the first utility-scale solar PV farm in Australia, and 10 times bigger than the next biggest solar installation in the country, the country trails far behind Europe, North America, China and other parts of Asia in the rollout of these sorts of plants. If it had been built in 2005, this plant would have ranked as the biggest in the world, but such has been the pace of development in the solar industry that Greenough River does not even rank in the top 200 solar farms in the world.

Nevertheless, solar PV is expected to become one of the critical sources of energy in the future in Australia.

“It seems amazing that a  country this size has taken this long to install its first solar plant,” said Verve Energy CEO Jason Waters at the opening ceremony. “It certainly won’t be last given success of this project.”

Verve Energy, which owns a bunch of coal-fired generators, as well as gas and is investing in wind farms, said the Greenough River Solar Farm demonstrated that “renewable technologies can contribute to meeting Australia’s future energy needs on a sustainable, cost-competitive basis.” Waters  said: “This is a positive first step in validating the bright future that large-scale solar represents in Australia.”

Matt O’Connor, managing director of GE Energy Financial Services, which invests $2-$3 billion a year in energy projects each year, agrees. “We see incredible investment opportunities in Australia and look forward  to expanding on this successful project and applying our expertise to help the country’s renewable energy market grow.”

How much will that be? The recent technology assessment by the usually conservative Bureau of Resource Economics and Energy said solar PV would be unequivocally the cheapest form of new-build generation by 2030, and even now the best sites might be cheaper than coal or gas.

In light of these forecasts, it will be interesting to see what the Energy White Paper predicts in its scenarios when that document is released later this month. Its draft version, relying on technology cost estimates that proved hopelessly wrong, predicted only a 3 per cent role by 2050.

Private forecasts suggest that solar PV could provide 20 per cent more of the country’s electricity in a zero carbon scenario (the rest would come from an equal amount of solar thermal – with storage, with about half coming from wind and the rest in the form of gas-fired generation). That would require some 20,000 to 30,000MW of solar PV installed across the country over the next few decades. Jack Curtis from First Solar says there could be 3,000MW to 5,000MW of utility-scale solar by 2020. (see separate story)

The International Energy Agency – in its Solar Energy Perspectives document produced last year – said solar could form the backbone of the world’s electricity market, and said solar PV could account for 20 per cent of global capacity by 2050 – or about 12 million MW (12,000GW). That compares to around 40GW now.

The joint owners of the Greenough River Solar Farm are already considering expanding the project to 40MW. GE Financial Services and Verve Energy say, however, that no decisions have been taken. It will rely on a power purchase agreement being signed by the local utility, which is using the 10MW first stage as a contribution to the energy needs of its desalination plant, and it would likely need banks to get involved.

The good news is that one Australian bank, the Commonwealth Bank, last week provided its first loan for a solar project in Australia, albeit a small one, for the 1MW Uterne solar PV tracking facility in Alice Springs. Mark Widmar, the CFO of First Solar who flew out to Geraldton for the opening, told RenewEconomy that having met representatives of all four major banks in Melbourne this week, that the appetite was there. “They clearly want an opportunity to play in this market, “ he says. And Greenough River will provide crucial data for those financing assessments.

Apart from the Greenough River solar farm, and its anticipated expansion, First Solar also has a contract to supply panels to the 159MW project being built by AGL Energy at Nyngan and Broken Hill in NSW, although this project, with funding from the now defunct Solar Flagships scheme, will not begin construction until 2014.

The next new solar PV project to be built in Australia is expected to be the 20MW solar farm to be built by Spanish group FRV, after it won the ACT government’s reverse tender last month. Infigen Energy is building a 1MW project near Bungendore, the first to combine solar PV and battery storage in a plant recognised by the National Electricity Market, while Infigen, the Moree solar consortium and other groups have applied for funding from the newly established Australian Renewable Energy Agency is scaled down versions of the flagships applications. The investment bank Investec is also considering a solar PV project in WA, which enjoys the richest resource of solar in the country, and the highest energy costs.

It is ironic to note that the Greenough River farm was developed because WA government was determined to have a slice of the Solar Flagships scheme, but its plans did not qualify. The Rudd government wanted only massive projects of 250MW, later diluted to a slightly more palatable 150MW. That would not have been possible in regional WA because of grid issues. The irony is that this project is built, while construction on the flagships projects will not commence for another two years. It highlights what a wasted opportunity the flagships program was.

Even so, the WA government is not quite as excited about the opportunities as it might have been. WA Premier Colin Barnett is opposing the 41,000GWh fixed renewable energy target, and energy minister Peter Collier, while praising solar at the opening of the Greenough River Faarm today, was also hedging his bets about the future of the LRET. WA has nearly doubled its renewable energy penetration from around 5 per cent to just over 9 per cent, but it would need to do a lot to meet 20 per cent. But he did notice the swarms of flies. “They must all be greenies,” he quipped.

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  • Tim

    The other irony is that the solar farm was only built to provide renewable power for the desalination plant.

    …and the desalination plant is needed because climate is the most likely cause for rainfall reduction in south-west WA in the last few decades (http://www.climatechange.gov.au/climate-change/impacts/national-impacts/wa-impacts.aspx).

    • Vic

      I agree Tim. Especially when we consider the solar farm is only partially powering the desal plant. Looks more like drowning than waving to me. But hey, at least it’ll take us a little bit longer to drown which is great news is it not?

  • Pete Moran

    Giles, do you know what happened to Investec’s Chapman Solar hybrid plant which is in the same area?

  • http://obnovljiviizvorienergije.com/njemacki-znanstvenici-udvostrucili-efikasnost-solarne-celije-od-crnog-silicija/ Tino

    Wow, this field looks very nice, and huge as it is.

  • http://ronaldbrak.blogspot.com.au/ Ronald Brak

    I don’t really get why they built a grid only facility when there is such a large difference between the price of wholesale electricity and retail electricity in Australia. It if it’s only getting the wholesale price for electricity it would have made a lot more economic sense to build the capacity as many separate point of use systems rather than one big, grid only system. And oddly enough, at current installation costs it would have been cheaper too. Perhaps grid only solar will be important in the future, but looking at the current economics it seems to make much more sense to put the capacity on our roofs. But Tim mentioned that it was built to power a desalination plant. If the solar farm is saving the desalination plant the retail cost of electricity, then it makes more sense.

    • Tim

      Hi Ronald,
      I won’t claim to know the full details, but I doubt the “PV electrons” near Geraldton actually get to the desal plant near Bunbury (around 600 kms south).

      I think the idea is to use renewables to produce the equivalent power used by the desal plant. The desal plant probably uses coal power, but I’m sure the solar PV helps out at Geraldton, which is near the northern end of the grid and has more sunshine.

      So yes, they could have been put on rooftops to get the same effect.

      • http://ronaldbrak.blogspot.com.au/ Ronald Brak

        Well, it looks like quite a missed opportunity then. They could have used the solar panels to provide point of use electricity and received about three times the return of daytime wholesale electricity prices. I don’t know why they didn’t do that in the first place. Looking at a satellite picture of Geraldton I see plenty of suitable roofspace for point of use solar.

        • paul

          It’s true that the return on solar is better when it’s located on a rooftop (e.g. offsetting retail prices), but the benefit there is to whomever is paying the power bill at the residence.

          The only way that Verve could benefit in that situation would be if they signed a PPA (power purchase agreement) with each building owner to provide the electricity at a (presumably discounted) retail rate.

          That would be possible (though the permitting here in WA for > 30kW generators is onerous to say the least), but such a massive departure from their usual business model it’s pretty unlikely.

          I expect you’ll see PPAs or leases for 30kW and smaller systems become commonplace here in WA before long, the economics are just so attractive, but it likely won’t be Verve putting them in place.

          • http://ronaldbrak.blogspot.com.au/ Ronald Brak

            Then I’d have to wonder why Verve didn’t put in wind turbines instead then. I imagine they’d fit in nicely given that Geraldton is mostly gas powered. Perhaps Verve doens’t do wind power, but I’d say, hey, it’s okay to try new things. Of course, if Geraldton has a problem meeting peak demand, then putting in a solar farm would help with that, so that may have been a factor.

          • Giles Parkinson

            There are two wind farms very close to the solar farm. Geraldton is an excellent area for wind energy, but not too much more will be built – either solar or wind – until the transmission line is upgraded.

  • http://www.anglofareast.com/bullion-accounts/silver-account/ silver account

    When photons strike the solar cells contained in a solar panel, they can be reflected, absorbed, or pass through the panel. When photons are absorbed, they have the energy to knock electrons loose, which flow in one direction within the panel and exit through connecting wires as solar electricity, ultimately providing power.

  • Chris Fraser

    As it has taken such a long time and effort to get to here, I just wish to say Well Done WA, Geraldton and Verve for their (aussie) utility scale pioneering spirit, in spite of government ambiguities. May she be a roaring success, as others are sure to follow.

  • http://www.solarpowerfacts.biz/2012/what-is-the-best-option-of-solar-technology-for-your-home-or-farm/ Solar energy

    Great start for the first Solar farm in Australia,i was surprised when i read that this is first one. But anyway these could be ignition capsule for a second one ,then third…

  • Andrew

    This is good and all, but isn’t it true that the coal power stations will not change the output because of this solar installation? My understanding is that it takes a while to ramp up production of power with a coal/gas power plant, so it has to run at supply demand just in case it becomes overcast or isolated showers takes power production down to 0 in a matter of minutes.

    I may be mistaken, feel free to correct me.

    • Giles Parkinson

      Some gas plants can ramp up in a matter of minutes. Even new coal plants can switch on or off within 30 minutes, and both wind and solar, while intermittent are predictable, which is all the grid operator needs. Demand is much more variable, and grid operators have been dealing with that for decades.

    • http://ronaldbrak.blogspot.com.au/ Ronald Brak

      Here in South Australia, solar power combined with wind has resulted in the shutting down of both the state’s coal plants, with one being shut down for good and the other only operating during the half of the year with the highest electricity demand.

  • http://ronaldbrak.blogspot.com.au/ Ronald Brak

    Thanks for letting me know that Geraldton already has wind power, Giles.