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Construction begins on huge solar tower plant for Port Augusta farm

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Danish renewables developer Aalborg has begun construction of a custom built concentrated solar power tower system to supply, heat power and desalinated water for Adelaide-based sustainable agriculture outfit Sundrop Farms.

The first phase of the project, a 51,500m² solar field consisting of more than 23,000 heliostats will be installed at the 20 hectare multi-greenhouse facility Sundrop has been developing in the South Australian desert, 15km south-east of Port Augusta.

Aalborg’s Integrated Energy System will be the first large-scale CSP-based technology in the world to provide multiple energy streams – heating, fresh water and electricity – for horticultural activities.

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Relying, until recently, on funding from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, Sundrop Farms successfully developed a prototype of its proprietary closed-loop farming system, growing tomatoes year-round in greenhouses using only sunlight and seawater.

Last year in December, the company secured $100 million of funding from leading global private equity investor KKR, allowing it to proceed with plans to expand the Port Augusta prototype into a 20-hectare facility, that will produce pesticide-free tomatoes annually for markets across Australia.

It has since been building four 100-metre long greenhouses at the Port Augusta site, and has secured a 10-year exclusive contract with Coles for more than 15,000 tonnes of tomatoes annually, creating jobs for up to 175 people.

The final step is the addition of Aalborg’s CSP tower technology, which will collect the sun’s rays and reflect them onto the top of a 116m high solar tower, where the collected solar energy will be converted to steam and used for multiple purposes, including seawater desalination, heating and electricity production.

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According to Sundrop, truss tomatoes will be growing in the new greenhouses, using the concentrated solar technology by the first quarter of next year.

Having commenced the first phase of construction of the solar heliostat field at the site in South Australia, Aalborg aims to have the CSP tower system fully commissioned in the second half of 2016, as a working example of a new platform to address major global energy challenges.

“The Integrated Energy System is the first of its kind in the world and it changes the way we are thinking about energy today,” Aalborg CEO Svante Bundgaard.

“It is an intelligent way to supply different energy outputs at the time the industrial facility would need it while providing significant cost and CO2 savings as well.”

Sundrop CEO and founder Philipp Saumweber – a former investment banker who is based in London – says his company aims to change how agriculture is gone about, and expects the developments at Port Augusta to attract significant international interest.

“We consider ourselves a triple bottom line business: people, plant, and profit,” Saumweber told Brisbane’s Courier-Mail last week.

“We are constantly evaluating new opportunities to expand both here in Australia and in other markets.”  

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  • john

    Using seawater so they also will be producing salt I would expect.
    As well as that other heavy metals out of seawater as a by product.
    No doubt this technology once proved that it is viable has markets particularly in the middle east.
    Cost of energy zero this may just prove to be a very viable undertaking indeed.

    • John, I agree. I think it is a great concept and so good to see real vision being put into practice that could transform farming and “farm land” availability in Australia. I do question whether energy costs are actually zero as the levelised cost of energy has to include the CAPEX for collecting the energy.

      • john

        Yes there is CAPEX for any energy production however the input cost for the energy is zero, R & M as well as Operating costs. will be ongoing.
        If they have a market for 15000 tonnes at $2.5 per Kg, this gives an income of some $37 million per year assuming 50% of retail cost average or $5 kg.
        Any idea of the total cost of this project?

        • Alastair Leith

          assuming this will sell as premium product. can’t licence as organic if they use hydroponics not soil but maybe they can invent a zero sprays certification or something. taste will likely be pretty optimum if good varieties chosen (heirloom?) and plants never undergo stress.

  • nakedChimp

    now they just need to get a loop working for getting the nutrients from the fruits/vegetables that did go to the markets back into their farm..
    Anyone any idea how much that is?
    On the other hand, if the concept works it should be no problem to place one each close to population centers.. maybe 8 in Oz, he?

    • Alastair Leith

      you mean worm farm for consumer and supermarket waste? pretty cheap for a large warehouse, heated at night by this plant, and running IR lighting from the RE.

  • This project has an environmental black-spot that Sundrop doesn’t like to talk about.

    The desalination plant will dump waste brine at 60 parts per thousand salinity into Spencer Gulf. The total egg mortality threshold for giant Australian cuttlefish is 50 ppt. The northern Spencer Gulf population (which remains an IUCN listed threatened species) aggregates downstream of this proposed brine discharge, near Point Lowly. If the brine does not adequately disperse and mix with ambient water, it could pool and harm or kill cuttlefish eggs. The South Australia EPA has provided environmental approval for this, regardless of this risk.

    I am aware that the company turned down a pitch from Melbourne-based company F-Cubed, who offered a zero brine discharge solution which could have created additional economic opportunities in commercial salt production and eliminated risk to cuttlefish hatching success in the process.

    • Alastair Leith

      I read somewhere they were going to harvest minerals and salts from the brine… not dump it. This is not so good. Having said that the sea is quite good at disbursing sewage pollution. Just another EPA moment, huh?

      • Thanks for your comment, Alastair. I beg to differ with you- the sea isn’t ‘good at dispersing’ nutrient-rich wastewater (ie. sewage)…. that’s why it’s treated first in developed countries. The nutrients present in untreated sewage fuel algal blooms and are harmful to inshore marine environments.

        The risk with waste brine is that it is denser, heavier than the ambient water, and thus, if it doesn’t mix due to a lack of current or injection velocity, it can pool and settle or travel along the seafloor. The available oxygen within the brine pool can then be used up by organisms there, leading to the creation of a travelling ‘dead zone’ depleted of its oxygen.

        In the case of Sundrop Farms, they are located at the head of a shallow gulf system, approx 300 kilometres from the mouth of the gulf. Water that far inland takes over 400 days to be fully replenished.

        I wouldn’t describe this as an EPA moment- Sundrop Farms has been extremely coy (ie. secretive) about their brine dumping plans and the State Government has supported the project in excess of $6 million in funding… so there’s a bit more to it than that.

        • Alastair Leith

          ok thanks for the detailed explainer. I have a friend consulting on the solar side of things so I’ll ask if they are being less forthcoming than they should be. with Coles as a partner anything is possible. they treat farmers like dirt so they’d probably treat dirt and seawater like a frozen hell.

          if a zero brine solution is available without prohibitive cost I don’t know why they didn’t go for it?

          it’s EPAs job to ask the right questions. and in my experience they don’t always do that. in fact EPA employees get kicked in the guts for asking questions sometimes. in Australia and in under bush II in USA too. EPA in USA is now so much better, they have citizen science days every year and conferences for updating everyone on the low cost monitoring tech developments. they even sponsor citizens involved in these issues to attend. the day an Australian EPA does something like that is the day I take back my EPA moment comment.

        • Alastair Leith

          I was talking to a scientist in Bombay once and he said they shut down the main sewerage outlet into the ocean. they had to open it up again because all the fishermen complained that they lost their catch.

  • Alastair Leith

    Glad we have a good story on this now to link to. Every time some says we will run out of food or we need GMOs to save the world I will link to this. A calorie coming out of this plant is probably about 100,000th the water x FF-resource x GHG emissions footprint of a calorie of Australian beef. Anybody care to crunch the LCA for me 🙂