There are possibly several dozen different significant large-scale ground-mounted solar PV projects being put together around Australia. Many are seeking to keep a low profile, for a bunch of different reasons, and at least until the finance and approval is locked in. Vulcan Energy’s Rob Campbell is not so inhibited.
Last week, the battery storage company head floated an idea for a 60MW solar PV to be constructed on the Gold Coast, which could be tied with battery storage and act as a solar peaking plant, challenging the primacy of gas generation in this part of the electricity market.
The idea, and it is important to point out that it is not much more than that at the moment, got an airing in the local paper, the Gold Coast Bulletin, which awarded Campbell the title of “king of solar”, and on the ABC radio.
Campbell makes no apology to going early with this idea, partly because it was a fishing expedition to see what would happen, and partly because he wants such ideas to become the mainstream of discussion around Australia’s energy needs, rather than the traditional focus on centralised fossil fuel generation.
“I am deadly serious about wanting to build this plant,” he says. “But the only way I can get the ball rolling from is to bring the conversation into the public realm.”
The initial plans drawn up by Campbell call for an initial capacity of 60MW of solar PV to be build over 120 hectares of unused flood plain at Merrimac, next to the Skilled Park stadium owned by the Gold Coast City Council.
It would include 150 megawatt hours of storage for evening and morning peak supply – the parts of the day most challenging for the network (and costly to consumers).
Given that no one has yet built a solar PV farm even one twentieth of that size in the National Electricity Market to date, it would seem an ambitious plan, particularly with the storage element. (It should be noted that in the US, utilities are dumping plans for peaking gas plants and replacing them with solar PV, but none have yet suggested these plants could come with storage attached. It is generally considered that solar thermal with storage is the best option of costs).
But Campbell estimates the capital cost at around $150 million, about a third of which would be the battery storage component. That would surprise many people but he says a contract of that size would be able to deliver storage arrays at a cost of $3,000-$3,500 per 10kWh unit. That remains to be seen.
Campbell says a peaking plant will have the ability to cherry peak highest prices. Peak demand is significant on the Gold Coast with its huge penetration of air conditioners, and a peaking plant would enable solar to respond to that demand further into the evening peak. It could also address the morning peak, and there is also the Robina Shopping Centre nearby which could take a supply agreement from the plant.
“By including substantial storage in the design for this solar farm, it is possible for it to compete on a purely commercial footing by tracking spot prices on the energy market a supplying at times when demand, and therefore revenues are at a high point,” Campbell says.
The idea of using flood-prone land good for little else evoked interest from government authorities, keen to earn some income from otherwise barren land. Campbell says an installation would be built “above round” and would in fact enhance flood storage and overland flow on the site.
It would comprise around 220,000 panels, employ 400 people during construction, 20 on-going, and would connect to a nearby 100kV feeder. It would probably need finance from an institution such as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, if the Abbott government has not already closed it.
Campbell says that costs for solar power have decreased dramatically in recent years and are set to drop further. “With the advent of cost effective and reliable storage, solar can now provide power at a lesser cost than construction and operation of coal fired plants. As consumers continue to try and fight off rising electricity prices, the tipping point for large scale solar has now been met and surpassed.”
Well, maybe not quite, but possibly sometime soon.
Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.