Alinta plans 60MW solar farm to slash energy costs for Pilbara mining giants

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New 60MW solar farm in small regional grid in Pilbara will slash costs for big iron ore mines in the region, and will get funding from NAIF and ARENA.

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Energy utility Alinta has confirmed plans for a 60MW solar farm in the Pilbara region of north west Australia, saying the land-mark project will slash energy costs for the big mining operations in the area and underpin in new investments and mine expansions.

The 60MW Chichester solar farm, first revealed by RenewEconomy last August, will be located near the big Christmas Creek iron ore mine owned by Fortescue Metals (see map below) but will service mines all along a new transmission line being built by Alinta, including the Cloudbreak mine and Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill mine.

It is part of a major project that will extend the transmission line that runs from the Newman gas generator to Roy Hill mine by another 65kms to Christmas Creek and Cloudbreak.

It is groundbreaking because it is likely the biggest solar farm to be built into such a small and isolated grid, and landing in the middle of a major mining province, will likely change some key thinking about the shift to renewables.

The application for a generation licence with the Economic Regulation Authority of WA says the project (including the transmission) will get funding from both the $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), although neither agency has yet made an announcement on the matter.

NAIF, however, says on its website that in February it agreed to provide $90 million in loans to a project it could not at that time identify. It is unclear if it refers to the same project.

Alinta says the solar project will have wide benefits.

“Electricity generated by solar is more affordable than gas-fired or diesel-powered generation which are predominantly used in the region,” it says in its application.

“A reduction in the cost of energy to large-use customers in the Pilbara region will increase the opportunities for investment in, and expansion of, resource projects, which are a significant driver of the state’s economy.”

The Newman generator has already made a name for itself with the inclusion of a 30MW/11MWh battery (pictured at top) that has revolutionised thinking around off-grid and small grid energy installations.

The battery has enabled the gas generator to shut down one of its units, and has been able to maintain power on its own when the gas units have tripped, significantly lifting the reliability of power supply to its big mining customers.

The battery also means that the 60MW solar farm can also be more easily absorbed into the local power system, and mean significantly less diesel is burned at the power plants that currently supply the Christmas Creek and Cloudbreak mines.

The Chichester solar farm will require around 200,000 solar modules, and a new substation nearby. Work on the solar farm is expected to start this month and should be complete by April, 2020.

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