Cannon-Brookes says $20bn solar project will be “lighthouse” to world

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Mike Cannon-Brookes says huge solar and storage project will test the limits of engineering, but serve as a “lighthouse” project to the world.

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Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes says the planned $20 billion project to build the world’s largest solar farm, a huge storage facility and a cable to Singapore will push the limits of human engineering, but is far from impossible.

Cannon-Brookes on Wednesday confirmed that he and another Australian billionaire Andrew “Twiggy Forrest” – along with other investors were investing tens of millions of early stage funding for the project, which plans to build a 10GW solar farm near Tennant Creek, 22 gigawatt hours of battery storage, and a cable to deliver much of the output to Singapore.

“It’s a huge project on a world scale, right? This is not big just on Australian scale. This is big on a world scale,” Cannon-Brookes said at an event celebrating the RE100 initiative in Sydney, which seeks to encourage the world’s largest companies to commit to sourcing all of their electricity use from renewable sources.

“The reason that we are all involved is to serve as a lighthouse project to Australia, to the world. It is a world scale engineering project.” Cannon-Brookes said.

“10 gigawatts of solar, which should be the largest, if not at the time it is built, definitely the largest solar farm that exists today, connected to 22 gigawatt-hours of storage.”

Cannon-Brookes says is confident that it would be possible for storage technology to be delivered at such an unprecedented scale, despite pushing the limits of current technology and engineering.

It is 150 times bigger than the world’s biggest battery, the Tesla facility at Hornsdale that Cannon-Brookes helped make happen after engaging in a Twitter exchange in early 2017 with Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk.

“I’ve got friends that know about storage,” Cannon-Brookes said.

“You ring them and ask them for 100 megawatt-hours, it’s totally different. You ring them and ask for 22 gigawatt-hours. They’re like, ‘wait you mean 150 times bigger than South Australia?’ I’m like yeah. Then a cable going to Singapore and each of these elements is pushing the limits, for sure, of engineering.”

The first stage funding round for the Sun Cable project was over-subscribed and received investment support from Cannon-Brookes and Forrest, along with a consortium of others.

The proponents believe the project could attract as much as $20 billion in investment, and is targeting Singapore, which currently sources 95 per cent of its electricity consumption from expensive gas generation.

The project proposes to build a 15,000-hectare solar array near Tennant Creek, tapping into the Northern Territory’s abundance of solar resources, along with co-located battery storage.

Cannon-Brookes is confident that solar and storage technologies will be able to scale to enable such a large project and deliver substantially cheaper electricity capacity to Singapore.

“It rides on the visibility of human engineering, but not impossible. [Technologies] should all scale to that level.”

Cannon-Brookes sees the enormous project, which would include a 3,800km HVDC connection linking Australia with Asian electricity markets via Singapore, as a ‘lighthouse’ project for Australia; to demonstrate the huge potential of clean energy exports..

“If we get this done on a literally global level, this will be innovative for many years to come, and is a huge potential export market for Australia.”

While the NT government granted the proposal ‘Major Project Status‘, Cannon-Brookes expressed concern that the government is still pursuing plans to expand fracking activities, which has been met with strong opposition from environmentalists and Aboriginal traditional landowners.

“Looking at Sun Cable, in the Northern Territory, let’s call it in the high hundreds of millions of dollars per year to the Northern Territory government. And yet, fracking is still an issue there. They shouldn’t frack,” Cannon-Brookes said

“Solar and wind do not affect the land, so it would fit with our history of the country and with a lot of indigenous affairs.”

Atlassian, the company co-founded by Cannon-Brookes, committed to purchasing all of its electricity consumption, for all of its global offices and data centres, by 2025.

Cannon-Brookes predicts the company will achieve this goal much earlier than 2025, delivering substantial energy cost savings for the tech company, as well as having a very positive impact on staff morale, with Atlassian employees welcoming the company’s commitment to clean energy.

Cannon-Brookes found that it became a major selling point when recruiting employees to work at Atlassian, with the company’s commitment to sustainability providing an edge in a competitive employment environment for tech professionals.

“What we found is that climate sustainability, all the work we’ve done over the last two or three years, is a huge reason people mentioned when they joined, why they come to work for us,” Cannon-Brookes said.

“The ‘war for talent’ is a big piece, that I think is under mentioned when it comes to things like that.”

The RE100 initiative has attracted commitments from 211 of the world’s biggest companies to purchase 100 per cent renewable electricity, including from all of Australia’s big four banks.

The combined purchasing power of the companies with commitments under RE100 is around 220TWh and is approaching an electricity demand similar to that of Australia.

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