US solar manufacturing and developing giant First Solar has revealed that its first large scale solar PV array for an Australian mining operation will be a 5MW plant.
First Solar CEO Jim Hughes told analysts in the US overnight that the 5MW solar PV plant would be used to reduce the amount of diesel consumed at the as-yet un-named mining site.
“This will provide economic and environmental benefits due to the reduction of the amount of diesel fuel used at times of peak demand,” Hughes said.
“As we stated at our recent analyst day we see that hybrid market as an emerging business opportunity and this marks just the beginning of our expansion plans into this high growth potential sector.”
Indeed, the hybrid market – particularly in off-grid and mining operations – is seen as the major growth area for large scale solar in Australia, which is struggling to get a foothold because of over-capacity in the electricity market, the proposed removal of the carbon price, and the uncertainty over renewable energy policies.
First Solar recently suggested that 200MW of solar could be installed at remote mining projects in Australia within the next few years.
“We expect to see 100-200MW of solar at remote mining projects over the next 3 years,” said Jack Curtis, the company’s head of business development in the Asia Pacific told RenewEconomy last month. “The interest and demand exists (but) it is definitely contingent on some pilot projects being delivered.”
Those pilot projects are likely to be delivered with the help of either the Australian Renewable Energy Agency or the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, or both.
ARENA has made remote solar/hybrid installations a major focus of its funding strategy, although the exact status of its funding resources is in doubt and could be answered in the budget. Curtis said that the ideal size of the projects for mining operations would be 5MW to 10MW.
First Solar built Australia’s only large-scale ground mounted solar project, the 10MW Greenough River solar farm in Western Australia, and is currently building the large Broken Hill (53MW) and Nyngan (102MW) solar projects in western NSW for AGL Energy, as part of the now defunct solar flagships program.
However, First Solar has also warned that it could review its activities in Australia if the renewable energy target is removed or severely depleted.
ARENA chairman Greg Bourne said last year that there was a “huge opportunity” in the replacement of expensive diesel, both in remote and off-grid areas, and the fringe-of-grid areas. “If you can prove the technology and the control systems for forecasting and intermittency, you have a lot more confidence in trying it nearer to a large grid and beginning to sweep away the barriers of ‘oh, we can’t do this, everything will fail,” he said in an interview.
The off-grid market will also attract solar thermal technologies that can provide storage. In Chile – another country with strong solar resources, huge mines that cannot be adequately serviced by the weak local grid, and which are being hit by soaring fossil fuel costs, particularly diesel – a 10MW solar thermal plant built by Spanish group Abengoa was commissioned for a mining operation last year.
The output from the 1,280 parabolic trough collector modules is expected to cut the use of diesel – in the solution heating process used for extracting copper at the Minera El Tesoro mine – by 55 per cent. BHP Billiton also commissioned a 1MW solar plant in the Atacama Desert to supply energy to the world’s highest altitude copper mine, at 3,200m above sea level.