Plans to build a 128MW solar farm in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt region may be revived after mining billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest reportedly agreeing to back the $130 million project.
ABC Online reported on Friday that Forrest had given in-principle agreement to invest in Sun Brilliance Power’s Cunderdin solar farm through Squadron Energy, an arm of his private investment vehicle Minderoo.
It’s the second time in a matter of weeks that the former CEO of Fortsecue Metals Group has turned up in the media in connection with major renewable energy projects, after he was last month named as significant backer of the massive Northern Territory Sun Cable project.
Forrest’s mining company, Fortescue Metals, is also investing in a 60MW solar farm to reduce the costs of fossil fuel generation, a move that could be repeated by Gina Rinehart’s Roy Hill mining operations and Rio Tinto’s iron ore projects in the Pilbara.
Sun Brilliance Power chair Ray Wills would neither confirm nor deny Forrest’s investment in Cunderdin, but did confirm with RenewEconomy that the solar farm had secured a backer, conditional to its access to the local grid.
The project – one of the largest solar farms proposed for Western Australia, and one of the first and biggest in the country to be planned on a purely “merchant” basis, which it sells power to the grid and takes the spot price – has struggled to make it to financial close.
But with a major investor now all-but locked in, Sun Brilliance Power is confident Cunderdin can clear any final grid connection hurdles and be “ready to turn the sod” by March, 2020.
“It’s actually a project that’s ready to execute, we just need to get to an investment decision and ensure that we can get our electrons to the network,” Wills told RenewEconomy in an interview on Friday.
“I can confirm we’ve got a backer, but that is conditional on our access to the grid, which we had contracts for.
“We’re still in discussions with the network operator [Western Power] to understand the timing of our access,” he said.
“Still in discussions” seems to be a bit of a theme with the Western Australia large-scale renewable energy industry, which lags well behind the rest of the country.
At the end of 2018, just 500MW of big wind and solar capacity had been installed, and only around 70MW more were in the pipeline.
At around that time, state-owned utility Western Power opened its South West Interconnected Network to around 900MW of new renewables projects through its final Generator Interim Access (GIA) offers – an arrangement created in consultation with AEMO to help progress connections to the grid that would otherwise have been ruled unviable.
The scheme was said to have resulted in a total of eight connection offers made to generators – reportedly including Cunderdin – who would operate under constrained conditions – meaning their access to the network might be reduced by AEMO when another generator was competing for the network.
At the time, Western Power chief Guy Chalkley said the GIA could add around 20 per cent of new generation capacity to the existing mix of the state’s grid, and address a “significant hurdle” to new projects wanting to connect.
“Within the last five years, we haven’t connected many large‐scale generators to the grid mainly due to the high cost of augmentation required for new generators to achieve an unconstrained network connection,” he said.
Another year on, and not a huge amount of progress has been made. But developers are not giving up, particularly as the price for large-scale certificates continues to rise, despite the Large-Scale Renewable Energy Target coming to a close in 2020.
“Cunderdin solar farm is a great news story for the state, for regional jobs and growth,” Wills told RE.
“It’s a project that has all of its approvals in place and is ready to build. …And if (finance and grid connection) falls into place, the project could turn the sod in March,” he said.
Wills said the project would also likely include a big battery, given the increasing likelihood that “the commercial metrics would present a good case” for added storage.
Forrest’s involvement in the project – although unconfirmed – would no doubt be a boon to its progress. The mining magnate – who also happens to be half way through completing a PhD in marine science – has become increasingly invested in Australia’s renewable energy sector.