A 125MW solar farm built to lower costs and underpin the expansion of Korean zinc refiner Sun Metals in north Queensland has been officially opened at its site, south of Townsville.
The ground-breaking project, which was constructed by RCR Tomlinson, marked the first large-scale solar farm to be built directly by a major energy user in Australia, and signalled the start of the shift of Australian heavy industry away from “baseload” coal power and to renewable energy.
Since then, Sun Metals has been joined by UK steel billionaire Sanjeev Gupta, who earlier this week launched his own plans to build more than 1GW of dispatchable renewable energy to expand Australia’s manufacturing and heavy industry around a supply of cheap and reliable energy.
He has already contracted a solar farm for his Laverton steelworks, while other big energy users such as Orora, CUB, Telstra and other are also turning to wind and solar.
Speaking at the solar farm’s launch, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the project demonstrated that no new coal-fired power generation needed to be built in the state’s north, despite calls for just that from various Coalition party members, including the local member, the MP for Dawson, George Christensen.
“There is no need for a new coal-fired power station for Queensland. I have ruled that out,” she said.
“Queensland is the energy powerhouse of the nation. We have some of the youngest coal fired power fleets in the nation, we have gas exploration happening, we’re releasing more gas into the domestic market and … we have a 50 per cent renewable energy target.”
As we have reported, the Nationals-led political push for new coal plants in Australia has intensified in recent weeks and months, buoyed by a National Energy Guarantee that would kill renewable investment for a decade, and by the ACCC call for the federal government underwrite new “dispatchable” energy generation.
While that could mean anything from large-scale solar paired with battery storage, to wind power and pumped hydro, the coal die-hards in the Turnbull government have interpreted it as a green light for new coal.
And Christensen, who describes himself on his website simply as “George”, was recently sent to Japan on a Minerals Council of Australia-funded mission to look at the latest so-called “high efficiency, low emission” – or HELE – coal-fired generators there.
But Palaszczuk, whose Labor government is currently offering only conditional support of the NEG, says her state is seeing strong private investment in renewables because of the confidence provided by its 50 per cent target.
“Queensland is perfectly positioned to capitalise on one of our greatest strengths, which is our sun,” she said at the launch.
“(Companies) are investing in Queensland because my government is providing that certainty through the renewable energy target.”
Sun Metals chief Yun Choi said the $200 million solar farm gave Sun Metals the ability to produce 30 per cent of its own electricity for the refinery, while also providing an opportunity to sell power to the grid.
“Sun Metals’ mission is to become the safest, the most environmentally responsible and the most competitive zinc refinery in the world,” Choi said.
“The solar farm is one-of-a-kind in Australia in that it will directly power a large industrial user and export electricity into the National Electricity Market. Now that the solar farm is operational, it will enable the refinery to be the largest single site renewable consumer in Australia.
Choi also reaffirmed that the “competitive edge” provided by the solar farm would put Sun Metals in a better position to make a final decision on the potential expansion of its zinc refinery in Townsville.
“Once we have achieved an acceptable long-term power price agreement and certainty over our road and logistics access to Townsville port, we will be in a position to make a final determination regarding the expansion of our refinery in Townsville,” he said.
The expansion will involve a $300 million investment and is expected to support up to 827 construction jobs during peak construction, as well as a significant increase in permanent workers across the refinery and and its related businesses, Choi said.