The owners of the Collinsville coal-fired power station in northern Queensland are considering closing the facility permanently and replacing it with a large-scale solar array.
Ratch Australia, which inherited the ageing power station – along with several wind farms – as part of its purchase of Transfield Infrastructure in 2011, has hired Queensland-based firm Ingenero to advise on the feasibility of a solar PV farm, possibly up to 50MW, to be sited at Collinsville.
If it goes ahead, that would make it the biggest solar installation in the country, and a hugely symbolic first instance where a coal-fired power station in Australia has been replaced by solar – although there is a strong community push to do the same at Port August in South Australia. Many coal plants in Australia have been closed or mothballed because of the economic impact of reduced demand, and the growing impact of renewable energy generation, particularly rooftop solar.
However, Anil Nangia, the head of business development at Ratch Australia, said a solar PV farm was one of “many options” – both renewable and fossil fuel (and, presumably, hybrid options) – that are being considered to replace the ageing power station.
He would not go into further details, but said an announcement would be made within two weeks.
Second proposal for Collinsville
It is not the first time there has been a proposal to transform the heavy polluting, 180MW Collinsville power station to solar. The previous owners in 2009 proposed a solar thermal plant using technology owned by Novatec Solar, a German company majority-owned by Transfield Services, which retains a small stake in Ratch Australia.
Solar thermal technologies use the sun’s energy to create steam and drive a turbine.
That proposal made the shortlist of the ill-fated Solar Flagships program, but fell out of contention when it was discovered that little of the existing infrastructure could be used with that new technology.
Still, the fact that a coal-fired power plant exists there offers a ready-made grid connection and land that could be used for other technologies, and Nangia said that the cost of solar PV had fallen so far it was now competing with wind energy on costs in Australia.
Nangia said solar PV could now be built in Australia for between 12c and 15c/kWh. That is more expensive than wind (8.5c/kWh to 12c/kWh), but because solar PV plants produce during the day, their output has a higher value.
“If you can find a site with cheap connection costs and low land costs, solar PV becomes viable, and it can be competitive with wind,” said Nangia, whose company also owns the Windy Hill and Starfish wind farms, and is looking to develop wind projects in the Atherton Tablelands in north Queensland, and near Collector in New South Wales, as part of a planned $1 billion investment program in energy facilities in Australia.
“Ratch has a number of wind sites that we are developing – but we think solar can be very competitive,” Nangia said.
Ratch Australia has signed a MOU with Ingenero to look at a pipeline of projects in the 5MW, 10MW to 20MW range. “We think that is a good size,” Nangia said.
Any such development will, of course, require a power purchase agreement with a local utility. And as any solar or wind developer can attest, these are proving hard to obtain in the current market, and with lingering uncertainty about the fate of the Renewable Energy Target.
“We do need a PPA, yes, definitely,” Nangia said. “In the current market it is not easy. Everyone talking about amount of RECs (renewable energy certificates) required (by the utilities) and how it will go up quite substantially. So we are hoping that the energy retailers will have appetite for RECs in the near future.”
Ingenero CEO Steve McRae said the partnership with Ratch Australia was an enormous opportunity for the company.
“This partnership will see development of grid-connected, commercial-scale solar and off-grid installations within Australia and internationally,” he said.
Ratch Australia’s majority owner, Thailand’s Ratchaburi Electricity, owns solar PV installations in Thailand. Nangia said lower labour costs meant that the cost of solar PV arrays was around 20-30 per cent cheaper in Thailand than in Australia.