In November 2009 Prof. Mike Sandiford, the founding director of the newly established Melbourne Energy Institute, wrote a short paper introducing the idea of new energy export industry model for Australia: ELEXI, the ELectricity EXport Industry.
As Mike put it, while “dig it up and ship it out” has been Australia’s mantra for decades, a future, smarter Australia might ship the ultimate value added product to our Asian neighbours — clean energy transmitted thousands of kilometres by undersea power cables.
Crazy talk! Or was it?
Back then renewable energy wasn’t cheap, Indonesia planned to sort out its future power needs largely with coal, and sub-sea power transmission longer than the 370km Basslink sounded like science fiction.
The day would come, however, when a business case for ‘electron export’ would make sense. The Asian Renewable Energy Hub consortium (AREH), led by InterContinental Energy, CWP Energy Asia and global wind leader Vestas, is betting that the day has arrived. (The project is not to be confused with Pilbara Solar, which Sophie Vorrath covered earlier this month.)
Demand for electricity in Indonesia is expected to double over the next two decades. The Indonesian government has committed to a renewables share of 23% by 2025. While the country is committed to increasing total capacity by 35GW (on top of the 45GW already existing), Indonesia’s energy minister announced last month that the government will “not approve any coal-fired power plants in Java, this island, any more.” (According to the Global Coal Plant Tracker only 6.9GW of coal power is currently under construction in Indonesia.)
Meanwhile, the costs of renewable energy have famously plummeted, and continue to do so.
Australia’s world-leading wind and solar resources produce some of the cheapest and most reliable renewable energy in the world. But what of the last impediment, the monstrous costs of sub-sea transmission cables? We’ve seen significant cost reductions there too.
AREH spent 2014-15 scouring the coastline of Australia from Exmouth to Darwin and, after extensive desktop studies, meso-scale modelling, SODAR monitoring and traditional ‘met-mast’ measurement, has selected what they believe is an ideal site — 7,000 square kilometres located in the East Pilbara between Port Hedland and Broome with high quality solar and wind resources.
The project will be connected to West Java, the province containing Jakarta, by a 2500km HVDC bi-pole cable provided by project partner Prysmian — two fully insulated conductors laid on the sea floor running in parallel (placed a few kilometres apart to reduce risk). The project is exploring the feasibility of continuing the cable run through to Singapore.
(For the technically minded, this article explains that one cable is positive and the other negative relative to earth. A big advantage of the configuration is that, should one of the cables fail, while it is awaiting repair the system can still transmit power using ‘ground return’. If you haven’t geeked out enough, check out these cables. Not your grandfather’s submarine HVDC transmission cables!)
The cable will most likely operate at 800,000 volts, twice the voltage of Basslink and therefore able to move power for about half the cost over a given length.
Sceptics might think it is crazy to run an ‘extension cord’ all the way to Indonesia, but losses in the latest generation are surprisingly low at an estimated 7.5% over the entire length, similar to the average losses in Australia’s National Electricity Market.
Those with just enough knowledge of how the system works will be concerned that the cable will be way under-utilised due to the nature of renewable energy — won’t the cable be useless when “the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine”? While this objection might make intuitive sense to talk-back radio listeners, the cool kids have discovered the benefits of hybrid solar/wind projects.
While the site’s wind might be classified as ‘very good’ in strength, additional value lies in its consistency and typically diurnal pattern, higher at night and lower during the day. By choosing the right mix of wind and solar, the total is more reliable than the individual technologies.
After an extensive optimisation exercise, which sought to maximise the delivered energy per dollar invested, the project has chosen 4000MW of wind, 2000MW of solar PV with a 3000MW HVDC cable.
Armchair engineers will be heading to the comments section at this point to complain that 6000MW of wind and solar exporting through a 3000MW cable is very wasteful. Hold your horses! Yes, some energy is thrown away — especially when winds are particularly strong —but it turns out that less than 10% of total generation is lost. (For now it is not economic to store the excess for later use, but storage can always be added at a later date if/when the economics stack up.)
Importantly, this optimised hybrid/oversize model is expected to achieve almost 80% cable utilisation and deliver predictable power.
The layout of the wind farm resembles an offshore wind farm — and in fact with very low complexity terrain and in such a remote area, there are many parallels with offshore development.
In the current layout, turbines are placed in rows with 750m between turbines and 6km spacing between rows. The rows face the predominant wind direction with the aim of minimising any wind shadow and wake effects. The solar arrays are deployed in clusters, spaced throughout the site to increase geographic diversity and minimise the impact of localised cloud cover.
Vestas have recently begun selling 4.2MW wind turbines, but it’s almost a certainty that larger models will be available when the project enters the construction phase. Interestingly the project has a design life of 60 years, with a projected repowering of the turbines and solar panels after 30 years.
The US$10bn project is more than a pipe dream. Project land has been secured through an Exclusive Development License with the WA Department of Lands. Onshore and offshore development studies are underway and, importantly, the consortium has this week filed Environmental Impact Assessment referrals with both the EPA in WA and the federal government’s EPBC process.
The traditional owners, the Nyangumarta people, are actively involved and supportive. Nyangumarta Rangers have been working closely with the consortium’s ecological consultants on all the onsite studies being carried out for the EIA.
Strong community acceptance is no doubt linked to the enormous employment and skills development opportunities on offer as well as the AUD$11bn that will be spent in Western Australia over the project’s life.
The project aims to reach financial close in 2020 with completion in 2029.
There’s no doubt that the project is epic in scale — the project is expected to generate 15TWh of energy annually, which is as much as is generated by all the renewable energy projects built in Australian in the first 12 years of the Renewable Energy Target. As well as generating power for more than 7 million Indonesian homes, the project is projected to offset almost 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide over the life of the project.
But it’s a serious team. CWP Renewables has developed and financed more Australian wind generation than any other company. Vestas has installed 87GW of wind turbines globally in 76 countries and is investing heavily in hybrid wind / solar integration technologies.
Some might say that InterContinental Energy has set themselves an overly ambitious goal with AREH. Hong Kong-based Managing Director Alexander Tancock has two other similar projects in the pipeline — both at a similar scale and hybrid wind/solar. Both are naturally intercontinental, but even the identity of the continents are being kept a tightly held secret for now.
For now, the consortium won’t be drawn on the expected costs of delivered energy. Given supply constraints in West Java and Indonesia’s clean energy targets, the Asian Renewable Energy Hub project may be well placed to supply affordable, reliable and clean power to Jakarta and Singapore.