Victoria’s largest solar farm goes ahead after “solving” connection dilemma

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The 200MW Kiamal solar farm near Ouyen will be the biggest in Victoria, and the first in Australia to be built with synchronous condensers.

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The 200MW Kiamal solar farm in Victoria – the largest in the state to date – will be officially launched on Wednesday and begin construction this month after developer Total Eren says it has resolved connection issues that had already delayed the $300 million project.

The Kiamal solar farm is located near the town of Ouyen – not far from Mildura in the state’s north west. But as RenewEconomy revealed in May, it is located in what could be described as the “rhombus of death”, a part of the network that  doesn’t have the “system strength” to accommodate all the wind and solar projects planned for the area.

The Australian Energy Market Operator issued a warning in May that any developments – without major system upgrades – would face significant curtailment issues. The options to get around this were investing in machinery known as synchronous condensers, or await a network upgrade, which could take years,

Kiamal, as the largest solar project proposed for the area, was expected to be particularly badly hit, and after going back to the drawing board its developers have decided to invest in a large synchronous condenser to advance the project.

Synchronous condensers are decades old technology. They are rotating machines that do not generate power as such, but can provide “system strength” when needed. South Australia’s ElectraNet is installing three such machines to boost its network.

The “syncon” to be installed by Total Eren will provide a fault contribution of greater than 600MVA, which is around three times the size of the peak output for the solar farm. According to Michael Vawser,  Total Eren is doing this because of economies of scale, and because it will make the yet-to-be-finalised connection process smoother.

It will also facilitate the development of many other wind and solar projects in the area, including some that recently won contracts from the Victoria government under its auction for 650MW of wind and solar capacity.

“This is a good news story for north west Victoria because it will substantially strengthen the system for all users,” Vawser told RenewEconomy.

“Having syncons in the system will be a necessary part of the transition to a renewable energy future. We are just leading that charge, which is why we are so excited!”

Vawser would not comment on the cost of the syncon, how it might impact the economics of the Kiamal project, or if or how it might recoup some of its investment – given that it will facilitate the progress of other major solar projects.

Kiamal has signed up renewable energy retailer Flow Power as one major customer, as well as Mars Australia, which is looking to power its operations in Australia with 100 per cent renewable energy.

Another customer, Merdian Energy’s Powershop, dropped out because of delays to the project, but Vawser says another retailer has since stepped in with a new off take agreement, returning the number of customers to three.

The identity of that customer will be confirmed at the official opening on Wednesday, as will the names of the principal contractors.

Both Flow Power and Powershop had expressed surprise – and delight – at the low cost of solar from the project, as originally proposed.

Total Eren, a deep pocketed joint venture combining French oil major Total and Eren that only recently made its entry into Australia, snapping an experienced development team headed by Vawser,  had also foreshadowed a major battery storage project at Kiamal, winning council approval in February for an installation sized at up to 100MW/380MWh.

Vawser says energy storage is useful for reactive power and voltage support, and for time shifting generation and managing congestion, as well as “firming” the output of renewables. “There is still a role for this in the coming years and so Kiamal will look to implement that when it makes sense to do so,” he says.

As a side note, it is probably worth pointing out that battery storage installations may be required for some projects under the “do no harm” requirements of grid connections. i.e. not weaken the grid.

Synchronous condensers are considered different because they can strengthen the grid, and allow the building of a wind or solar farm in regions that would otherwise struggle to cope.

AEMO warned last year that Victoria’s big renewable energy plans face major network hurdles – and foreshadowed curtailment rates of up to 50 per cent could be experienced if the network was not upgraded.

It pointed, in particular, to the 220kV line that links Ballarat, Horsham, Red Cliffs (a key connection spot between Victoria and NSW), Kerang and Bendigo, and this was the focus of its May update, where it noted that two existing wind farms, Ararat and Waubra – would soon be joined by the 80MW Crowlands, the 204MW Bulgana and the 226MW Murray Warra wind projects.

“With these five wind farms connected, the (Ballarat to Horsham) line will, at times, be loaded beyond its thermal capacity,” AEMO said. “Associated network constraints may result in limitations on the generating capacity of these wind farms.”

It also made a similar warning to proposed solar farms in the area – the 110MW Wemen, the 100MW Bannerton, the 90MW Karadoc, and the 81MW Yatpool solar projects. Bannerton has already joined the grid.

AEMO’s Integrated System Plan puts the issue in north west Victoria as one of its major priorities, seeking to address the issue  in its Group 1 project proposals it says should be implemented “as soon as practicable”.

This also includes a new interconnector from South Australia to Wagga Wagga in NSW, a line that is expected to have a connection through to Mildura that will also help reduce congestion in that part of Victoria.

Total Eren expects the Kiamal solar project to be completed by the middle of 2019.

 

 

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