Whyalla goes greener with $145m solar greenhouse, as Gupta effect grows

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In a “big reveal” alongside GFG Alliance’s Sanjeev Gupta, Whyalla City Council announces China-backed deal to build 70 hectare solar powered intensive horticulture facility.

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The green industrial vision Sanjeev Gupta has built for the South Australian city of Whyalla – which was this week expanded upon, yet again – appears to be catching, with the local council announcing plans for a new state-of-the-art greenhouse business, powered by solar.

The $145 million project, unveiled on Monday as part of the Whyalla City Transformation Blueprint, proposes to develop a solar project combined with intensive horticulture operations in Whyalla.

The facility, which would farm as-yet unspecified high value crops, will be built by China-owned Beijing Enterprises Water Group, in a deal stuck by the Whyalla City Council after a delegation visit to China.

As the council explains, BECE operates a broad range of renewable energy projects both in China and overseas, including solar farms, wind farms, battery storage systems, clean heating supply services, geothermal power systems, and micro-grid network technologies. But it specialises in solar  combined with intensive horticulture.

NNOVATIVE: Elisa Bu (second from left), Kristina Roberts (third from left) and Chris Cowley (third from right) with staff at the greenhouse demonstration. Image: Whyalla Council

On council’s visit to China in July, delegates were shown one of the company’s solar aquaculture facilities, which is essentially a fish farm combined with a 50MW solar park, built on top of a collapsed coal mine in the city of Zoazhuang.

As Council CEO Chris Cowley said at the time, the city of 3.5 million people is not unlike Whyalla, in that is transitioning from a heavy industrial focus on coal-mining, to clean technology and alternative industries to support the city.

“(The delegation was also showed) models of other sites which incorporated solar power with greenhouse agriculture,” Cowley said.

“We indicated that combining solar technology with an industry which creates jobs is certainly an area we wish to explore further for Whyalla.”

The solar powered horticulture facility BECE is planning for South Australia will be built on a large parcel of land in the Whyalla Industrial Estate – earlier documents say Council signed an agreement in June to lease 70 hectares of open space land for solar agriculture.

Council says the deal with BECE also places a strong emphasis on using as much local labour and materials as feasible during construction.

“This is the most exciting and important time in Whyalla’s history and we are entering into an unprecedented era,”Whyalla Mayor Clare McLaughlin said in a statement on Monday.

“Over the next decade, Whyalla will be transformed, fuelled by growth in all sectors and intensely watched by the world.

“But the opportunity created won’t come just from the timely investment in our Steelworks and mines or, for that matter, any other single investment from external sources, it will need all of us in Whyalla to step up and fire up the spirit of our community.

“This is just the start on the City Transformation Blueprint journey … we will have more exciting news in the near future.”

The solar/aquaculture farm at Zaozhuang. Image: Whyalla City Council

As we have reported on RenewEconomy, the pairing of innovative renewable energy technologies with intensive agriculture production is starting to look like the new normal for sustainable crop farming in Australia.

Already, two major projects are blazing a trail: the highly successful Sundrop Farms has developed a closed-loop farming system in South Australia’s Port Augusta, which uses solar thermal technology to operate greenhouses, as well as to desalinate pumped seawater, to irrigate and mass produce crops of tomatoes.

The second project, Nectar Farms, is building Australia’s biggest greenhouse in western Victoria, to be powered by wind energy, only, with battery storage as back-up.

As noted above, the plans for Whyalla’s own solar powered intensive farming business were announced alongside new plans from steel magnate Sanjeev Gupta, whose GFG Alliance already has plans to develop as much as 1GW of new renewable energy generation in the area, to power its steel expansion plans.

“This (Whyalla) was the poor cousin of the equation … I am quite used to looking for diamonds in the rough but here I truly did find a diamond,” Gupta said on Monday at the joint “big reveal” from GFG and the council.

“Whyalla is a place with all the natural resources required to make steel, we have the best natural resources for renewable energy, we have great infrastructure including a unique port and we have a workforce who is willing to fight for its destiny.

“This now firmly cements GFG’s commitment to Whyalla’s development, and the start of a brighter and more prosperous journey that this city truly deserves.”

Mayor McLaughlin said the projects would be funded in partnership with the “relevant investors and stakeholders,” but that council would also seek support from state and federal governments to ensure “the whole of Whyalla will be brought along for the ride.”

“We Are Whyalla is a catch cry that you’ll see more and more over the coming months as we engage every section of our community, as we communicate to every last member of our city our bold and world-reaching plans,” she said.

“With partners like GFG Alliance, BECE, Pelligra Constuctions, Peats, the governments of Australia and of South Australia, and so many more, we the community of Whyalla will build on these investments by investing in ourselves.

“It won’t happen overnight, but as sure as the next day will come, the amazing story of Whyalla will unfold.”

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