Could vast solar farms energise Australia's regional centres?

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Australia has huge potential as a 'solar-energy farming'  nation, with a consistently high number of intense-sunlight days across many parts of the country, and vast tracts of flat land suitable for large-scale solar PV arrays. Despite this, solar power accounted for only around two percent of the electricity generated Down Under in 2014, with fossil fuels contributing a massive 87 percent.

Australia’s glut of coal-fired power stations is ageing, however, and investment in clean-energy sources is likely to increase as they decline.

Solar is pricier than wind power right now but within a few years, falling development costs will likely close the price gap between wind and solar, leading to more investment in solar farms across Australia, Clean Energy Finance executive director Ludovic Theau told The SMH recently.

“We do see a substantial step-up in activity,” he said. “The next five years for us are absolutely critical.”

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the Australian Government’s pledge to generate nearly a quarter of the country’s power from ‘clean energy’ sources by 2020 could fuel a 15-fold increase in large-scale solar capacity by 2021.

Royalla, ruler of large-scale solar farms – till 2015

Developed by Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV), 20-megawatt Royalla Solar Farm became Australia’s largest such facility when it became operational in September 2014, beating out previous frontrunner, WA’s Greenough River Solar Farm.

That is until a brace of large-scale solar farms backed by AGL and First Solar – a 102 MW facility near Nyngan and a 53 MW complex outside Broken Hill, both in regional New South Wales – launched in 2015, generating enough electricity between them to power the equivalent of 50,000-odd residences. Meanwhile, underway in northern New South Wales, was the 56 MW Moree Solar Farm.

Further north, the world's largest solar farm facility is due for completion in 2023.

A 2GW mega solar project at Bulli Creek in south-west Queensland, which received planning approval in February 2015 from Toowoomba Regional Council, will be co-developed in stages over the next eight years on more than 5,200 hectares of cleared cattle grazing land by US solar giant SunEdison and Australia’s Solar Choice. When fully operational, it will be the largest such facility in the world.

A comparatively miniscule 3.275 MW array set up by the University of Queensland will be used to test solar PV and battery storage technologies and explore the challenges of integrating these with the power grid.

Solar puts a new shine on the Silver City and Nygyan

After more than 130 years of continuous production, Broken Hill’s eight-kilometre-long deposit of silver, zinc and lead is petering out, and the outback city’s main source of income and employment is dwindling along with it. Fortunately, the Hill now has a new source of both that its residents can, potentially, ‘mine’ forever.

In November 2015, AGL Energy, in conjunction with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the NSW Government, delivered two large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) power plants with a total capacity of 155 MW (AC) to the towns of Nyngan (102 MW) and Broken Hill (53 MW) in regional New South Wales. ARENA provided $166.7 million in funding and the NSW Government contributed $64.9 million.

During construction, about 150 people were employed on Broken Hill solar farm, which AGL estimates gave a $15 million boost to the region’s economy. Two or three people are employed to run the farm, which reached full production in October 2015.

Broken Hill’s vast solar PV array is expected to generate around 126,000 megawatt hours (MWh) of clean, renewable electricity a year, AGL states.

More free energy for Moree

Meanwhile, the town of Moree in outback northern NSW is set to get an energy boost from the Moree Solar Farm (MSF), a vast new solar plant 10 clicks south of town.

The farm, consisting of large arrays of solar panels set 2.5-3 metres above ground level employing solar PV-Polycrystalline modules with horizontal tracking, will have a capacity of 56 MWac (70MWp) and is expected to generate enough electricity to supply around 15,000 homes.

The region’s consistent intense levels of solar radiation, large amount of available flat land, reliable transport links and proximity to the national electricity grid with its strong transmission infrastructure – making plant connectivity feasible while minimising negative impacts on the natural environment – made the Moree site ideal for a large-scale solar PV facility.

Construction of the ‘farm’ began in spring 2014 by Green Light Contractors, a local subsidiary of Elecnor. Backed by Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV), with support from the Australian Government through an ARENA grant of $101.7 million and debt on commercial terms from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), the new solar farm is due for completion in early 2016.

The green power generated by Moree Solar Farm will result in an estimated reduction of 95,000 tonnes CO2 equivalent in in annual greenhouse gas emissions and its operation will save around 165,000 megalitres of clean drinking water a year, compared to a coal-fired power station. The operating life of the farm is expected to be around 30 years.

Already the MSF project is delivering “significant benefits” to Moree and the wider community – along with 100-odd construction jobs and five permanent operational positions, it’s hoped the influx of energy will spur further investment in the region and “additional indirect economic opportunities".

Farming sunshine in the Sunshine State

Meanwhile, just outside the historic sheep and cattle-grazing town of Barcaldine in Queensland, another big new solar farm is set to generate clean power and jobs.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is providing $22.8 million in construction support for the Barcaldine Remote Community Solar Farm, a 20 MW AC (25 MW DC) single-axis tracking solar PV plant.

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht said the project would benefit the region and will show how renewables can benefit locations on the outskirts of the national electricity grid. “Fringe-of-grid locations in regional Australia face a number of challenges, with reliability and outages caused by network constraints and a lack of infrastructure,” Frischknecht said.

“There is a clear value proposition for large-scale solar in the Barcaldine area, which has an excellent solar resource and experiences voltage and frequency control issues as well as load management challenges.

“A new solar farm will help alleviate peak demand pressures and provide voltage control, resulting in more reliable power supply to customers in the region.

“The potential for added battery storage to create additional network benefits will also be explored. This could allow the solar plant to work in tandem with the existing gas plant during a line outage, operating as an ‘island’ network independent to the main grid.

“This project will serve as a test case showing how the network benefits from distributed renewable energy, which can improve network efficiency and potentially enable solar plants to access an extra revenue stream through network support payments.

“Up to 175 jobs are expected to be created during construction, with the early works being carried out by employees from the local community.

“The plant will adopt the tracking technology currently being installed at the ARENA-supported Moree Solar Farm, providing a further benchmark and additional information on its installation and operation, to be shared with the energy industry.”

The CEFC has committed $20 million in debt finance towards the $69 million Barcaldine project, which is due for completion in April 2017.

CEFC, which mobilises investment in renewable energy, energy efficiency and low-emissions technologies, has committed more than $1.4 billion to date in finance to 55-plus investments in clean energy projects valued at more than $3.5 billion.

Diesel and solar power up Doomadgee

The $11,903,277 Doomadgee Solar Project, partly funded by ARENA, integrates 1.26 MW of solar PV generation into the existing diesel-solar power station servicing the Doomadgee community in outback Queensland.

Lead organisation Ergon Energy (which owns and operates 33 standalone power stations across the state, supplying 38 remote communities including Doomadgee that typically use diesel as their principal energy source) began the project in July 2014.

Ergon Energy installed a 264 kW solar farm to offset around eight percent of the diesel fuel used by community, lowering local energy costs and reducing the amount of fuel storage usually required in case of access problems in extended wet seasons.

When fully implemented, the project will boost the amount of solar PV being fed into Doomadgee’s mini-grid to 1.26 MW and will incorporate supporting technologies, including an advanced control system, low-load diesel, stability control and diesel-off capability.

The project will show the technical viability and system reliability of a high-penetration solar PV/diesel hybrid system, further developing Ergon Energy’s technical capability (thus speeding the roll-out of similar hybrid systems into other remote communities) and helping remote-area, high-penetration renewable solutions become cost-competitive with diesel by lowering future costs of design, construction, maintenance and operation.

For more information, read Ergon Energy’s August 2014 media release: Solar solution for remote community.

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