Australia: Fresh water from the sun

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To say that Australia has been slow in developing utility-scale solar power plants is somewhat of an understatement. While the Solar Flagships program was launched in June 2011 to some fanfare, development of the proposed 150 MW project has never really got of the ground. The Federal Government re-opened the tender process for the plant in February after the winning consortium failed to secure PPAs for the electricity to be produced there. BP Solar was a part of the winning consortium but has since withdrawn from the project and the photovoltaic industry.

Largest utility-scale plant

Yesterday’s announcement by First Solar and the Western Australian Government, that the first solar panels have begun to be installed at the 10 MW Greenough Solar Farm is of some significance. While tiny in comparison to projects in California and Germany, the project will be the largest photovoltaic power plant in Australia when completed in July or August of this year.

The project is being developed by a consortium formed between the Western Australian state-owned power utility Verve Energy and GE Energy Financial Services. First Solar is supplying modules for the farm and is also the contractor and technology provider. A ceremony to mark the achievement was held on site yesterday.

Western Australian Energy Minister Peter Collier attended today’s ceremony and the State Government has contributed AUD20 million (US$20.7 million) towards the project. No debt has been raised to fun the project.

Another feature of note with the power plant is that the Western Australian Water Corporation will purchase 100 percent of the solar farm’s output. The Corporation’s Southern Seawater Desalination Plant will use the electricity.

The Greenough Solar Farm is located approximately 50 kilometers from the Mid-West town of Geraldton and construction on the project begun four months ago. It has been built on privately owned land, which was cleared for the power plant. The joint venture hopes the 10 MW completed later this year will be the first of an eventual 40 MW power plant on the site. 150,000 First Solar CdTe thin film modules will be used in this first stage.

Rural and remote locations

Western Australian electricity retailler Horizon Power recently announced a location-specific feed in tariff scheme for photovoltaics in remote areas. In the unique system, residents will qualify for higher tariffs in areas where it is expensive for the utility to provide grid electricity. The system will come into effect in July.

While only in its early stages, the Australian utility-scale market holds great potential, as there is good solar irradiation throughout much of the country. Falling module costs is also making photovoltaic power plants competitive with thermal energy sources, particularly in remote areas, such as the Greenough Solar Farm site.

"GE Energy Financial Services sees Australia as a key growth market that will continue to need capital to fuel its expanding renewable energy industry. We hope this is the first of many such milestones in the country," said Jason Willoughby, GE Energy Financial Services’ Australia business leader.

John Grimes from the Australian Solar Energy Solar Society told pv magazine that he thinks it’s critical that Australia continue to pursue large-scale photovoltaic projects. He continued that it might, in fact, be advantageous that the 150 MW Solar Flagships project has been put back out to tender. "I wouldn’t be surprised that the bids tabled are significantly lower than the bids which were submitted 12 or 18 months ago because the market has change fundamentally in that time. So I think we’ll see better value installation as a result," said Grimes.

There were reports last month that a newly elected government in the state of Queensland, where the 150 MW Moree Solar Farm is to be situated, would not continue to support the project – which they have partnered with the Federal Government in funding. However Grimes believes that may not be a good option for the new government on closer examination. "When the Queensland Government look at the terms of the agreement that they’ve entered into, that they may well find that it is more expensive to pull out of the funding agreement than it is to actually go through with that project."

Greens leader to go

In other environmental news from Down Under, the leader of the Australian Greens party – which has an agreement to support the Labor government to form a minority government – Bob Brown resigned today from Parliament. The 67-year old Senator has been in the Australian Parliament or 16 years. Hailing from the southern island state of Tasmania, Brown was involved in forming one of the world’s first Green political parties. The Tasmanian Greens ran candidates in the 1972 state elections.

In November of last year, Brown supported calls from his party that Australia could achieve the goal of 100-percent renewable energy within the decade. Brown was also instrumental in seeing a carbon tax legislation passed late last year. The Australian Federal Government will impose a carbon tax of AUD23 (US$23.6) per ton of carbon emissions as of July 1.

The May edition of pv magazine will feature a special report on the application of photovoltaics in Australian in rural and remote locations.