Construction begins on Australia's largest PV power plant

While Australia looks set to remain one of the top 10 PV markets in terms of annual installed capacity, according to NPD Solarbuzz predictions, its market remains dominated by the residential rooftop segment.

With 3 GW of installed PV capacity nationally, the largest PV power plant remains the Greenough River solar plant in Western Australia, with a capacity of 10 MW.

That may be beginning to change, with construction underway on the Nyngan solar park, which is owned by coal-seam gas and renewable energy developer AGL.

First Solar will provide the EPC services while also supplying the modules and additionally provide O&M services for a five-year period.

"Each project that First Solar constructs builds acceptance of and confidence in utility-scale solar as an effective source of power generation in Australia," said First Solar’s Jack Curtis, in a statement announcing that work was underway.

The Nyngan utility scale installation has received support from both the NSW government and the Australian federal government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA).

Owner AGL was able to raise the funding required to develop the Nyngan park while also raising capital for another park in Broken Hill.

First Solar will also supply modules to and provide the EPC services for the Broken Hill plant. Both parks saw a total investment of AUD$440 million (US$387 million).

ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht noted that AGL’s experience with the project and the regulatory hurdles involved would serve Australia’s energy and PV industry as a whole.

"AGL has already learned valuable lessons during the planning stages of the project, which ARENA has shared with the industry in a guide to gaining regulatory approvals."

The guide is available free-of-charge online.

ARENA pointed out that it was a local firm — the Geelong-based IXL Group — supplying mounting systems to First Solar and important expertise was therefore being developed within local industries.

Dark clouds over utility scale

While today marks a major milestone for the Australian PV industry, the start of construction coincides with dark clouds forming on the horizon for the sector.

Utility scale development in Australia is underpinned by the country’s large scale renewable energy targets (RET), which legislate the target of 20% renewable energy sourced for electricity by 2020 – or 41 GW. The move was introduced by the conservative government of John Howard and passed with support from all major political parties.

However, the RET has been increasingly disputed, particularly by the new coalition government of Prime Minister Tony Abbott. He recently called for a review of the RET by an "independent panel." A previous review by the Australian Climate Change Commission had recommended maintaining the RET, amongst other measures, in 2012.

Rumors have emerged today, on the renewable energy website Reneweconomy.com.au, that a member of the free market and generally anti-renewable energy think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), is set to be appointed to the panel to review the RET this time around.

Alan Moran is the IPA official tipped to be a part of the four person RET review panel. Three business people are believed to be the other panelists.

Reneweconomy reports that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s Cabinet’s own department will provide support to the panel. One of the Prime Minister’s current business advisors is relatively high profile climate change skeptic and vocal wind-development critic Maurice Newman.