Australia on cusp of large-scale solar boom as setup costs tumble, experts say

The country has quietly had a record-breaking year in the construction of major solar projects, and the trend is predicted to continue. Seven large-scale solar projects were completed in 2016 and even more will be built over the next 12 months, as rapid advances in technology propel large-scale solar towards price parity with wind power. Clean Energy Council CEO Kane Thornton said it was “a record year” for large-scale solar, which could soon overtake wind as the cheapest form of renewable energy, thanks to rapid advances in technology. “Already this year in 2017, we’ve had over a dozen projects committed and now moving onto construction,” he said. “The costs of large scale solar has halved in just the last few years here in Australia. “We expect over the next couple of years [it] will really reduce the cost to a point that it is the lowest cost form of renewable generation in this country.” The powers that be are stumbling in the dark to prevent a looming energy crisis, as the grid seeks to balance competing demands — both environmental and economic. Ivor Frischknecht, who heads the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) — the agency that delivers Federal Government funding for renewable projects — said the boom was approaching sooner than anyone expected. “A couple of years ago we analysed the market and thought that by the early 2020s we might be able to get there, to be cost competitive with wind,” he said. “But in fact we’re there already — we’re seeing large scale solar projects happen without any support.” ARENA said the formation of a domestic solar industry had also brought down costs. Moree is the site of one of Australia’s newest large-scale solar farms and the fourth largest in the country. The town of less than 10,000 people in northern New South Wales has perfect conditions for generating solar power, enduring a record 54 consecutive days over 35 degrees Celsius this summer. The Moree solar farm is an example of the kinds of challenges once faced by large-scale solar in Australia. Initially the project was going to be the largest in the country but was forced to downsize, according to the town’s mayor, Katrina Humphries. “Yes it was ground-breaking, yes it was heart-wrenching, yes for one reason or another our solar farm was going to be the biggest solar farm out in Australia,” Ms Humphries said. “But it hit a hurdle with the company, [and it] didn’t tick all the boxes. The funding was withdrawn.” Building solar in 2017 is easier by comparison, according to both ARENA and the Clean Energy Council. Ms Humphries said there was a great deal of community support for the project — especially in light of the summer they have just had. “We’ve been an area that’s suffered from a lot of blackouts,” she said. “I really think it helped us through that extreme heat when there was huge load on the grid and on the system — it’s very much a part of shoring up our supply.” Despite a record-breaking year of construction, large-scale solar was responsible for only 0.2 per cent of the national energy mix in 2016. But Mr Frischknecht predicted that figure would rise quickly. When you think of solar, you probably think of vast fields of black panels at large-scale solar farms. But Australia’s real solar engine is a much more humble sight. “Today something like 16 per cent of all electricity is renewable and the majority if that is wind — there’s also some biomass and some hydro in there,” he said. “And that portion is going to grow up to 23 per cent by the early 2020s, which is our renewable energy target. “We think something like half or a third of that growth will be solar, most of which will be large-scale solar. “Matthew Warren, chief executive of the Australia Energy Council, which represents electricity networks and retailers, said solar’s cost relative to wind, gas and coal was more complex than it appeared. “We don’t get into this game because it’s not just the levelised cost of energy, it’s not just the cheapest unit cost of electrons,” he said. “We’re discovering in South Australia, when you build intermittent renewables like wind and solar, they do require extra services and extra backup or other systems to augment them, and that also needs to be considered in the cost.” Mr Warren predicts that fossil fuels will play an important role in Australia’s electricity market for some time yet. “Solar and wind, coupled with gas in the next decade, and that can evolve again as other technologies get to market and get cheaper,” he said.

ABC Environmental News, 29 March 2017 ; ;