Queensland’s largest solar farm goes online

Published: 3 November 2021

This week in solar: Solar farms, battery grids and supply chain disruption.

Read on to learn about Australian solar industry updates for the week commencing Nov 1, 2021.

Australia has a highly successful solar industry, to the point where one in every four homes now has solar panels. As a result, several parts of the country are now 100% solar-powered during the sunniest hours of the day (around noon). Australia is also leading the way in energy storage and virtual power plant projects, which achieve synergy with distributed solar power systems, and there is an emerging green hydrogen industry.

However, government policy towards renewable energy is still an area of opportunity in Australia. The current clean energy targets are modest when we consider the achievements of the wind and solar industries locally. 

  • The Morrison Government stated that Australia can achieve a 35% emissions cut by 2030 with respect to 2005, considering the current growth rate of solar power and other renewables.
  • Energy efficiency improvements in homes and businesses, and land use changes, are also helping Australia cut its emissions.

The government has published projections that forecast net-zero emissions in Australia by 2050, but there are no plans to update climate change commitments for 2030. The country will keep its current decarbonisation target of 26% to 28%, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison will not formally announce any new targets at the COP26 in Glasgow. The latest Greenhouse Gas Bulletin from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) provides some alarming figures, which include a new record for atmospheric carbon dioxide: 413.2 parts per million, which is 149% above industrial levels. Other greenhouse gases like methane and nitrous oxide have also reached record levels.

Although the current government policy could be better, there was great news in the Australian renewable industry last week. The country is taking the lead in areas like utility-scale batteries, synchronous condensers, and green hydrogen. These are all technologies that achieve synergy with solar panels and wind turbines, and in the future, they enable to allow a grid that runs fully with renewable sources.

The largest solar farm in Queensland goes online

In the last week of October, Neonen connected a 400-megawatt solar farm in the Western Downs region of Queensland. This is the largest solar farm in QLD so far, and it will soon be enhanced with a utility-scale battery having 200 MW and 400 MWh of capacity. 

  • With its 400 MW capacity, Neoen’s new solar farm can generate enough electricity for 230,000 Queensland homes.
  • 320 MW will be purchased by CleanCo Queensland, a power generation and trading company owned by the local government.

Neoen also owns the Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia, most commonly known as the Tesla big battery. At the time of its completion in December 2017, this was the world’s largest battery with 100 MW and 129 MWh, and it has now been expanded to 150 MW and 194 MWh.

The 400MW solar farm and the 200MW/400MWh battery are part of the Western Downs Green Power Hub, which will deliver an electricity output of 1,080 million kWh per year. The project will also be avoiding 864,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year. The total investment in this project is $600 million, and it will create over 450 jobs. According to economic estimates from the engineering and consulting firm Aurecon, the Green Power Hub will bring a total benefit of $850 million to the region.

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The first grid battery in New South Wales has started operating

There was also good news from Western Sydney, where the 50MW / 75MWh Wallgrove battery started operating on October 29. This is the first battery of its type in New South Wales, owned by Transgrid and operated by Iberdrola. The system uses 36 Tesla Megapack units, each having a capacity of 3 MWh (3,000 kWh). For comparison, the Tesla Megapack has 222 times more energy storage capacity than the Powerwall (13.5 kWh).

The Wallgrove battery is smaller than similar systems in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland. However, it represents an important achievement in New South Wales, the state with the most coal-dependent grid in Australia. With large-scale energy storage, solar and other renewables can increase their share of power generation. The short-term outlook for renewables in NSW is very positive:  the state could be getting 84% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and most of its coal power stations will have stopped operating by then.

The NSW government is also requesting gigawatt-scale proposals for its South-West Renewable Energy Zone (REZ). This includes not only solar and wind farms, but also energy storage and power grid infrastructure updates. NSW is currently working on five REZs, and major coal stations that are reaching the end of their service life will be replaced with a combination of renewables and energy storage.

  • The South-West REZ is located around the city of Hay, characterised by its abundant sunshine.
  • Spark Renewables will be developing a 2.5-gigawatt hub in the REZ. The project combines solar power, wind power and battery storage.

South Australia raised its grid limits for wind and solar power

There was also a favourable announcement from the SA transmission company ElectraNet on Monday, October 25. Four synchronous condensers have been installed in Port Augusta and Robertstown, which have the grid stabilisation effect of traditional power plants, without burning any fossil fuels.

Solar panels and wind turbines now have lower costs than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. However, since their electricity output is variable, many grids limit their total megawatts as a way to remain stable.

  • The South Australia grid has operated with a limit of 1,700 MW, but the new synchronous condensers could enable up to 2,500 MW of solar and wind power on the grid. 
  • In other words, the SA grid has nearly doubled its capacity to use renewables. The new grid capacity for renewables is above the current installed capacity, making more space for growth.

Steam and gas turbines have “spinning inertia” that keeps the grid voltage and frequency stable. However, a synchronous condenser can provide spinning inertia without the fossil fuel combustions. In other words, it has the stabilising effect of fossil fuel power plants, but without the associated emissions. When there are systems dedicated to keeping the grid stable, more solar panels and wind turbines can be connected.

In simple terms, a synchronous condenser can be described as a motor with a freely spinning shaft. They are synchronised with the grid frequency as their name implies, and they oppose sudden changes in frequency thanks to their spinning inertia. Normally, this function is accomplished by the heavy rotating shafts of turbines in conventional power plants.

Synchronous condensers are one of many technologies that enable a higher percentage of solar and wind generation on power grids, along with energy storage and virtual power plants (VPP). Without other systems providing ancillary services, a large number of solar panels and wind turbines can make the power supply unstable. This limits their use, even when electricity costs are below those of fossil fuels.

The NEM launches the wholesale demand response mechanism

Australia continues to innovate in the renewable energy industry, not only with technology and major projects but also with business models. The National Electricity Market (NEM) now has a Wholesale Demand Response Mechanism, which rewards large consumers who control their demand:

  • Just like power generators can bid in the wholesale energy market, large consumers can now bid for scheduled demand reductions.
  • Commercial and industrial consumers who reduce their consumption at times of high demand will be rewarded, since they are removing a major burden from the grid.

The WDRM started operating on October 24, and businesses who participated will be designated as Demand Response Service Providers (DRSP). Commercial and industrial consumers who are using energy storage to reduce their demand charges now gain an additional benefit. They are not only avoiding a hefty charge on their power bills but also getting paid for reducing their consumption.

Can supply chain issues affect Australia’s solar industry?

In spite of all the positive news, the solar industry is dealing with a worldwide challenge that could slow down projects in the short term. Global supply chains are currently saturated by a combination of factors that includes COVID-19 lockdowns, the Suez canal incident, and recent floods in Europe and Asia.

According to Rystad Energy, a research and business intelligence firm, there are 90 GW of solar projects in the global pipeline for 2022, but supply chain issues are threatening 56% of them. This means that 50GW of solar capacity could be delayed as a result of late shipments and rising prices.

China produces 80% of the world’s solar panels, and supply chain issues are starting to elevate project costs in many regions. Australia has the advantage of being closer to China, compared with North America and Europe, but the local market is not invulnerable to these challenges. Adequate planning is critical to ensure that major solar projects are not delayed in Australia.

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