290 kilowatt solar power station comes to Carnarvon, WA

Carnarvon, Western Australia, once a poster child for all that can go wrong when too much distributed solar power has been connected to the grid, has just powered up a 290kW solar power plant to help meet the area’s electricity demand. The Carnarvon Solar Power Plant is the first of its type to win a power purchase agreement (PPA) with Horizon Power, the electricity retailer and primary electricity generator for the state’s northwestern power grid.

The Carnarvon plant will produce 600,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) annually, generating enough to power the equivalent of 120 homes for a year and offsetting 180,000 litres of diesel fuel. Completed in just 9 weeks, the plant consists of 7 single-axis tracking arrays and 48 seasonally-adjusted fixed-frame arrays.

Local businessman and solar power advocate Lex Fullerton expressed his support for the power station in an inverview, “Carnarvon has now proven its credentials as a solar city. There’s no question about it. We’ve got now about 8% of our daytime production off solar”.

The Federal Government contributed $1.5 million to the $3m project. This subsidy will significantly reduce the payback period of the plant, and was most likely a major factor in the agreement for a PPA with Horizon. The Carnarvon Solar Power Station is one of a growing number of larger systems that feed into Western Australia’s grids. The Government’s contribution to Carnarvon demonstrates an ongoing commitment to finding ways to enable local, renewable energy to thrive in remote areas of Australia, where fuel resources tend to be scarcer and the cost and challenges associated with transport of goods (including conventional fuels) are greater. At a cost of approximately $10/watt, the Carnarvon plant is certainly not one of the cheapest solar PV arrays in Australia, but it will likely be a loss-leader for others of its kind, clearing the path for future plants by acting as a demonstration of viability, thereby increasing certainty for project developers and businesses that such plants are investment-worthy.

The remote-area Horizon grid is differentiated from its much larger counterpart on Australia’s eastern seaboard–the National Electricity Market (NEM)–not only by its much smaller size, but also by its heavy reliance on diesel-fired generation plants as opposed to coal-fired plants to supply base-load power. Due to its smaller scale and the lack of redundancy in the system, meeting electricity demand through available power sources in northwest WA is a balancing act which can be easily thrown into disarray by sudden power fluctuations such as those that occur when, for example, intermittent clouds block sunlight from falling on solar panels throughout the day. Benefitting from the knowledge gained through distributed generation challenges to date, Horizon recently introduced localised Solar Feed-in Tariffs differentiated by region to promote the uptake of solar power where it would be most useful. A setup of this kind does not exist anywhere else in Australia.

Carnarvon became a case study for the issues that distributed generation can cause for small-scale electricity grids last year, when a stop was put on new solar installations due to grid destabilisation fears–the Carnarvon grid experienced issues with localised instances of voltage rises, solar PV system fires, impacts on planning strategies for the future of the grid, electrical ‘harmonics’ resulting from solar system inverters, plus a number of other problems. The fact that the town has now recovered and is moving forward with such a large installation indicates that Carnarvon has learned from its experiences and regained its faith in the ability of solar power to safely and reliably contribute to meeting electricity demand.

Top image via EMC.

© 2012 Solar Choice Pty Ltd 

James Martin II