Utility-scale solar in Australia: Long-term certainty counters short-term doubt

Large-scale solar power in Australia was one of the main topics of conversation on Thursday at the Clean Energy Week conference in Sydney, with the day’s speakers expressing the range of solar industry sentiment towards the prospects for utility-scale systems. Among the inspirational presentations on the subject was that of Abengoa Solar’s James Harding, who talked about the Spanish company’s plans to build a 20MW solar thermal plant in remote Western Australia, most likely to power an iron ore mine and with investment from the mine’s owner. Other speakers talked about their experiences developing utility-scale solar plants outside Australia, while the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s Oliver Yates discussed the precarious policy atmosphere domestically.

Although a world leader in residential solar, Australia lags behind many other nations in the deployment of larger projects, despite the federal government’s Solar Flagships program (which has been fraught with setbacks) and Large-Scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET). The latter was implemented to foster the construction of 100kW+ renewable energy plants, but its stability as a long-term incentive mechanism has come into question amid the federal government’s apparent campaign to dilute the scheme. 

Abengoa’s optimism about deploying one of its technologies–a solar concentrator which stores heat in molten salt for electricity generation even after sunset–is indicative of the overall feeling with regard to the long-term prospects of large-scale solar power in Australia, especially in regional areas where grid electricity is either unavailable or expensive. Abengoa has developed some of the largest solar thermal (or concentrating solar power–CSP) plants in the world, including the 280MW Solana plant in Arizona and the 200MW Solaben plant in Spain. Earlier this year, the company received financing through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to undertake a feasibility study into building the proposed 20MW facility mentioned above.

Abengoa PS20 solar plant in Spain

Abengoa’s PS20 and PS10 ‘Solar Tower’ Generators in Spain. (Image via Abengoa)

Meanwhile, other speakers discussed the investment environment for large-scale solar in Australia under the current dark cloud of the Renewable Energy Target review currently underway. Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) CEO Oliver Yates launched his speech with the line, “I think I’ll feel uncomfortable if the market becomes certain – that’s the only thing I’m certain about”.  Despite Mr Yates’ half-joking hesitation about the state of affairs with regard to Australia, at least two other speakers–Oliver Shafer of the European Photovoltaic Industry Association and Colin Liebmann of US solar project developer Recurrent Energy–gave testament to some of the successes in the large-scale solar sphere on other continents.

The general message to take away could be that the river of renewable energy investment & project development is flowing strong internationally, while Australia is akin a heavy stone caught in the river’s current; it being only being a matter of time until the waters are strong enough to push it along as well. Although the present federal government has managed to uphold its pre-election promise to repeal the Carbon Tax, whether it will be able to roll back any of Australia’s other clean energy support schemes remains to be seen. The declared intention of Clive Palmer’s PUP to stymie any attempts on the part of the Coalition to significantly weaken the Renewable Energy Target means that the primary support scheme for renewables, both large and small, is not likely to go anywhere soon.

But as long as the government is perceived as being hostile to the RET and the scheme’s current target of 41,000GWh of renewable energy by 2020, uncertainty will continue to pervade–especially for larger scale projects that rely on the incentives available through the RET for their viability. For this reason, 17 of Australia’s largest renewable energy companies recently sent an open letter to a number of federal MPs and ministers explaining why the RET is important, not only for them and their investments, but also for Australia’s international credibility. “A significant reduction to the scheme would damage Australia’s reputation as a safe place to invest not only in clean energy, but in all forms of infrastructure.”

Catherine Bremner - ANZThe image of Australia as a heavy stone in an increasingly turbulent river was corroborated by ANZ head of sustainability Catherine Bremner, whose presentation at Clean Energy Week was cautiously optimistic about the longer-term prospects for large-scale solar power in Australia.

Adding strength to the river’s flow at the beginning of the conference was the conservative NSW government’s coming out in support of the RET, with state Environment Minister Rob Stokes also declaring that the state would set out to make itself the California of Australia with regard to renewable energy development. With this and other factors, it looks to be only a matter of time before the stone gets swept away.

Right image: Catherine Bremner, via CleanEnergyWeek.com.au

© 2014 Solar Choice Pty Ltd