Large-scale commercial solar power and utility-scale solar power are the two big frontiers in solar PV for Australia. Utility-scale solar power has the potential to dramatically transform Australia’s power generation portfolio, taking advantage of the country’s most abundant and renewable energy resource–the sun. However, utility-scale solar power has to make sense as an investment before it sees broad-scale deployment across the country. Thanks to government incentives, combined with the falling price of solar PV technology, the time has never been riper for utility-scale solar in Australia.
What is utility-scale solar power?
The line between commercial solar power and utility-scale solar power and commercial solar power is drawn based not necessarily by system size, but instead on the project’s end-use. Whereas the purpose of commercial solar power systems is normally to reduce the operating costs of a business, utility-scale solar installations are built for the same reason that conventional power plants are–to produce power to be distributed on an electricity grid and used by homes and businesses. Although there are no strict rules defining what size plant constitutes ‘utility scale’, solar plants built for utility purposes may range from as small as 100kW all the way up to multi-megawatt installations.
Utility-scale solar power in Australia
Government incentive programs are still the main driver behind the development of large-scale and utility-scale solar projects in Australia. The federal government’s Solar Flagships Program is the most high-profile effort in the country to usher in an era of renewable energy generation, doing so by subsidising the construction of multi-megawatt solar power plants. With planned capacities of over 150 megawatts each for 2 projects, once in operation, these the Solar Flagships plants will be some of the largest solar installations in the world, eclipsing many plants in operation overseas.
At the moment, most of the largest operational solar plants in Australia are located in northern Western Australia, where their contribution to power generation is relatively large because of the relatively small scale of the grid. Sizes range from about 300kW to 500KW (e.g. the solar plant at Carnarvon and the plants at Marble Bar and Nullagine), but multi-megawatt projects are already under construction (such as the Greenough River Solar Farm).
Federal incentives for utility-scale solar power through the RET
Virtually all of the large-scale solar projects that are in the pipeline or up and running have received some form of special government backing in addition to standard issue incentives. However, utility-scale solar power is already approaching the point of financial viability in Australia, even when an individual project is not treated as ‘special’ or a ‘flagship’ and accordingly able to be recipient to this kind of funding. The fact is that any large-scale solar project can be supported by the generic incentives provided through the federal government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET), provided it meets the right criteria.
Under the RET, solar power systems over 100kW in nominal capacity can be certified to create Large-Scale Generation Certificates (LGCs), which must be created or purchased on a quarterly basis by ‘liable’, heavily polluting entities such as aluminium smelting plants and electricity generators who employ coal-fired power plants. Projects smaller than 100kW, or which are split into multiple systems (each with its own meter), may instead be eligible for Small-scale Technology Certificates (STCs) through the RET. STCs potentially provide an up-front benefit for the owner/operator of the plant.
State- and territory-based support for large-scale solar
On the state/territory level, the Australian Capital Territory government is the only non-federal government currently supporting large-scale solar power directly, allotting the first 40MW of its its Reverse Auction Feed-in Tariff for large-scale solar projects. The ACT’s program is expected to cement the argument for the financial viability of large-scale solar PV and thereby assist in fomenting the certainty necessary for broader uptake of the technology nationally.
Solar Choice Commercial manages tenders for utility-scale solar projects
The commercial solar power wing of Solar Choice, Solar Choice Commercial, manages tenders for a wide variety of large-scale solar PV projects throughout Australia, including utility-scale projects. We utilise our unique position within the hub of the solar energy industry to broker for our clients the leading technology and value in solar procurement from a 100+ strong network of the most proficient, prominent and competitive solar power installations companies currently operating in Australia.
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