The Sun Rises on Australia’s Green Energy Future: AGL Launches Solar Plants

AGL launches outback solar plants in NSW.

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The sun rose on Australia’s green energy future last Wednesday when AGL officially launched two massive utility scale photovoltaic power plants in New South Wales.

The two operations – one in Nyngan, which went online in July, and the other in Broken Hill, started last December – have already generated 20,000 MWh worth of renewable energy.

AGL Broken Hill Solar Plant
AGL Broken Hill Solar Plant

Combined the pair boast 2 million solar panels and will double Australia’s solar capacity to 245MW while they produce 360,000 MWh of renewable energy. Enough electricity for 50,000 homes.

AGL’s Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, Andy Vesey, said that the project signalled the birth of large-scale solar in Australia.

He said at the launch that the plants were part of the company’s larger strategy to reposition itself in a sector that is moving toward decarbonised electricity, as it takes up renewable and near-zero emission technologies.

“It demonstrates our support of the Federal Government’s commitment to Australia reducing emissions and limiting temperature increases to 2ºC as agreed at the United Nations COP21 in Paris last month,” he said.

In the last ten years, AGL says it has contributed $2 billion to renewables in hydro, wind, solar, and biomass projects.

The plants were built in partnership with First Solar. The Federal Government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) provided $166.7 million of support, while an additional $64.9 million came from The New South Wales Government.

AGL said that the Nyngan plant will inject an estimated $137 million into the local economy, which is bound to make a spectacular impact on a town whose population numbers a little over 2,000 people. Broken Hill expects to get a boost of $85.5 million into its economy and both centres are expected to experience a spike in tourism.

First Solar’s Jack Curtis, the company’s Asia-Pacific manager, said that growing confidence from private investment in the potential of the renewable sector would see strong growth.

As an example, he said, that the cost of large-scale solar has already dropped 30% since 2011. It would fall dramatically, he said, in the next four years from $120 MWh to $70-80 MWh.

But the nascent renewable energy sector faces considerable challenges aside from a price that is not quite competitive for investors at an estimated $1.5million a MW.

Coal energy generators are not closing at the predicted rate, even if they are facing pressures from a number of quarters to do so and this is encouraging speculation that renewable targets won’t be met.

But Curtis believes that renewables, particularly solar, will fill the void made when aging coal fire plants are ultimately decommissioned.

“In many parts of the world, solar energy is already cost-competitive with conventional generation,” he said.

“Considering the substantial and sustained cost reductions in the solar industry and the lessons learnt at projects like Nyngan and Broken Hill, it is inevitable that utility-scale solar projects in Australia will compete on an unsubsidised basis, in the near future.”