Broken Hill solar farm. Image: AGL.
BY ELIZABETH FABRI
THE future for NSW solar is shining bright. In the next few years, eight new projects will come online, while a further 12 projects in the planning pipeline are set to generate more than 1000MW of additional solar capacity.
Renewable energy, particularly solar, is increasingly becoming a key player in the NSW energy mix.
Over the next few years, the State will work towards meeting a renewable energy target of 23.5 per cent; a goal it endeavours to achieve by 2020 through a series of new solar projects under construction.
While the State currently boasted three large-scale operating solar farms, additional projects were at various stages post-approval, and a dozen more were expected to come online once regulatory approvals were granted.
The State’s existing solar PV projects included AGL’s 102MW Nyngan project and 53MW Broken Hill solar farm, along with FRV’s 56MW Moree project.
Nyngan was the largest solar farm in the southern hemisphere, while Moree was Australia’s second largest and first to incorporate a new technology that tracked the sun.
NSW Energy minister Don Harwin said the State was showing national leadership in large-scale solar, with 210 megawatts generated between Moree, Broken Hill and Nyngan; enough energy to power 75,000 homes.
“NSW has the largest volume of capacity from renewable projects either completed or under construction this year alone,” Mr Harwin said.
Regional NSW had been a preferred destination for solar investment for some time because of its warm climate.
“The recently opened Moree Solar Farm is a good example of this, constructed in one of the hottest towns in NSW,” he said.
“While we anticipate strong investment in renewables for NSW under the renewable energy target this year, it highlights the pressing need for national energy market reform to unlock investment, including in technologies like battery storage.”
Projects in development
The NSW solar industry has undergone a massive transition in the last five years.
Since 2011, the State Government had green-lit 11 solar projects that would collectively generate 660 MW of energy; including the three projects already in operation.
This year, the remaining eight projects had made significant progress, with construction off to a flying start at Neoen’s three projects in Parkes, Griffith and Dubbo.
ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht said these plants would cost about $2 per watt of capacity; one third cheaper than AGL’s plants in Nyngan and Broken Hill, which cost $2.8 per watt in 2014.
The Neoen projects received $16 million in funding through ARENA and $150 million in debt financing from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC).
Mr Frischknecht described Neoen’s NSW projects as “world-class” featuring cutting-edge technology similar to the panels at Moree, which followed the sun as it travelled across the sky.
“By using solar panels that track the sun, the plants will maintain a higher energy output for more of the day,” Mr Frischknecht said.
“The new Neoen plants will also boost regional NSW economies, creating an estimated 250 jobs during construction, mostly in the local regions.
“Five NSW based plants have won support through ARENA’s funding round and will together almost double the amount of big solar in the State.”
Construction at the three farms was expected to be completed by the year’s end.
In addition, Infigen’s Capital solar farm in Bungendore NSW, and Bogan River solar farm in Nyngan had also been approved but had not yet entered construction.
On 26 March, First Solar announced it had reached financial closure for its 48.5MW Manildra solar farm which was scheduled to begin construction in the first half of 2017 and be complete by 2018.
Pre-construction works had also begun at Riverina Solar Farm in Yoogali; construction at White Rock Solar farm in Matheson was expected to begin at some point this year; and plans for Goonumbla Solar Farm in Parkes also progressed.
Furthermore, in March the State Government announced 12 new solar power projects were in the planning stage but not yet approved, which included Sunraysia solar farm; Gilgandra; Narrabri; Metz; Hillston; Limondale; Nevertire; Walgett; Hay Solar; Coleambally; Beryl Solar; and Jemalong.
The 12 projects would add a further 1000MW of power to the State, and were currently being assessed on their economic, environmental and social impact value.
The 200 MW Sunraysia Solar Farm Two was particularly of interest with potential to produce double the solar energy of Nyngan, and power for 120,000 homes.
Sunraysia would also be the first solar photovoltaic plant in the State to use batteries to store energy.
“If approved, these proposals could generate sustainable power and local jobs for towns such as Gilgandra, Hillston, Narrabri, Armidale, Coleambally, Gulgong, Walgett, Jemalong, Balranald, Nyngan and Hay,” Mr Harwin said.
“The Nyngan solar farm alone created 250 construction jobs and provided $330 million in investment.
“Strengthening the State’s energy security, and developing economic opportunities and boosting jobs in our regions are priorities for this government.
“When we make this happen through renewable energy projects it’s a win-win for NSW.”
Nyngan solar farm. Image: AGL
Interest in rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) systems had also amplified in recent years.
“More than 350,000 households and businesses in NSW now have rooftop solar,” Mr Harwin said.
“With technologies improving and bringing costs down, the option of installing solar is becoming more appealing.
“Consumers might also be attracted to rooftop solar following an IPART report just released that more than doubles the previous rate for what consumers should get for feeding solar into the grid.”
The Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) draft determination of a fair value for solar proposed an increase of between 11.6 and 14.6 cents per kilowatt hour from between 5.5 and 7.2 c/kWh.
“This will encourage more people in NSW to look at installing solar,” he said.
“The tariff is not subsidised by other energy users so it won’t increase power prices.
“It will help deliver lower energy bills for NSW’s solar households and businesses.”
The large influx in rooftop solar was partly attributed to the former Labor Government’s Solar Bonus Scheme that came to an end on 31 December 2016.
Mr Harwin said while the scheme had boosted the number of installations by 146,000, it came at a high price to consumers.
“The previous Labor government implemented the premium feed-in tariff of 60 cents of all output of systems without having modelling uptake, and this lead to a blow-out in the expected cost of the scheme,” he said.
“Due to that, the NSW Government had to intervene to stop consumers facing bill shock, particularly those who did not have solar panels.
“Now that the scheme has expired, NSW Government is working to ensure that scheme customers are able to make greatest use of their panels by transitioning to net metering.
“The Government reaches out regularly to retailers and has written on three occasions to Solar Bonus Scheme participants over a period of months to encourage smart meter take-up among those customers.”
As of 1 April this year, about 50,000 customers had installed smart meters.
Mr Harwin said the government was helping expand access to rooftop solar further through its Home Energy Action Program.
“The Home Energy Action Program is providing $26.8 million for a new energy efficiency assistance to help vulnerable households reduce their energy bills,” he said.
A renewables future
Looking forward, Mr Harwin said his top priorities as Energy minister were to ensure the people of NSW had access to secure, reliable and affordable power.
“Through strengthening energy security this Government is developing economic opportunities and boosting jobs in our regions,” he said.
“Over the past six years the share of renewable energy generation in NSW’s supply mix has more than doubled.
“Our latest figures show that renewables contributed 14 per cent to the state’s electricity energy mix.
“With more projects on their way, including 12 solar projects in the planning pipeline, we expect to reach the national renewable energy target of 23.5 per cent by 2020.”
Mr Harwin said renewable energy was “integral” to the future of the country’s energy mix and he was proud of NSW for “setting the standard”.
“To ensure NSW avoids a disorderly transition to renewables like that seen in South Australia, we will manage ours sensibly,” he said.
“This will be done through smart policy decisions and the work of our Renewable Energy Advocate, who will also ensure we are supporting our aspirational target of net zero emissions by 2050 along the way.
“We need more than renewables, we need storage technologies as well but solar will continue to play a big role in our transition.”