UK billionaire Sanjeev Gupta, the new owner of the Whyalla steelworks and the OneSteel business, has kicked off his plans for a massive roll-out more than 1 gigawatt (GW) of solar in Australia, and is also advancing plans for his own “big battery” and pumped hydro storage.
Gupta’s vision for a major solar and storage investment were flagged when his GFG Alliance bought the failed OneSteel business last year, arguing that a switch to green energy was critical to save the Whyalla steelworks and underpin the future of major steel plants in NSW and Victoria.
The rollout of solar is now targeting more than 1GW in South Australia alone, to tap into the state’s “extraordinary solar resource”, according to Liam Reid, the head of project development at SIMEC Energy, the energy offshoot of GFG Alliance.
The scale of Gupta’s ambition is enormous in the Australian context, and particularly significant given the fact that it is being driven by one of the country’s biggest energy consumers.
The rollout has already started with an offer to the company’s 6,000 employees in Australia to put solar and batteries in their homes in exchange for salary sacrifice.
This will help GFG Alliance employees to save on electricity costs. Registrations of interest are taking place and it is said to be “getting some traction.”
There are also plans for 40MW of rooftop solar installations at 80 different company locations around Australia, including a 10MW facility at the Newcastle Wire Mill.
On top of this, GFG plans its first 80MW large-scale solar farm near Whyalla – to supply the local steel works – and this is expected to get final investment approval within the next couple of months.
All of these initial installations will be “behind the meter”, meaning they will supply only the employees, the industrial facilities, or the Whyalla Steelworks. They will be managed by SIMEC ZEN Energy, its newly merged Australian solar and storage business.
These installations will be followed by yet more solar at Whyalla – up to 200MW of grid connected solar on GFG land – and then elsewhere, and by battery and pumped hydro storage installations.
Reid says the company is close to finalising the first of its own “big battery” installations, likely to be a 120MW/140MWh lithium-ion battery storage facility near the Davenport sub station near Port Augusta.
This would be bigger than the so-called Tesla big battery – currently the world’s biggest – and would help support yet more large-scale solar in the state.
“We are aiming for 1GW+ (of solar) in the medium term for South Australia, capitalising on South Australia’s extraordinary solar resource,” Reid said in a presentation to a South Australian Future Energy conference in Adelaide on Wednesday, just days before the state election.
“As the cost of renewable energy declines, South Australia’s abundant energy resources can be used to scale up SA’s energy-intensive skilled manufacturing industries.”
He said Australia should be a global leader in metals manufacturing, and a key component of this would be lower energy costs, delivered by wind, solar and storage.
“The cost of renewables is continually dropping – they are now viable alternatives to conventional fuels,” he said.
“SIMEC Energy’s goal is to supply this energy to its GFG siblings with an optimised mix of large-scale and distributed technologies … then build a business serving a wider group of industrial customers with similar needs.
“With growth comes more opportunity, more learning and reduced costs – it’s a portfolio approach that helps make SA’s energy transformation faster and grow further to take advantage of South Australia’s “extraordinary solar resource”.
The company’s plans for both large and small-scale solar confirm that South Australia is heading for 75 per cent renewable energy share, regardless of Premier Jay Weatherill’s newly announced target, or the reluctance of the Liberal Party.
Apart from Gupta’s plans, there are major solar projects under construction at Port Augusta (220MW) and Tailem Bend (117MW), a large wind farm at Port Augusta (212MW), and numerous other wind, solar and storage projects.
Gupta’s vision of a major industrial group powered by solar and storage runs contrary to repeated criticism of renewable energy as an expensive “economy wrecker”. It is more likely to be an economy saver.
Reid says the company expects to build enough solar to cater for both its own energy needs and for third parties.
“If the price is low enough for GFG, it’s likely to be low enough to supply third parties with any excess generation,” he says.
“A customer-led self supply “pull” should help make better decisions than a standardised generator/retailer “push”,” he noted.
Reid also spoke of the proposed 90MW/390MWh of pumped hydro storage at the depleted Iron Duchess ore pit in the South Middleback Range, about 50km from Whyalla.
The concept study is complete, further studies are being funded by the South Australian and federal governments, and GFG hopes to complete the “first-of-its-kind” project by 2022. Reid says it could be replicated at other GFG mine sites such as Iron Baron or Iron Knob.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.