North Queensland to be Australia’s first major exporter of solar power

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As Conservatives push for new coal generator in north Queensland, the region is about to become Australia’s first significant solar power exporter.

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North Queensland has become the focus of a bitter debate about whether Australia should be committing government funds to get the Carmichael coal project in the Galilee Basin over the line, or even to build a new coal-fired generator near Townsville.

But there is a quiet revolution going on that certainly makes the push for a new coal-fired generator seem redundant, or even completely misplaced: north Queensland is about to become the region in Australia to be the first major exporter of solar power.

The area has traditionally relied almost exclusively on power imported from coal-fired generators located more than 1,000km to the south, but now even the Australian Energy Council thinks building a new coal generator in the north is a dumb idea.

the new nth qld.Right now, the region is undergoing a major boom in investment in large-scale renewables – most of it in solar PV – that will result in some 4,000MW of new capacity, more than four times the size of the local peak demand of less than 1GW.

That is going to turn north Queensland into a significant exporter of solar power – the first region in the country to reach that status, and at such scale. To put that new build into context, it compares to just 350MW of completed large-scale solar PV projects around the country.

Don McPhail, who heads network strategy at Ergon, now part of the Energy Queensland Group, notes that the renewable energy boom in Queensland is not just a phenomenon for the north of the state, because there are now some 4GW of publicly proposed solar projects in Queensland, and a lot more that have not yet broken cover.

QLD energy projects proposal copy

McPhail says there have been more than 100 inquiries for large-scale solar plants of 5MW or more, and more than 700 inquiries for solar installations of 30kW to 5MW, indicating the intent of many in the region to go solar and the push for local, or distributed generation.

Leading this charge, from a corporate point of view, is zinc producer Sun Metals, which is building a 116MW solar plant to underpin the potential expansion of its zinc refinery – which can only go ahead if it keeps energy costs under control. Solar is the best way to lock in cheap prices.

The solar push by Sun Metals also means that the biggest energy consumer in the region is also less reliant on the grid, undermining the case for a new government-funded coal generator, which remains the ambition of many conservatives even though there is no private interest in a new coal plant.

“We are seeing a big shift in the way in which the area will consume energy,” McPhail told the Clean Energy Summit this week. Some of the proposed projects in the north will be constrained by grid limits, but this will be addressed by a new connection announced by the state government earlier this year.

That clean energy hub transmission route is expected to be able to unlock another 2GW of renewable energy capacity, including the big Kidston 270MW solar farm with a 250MW pumped hydro plant.

McPhail also noted that local councils were looking to at other energy sources such as geothermal as well as solar, and some were looking to take the whole community off grid if it could save money.

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  1. Greenfanatic 3 years ago

    Its really an impressive development. A study showed that the power flow will change to one direction ( From north Qld to SEQ) when all the gas generation will be displaced by renewable probably by 2030.Its just matter of time. Once the favourable environment for the investment in PV and Wind in Qld takes the course, all gas plant will also be redundant.

    • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

      there’ll need to be capacity payments or something for when the wind doesn’t blow for a week and the sun doesn’t come out for a week. that much storage and at power rating of 1GW would be frightfully expensive.

      • MP 3 years ago

        You will have bigger issues if the sun doesn’t come out for a week.

      • solarguy 3 years ago

        Do you have data to expect that the greater area of QLD to be cloud covered for a week and zero wind occurring simultaneously?

        • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

          I’ve got it for the SWIS in WA. QLD I’m not familiar with. And I can link you to open source software that can model any location on earth using local weather data and wind/PV generation for most models of turbine and panel out there using the System Advisor Model (SAM) modules for energy calculations. SAM is provided by NREL of the United States Department of Energy.

          WA seems heaps sunny, but turns out you get little PV output in heavy cloud and, yes, that can last for over a week. It brings me no joy saying it… I’m a rusted on renewables supporter.

          • solarguy 3 years ago

            Thanks for the link Alastair. And yes cloud does tend to reduce PV output for some unknown reason lol. At times cloud can persist for several days in a region, which is a pain in the arse, but the problem can be partly solved with oversizing PV, more storage helps further too.

            However, I’m a big fan of Biogas and enough of that could be squirelled away for such times.

          • Mike Westerman 3 years ago

            Hence need for diversity in location and good locations in first place. Fortunately Australia is a) large b) strongly seasonal regionally in terms of cloud so never more than scattered cloud over big enough area. Low cost of solar will make diversity very affordable and reduce the actual storage required beyond the meter. Very unlikely for SA to have no wind and Qld to be cloudy. During recent wind drought in SA it was very cloud free in Qld – big slow moving highs centred over low latitudes do that.

          • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

            The SWIS isn’t that large that you can cover all demand with Wind at all the extremities of it’s network economically. And don’t forget that if you only have wind in one region out of four, you need the transmission to power the entire network from each location so that’s significant overbuild.

            Surprisingly perhaps to some commentators on this thread this exercises is actually what those modeling for SEN have been doing with the SIREN software, trying various optimizations to see what is most economic. Storage definately is economic at the scale of microseconds, seconds, minutes, hours and even one day to the next (as long as it gets cycled enough), but to overbuild wind or solar or storage or a combination of the three to power the SWIS continuously for a week or longer only three or four times a year becomes uneconomic. So seasonal storage must take another form than chemical battery or PHES if we’re to run 100% RE.

            That’s where fuel storage comes into it’s own, biofuel is more expensive than diesel but has the same capacity to be stockpiled then fired up at very short notice and produce large amounts of energy. Biomass burning the same and cheaper but notable air quality issues.

            Presently SEN’s modellers have found that the SWIS can be powered to 85% RE (maybe even 92%) at the same cost as BAU replacing coal and gas with new coal and gas as they retire. It’s envisioned the remaining 15% (or less) be powered by OCGTs (possibly some CCGT too). By the time we approach 85% RE on the SWIS the way to make the last 15% RE will be much more apparent than today as technologies are changing rapidly in the storage and power2fuel spaces.

            Anybody who thinks they can do better than 85% RE on the SWIS with these LCOE inputs is welcome to download the SIREN software and do better!:

          • Mike Westerman 3 years ago

            I’d like to include a pumped hydro on Serpentine Dam in the numbers Alastair. The FS update of a study from 1973-5 I managed in 2009 looked at 400MW – very attractive numbers with LCOES <$160k/MWh, or <$100/MWh LCOE over its lifetime.

          • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

            Where would you locate the lower storage pond? It’s a pretty tight little valley of state forest below the dam wall, cleared land is preferable for PHES. And you don’t want to run to far away or lose too much energy. I guess the dam wall would be a vertical drop of 100-200m from memory?

            Blakers et al from ANU wrote a report on PHES for the SWIS (SouthWest Western Australia).
            A while since I looked at it though.

            (Note SEN wasn’t site specific with the PHES locations, just assumed a price and used it in the Powerbalance equations. SIREN software does all the location specifics for generation and transmission costs, each hour or half hour of that data gets feed into Powerbalance, a massive spreadsheet that does the load and generation shortfall/excess calculations).

          • Mike Westerman 3 years ago

            The 2009 study followed the 70’s location on a bluff directly west of the Pipehead Dam, but I think there are other prospective locations that could be cheaper to develop. The earlier study required 8-12h storage which is probably not warranted. I would think in WA that on days when the wind is not blowing the sun is shining and vice versa. And PV+wind+PHES has a big advantage over CSP with storage in that it is much less sensitive to scattered cloud.

          • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

            Here’s a graph of generation for 10 days in winter under a 90% RE scenario on the SWIS.

            Note, only on three days there is enough excess generation to charge the PHES system to be discharged the next day. Batteries Behind the Meter (BTM) are four and a bit days.

            You can get several on these kinds of stretches of low wind & PV output in WA on the SWIS in any given year.

            The pink shaded regions are fossil gas fueled turbines, most days of the year they’re not used but heavily called upon during this period to do a large part of the generation (36.8% of the generation in this 10 days comes from the gas turbines, both CC and OC I expect).

            Coal would be hopeless for covering this kind of gap in wind and solar due to it’s inability to ramp without damage plant, particularly older plants.


          • Mike Westerman 3 years ago

            Thanks Alastair. To amortize the capital cost of the OCGTs and pay for holding fuel in reserve is not going to be cheap either, which makes me think that these infrequent events will probably be covered by curtailment as the lowest cost option, rather than generation. As you point out, when there is such a surfeit of solar that it’s cost is close to zero, who knows what impact that will have on load patterns as well as storage technologies, both beyond and behind the meter. I agree that endless storage is unlikely to be the solution at the margins.

          • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

            Hi Mike what is the size of the interconnector with QLD?

            Via Victoria, the Heywood Interconnector has just been upgraded 460 MW to 650 MW. I think MurrayLink is a second interconnector at 220 MW.

            Peak demand maximum in SA?
            Winter 2016: 2460 MW
            Summer 2016/17: 3085 MW

            How much local PV and storage is in SA to make up that shortfall?

            I don’t actually know how many consecutive days SA can see with seriously constrained wind. WA may well be worse than SA in that respect. In the BZE SEP SA was fortified with serious transmission upgrades north, east and west. Not sure about other 100% RE plans that have come out since.

      • neroden 3 years ago

        If the sun doesn’t come out for a week — um, that has never happened in the history of Planet Earth

        • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

          thanks Einstein! perhaps you like to model 3000 MW of PV during winter anywhere you like on SWIS grid (WA) from June-August and let me know how much storage you’d need for a two week wind-drought.

          • Chris Marshalk 3 years ago

            Genius (Not), you’re forgetting that green energy is more than just Solar Panels. Wind is generally constant, so this too would add to the Grid & reduce coal dependency during winter.

            Did you read the article? In case you can’t read, look the pretty picture, it shows it’s not only Solar that’s green but also Wind Energy, Hydro, Biomass & Geothermal.

          • Alastair Leith 3 years ago

            You condescension is noted, Chris.

            Wind is in fact not constant any place in the world that I’m aware of, and like I said, lest you believe it or not, WA can see significant winter wind droughts across the *entire extent* of the SWIS interconnected network. Please table your evidence otherwise.

            I refer you to my replies below to Mike for the details of why this is a significant obstacle to 100% RE, though not to 85% at same cost as BAU.

            Geothermal yet to become commercial in Australia, I work with knowns not crystal balls. Biomass/biofuel is certainly an important power as possibly power2gas will be. As detailed in answers below.

  2. Brunel 3 years ago

    So we need a UHVDC transmission line from there to NSW.

    • DJR96 3 years ago

      Or the other States could install a heap more too. Really shouldn’t have to install much more transmission line.

      • Brunel 3 years ago

        Vic is not as sunny as QLD.

        • DJR96 3 years ago

          Vic has more wind though.
          Might balance out ok. Diversity is essential.
          And there will be plenty of battery storage before long too.

        • Richard 3 years ago

          North Vic up near Mildura gets heaps of sun all year round.
          Vic and SA have the best renewable resources in the country taking into account wind.

          • Brunel 3 years ago

            Sure, so the wind can be exported to NSW and QLD after sunset.

          • Richard 3 years ago

            With a UHVDC to WA we are covered

        • DogzOwn 3 years ago

          State capital with most hours of sun per year is alleged to be Hobart, you don’t need heat, just sunlight

          • Brunel 3 years ago

            What about Alice Springs.

      • Mike Westerman 3 years ago

        At Murray Bridge you have 275kV substation, only 350mm rain pa and 65 raindays pa, 80 clear days pa. 100MW solar going in now but could sensibly go much larger.

    • juxx0r 3 years ago

      Yep, because the current lines that currently transport electrons the other way will suddenly stop working because they dont work in reverse even at half capacity.

      • Brunel 3 years ago

        AC transmission has greater losses than DC transmission.

        Adelaide kept getting power cuts due to a lack of transmission capacity.

        Electricity is also more expensive in Adelaide – probably due to a lack of transmission capacity.

        • juxx0r 3 years ago

          So we need a HVDC line to transport the 4GW from the North of QLD to NSW so that we can transport all of it back because the net demand of QLD is 6GW.

          This is how we got in the shit in the first place.

        • Ted 3 years ago

          recommend a bit of education. The reason for using AC is that it can be transformed to very high voltages thus minimising loses over long distances. (try Ohms law). DC makes sense only over small distances and requires large diameter lines with all the problems associated with it (weight and cost)..

          • Brunel 3 years ago

            UHVDC makes the most sense over 1000 km.

          • Geoff James 3 years ago

            Hi Ted, AC was chosen for power grids 100 years ago because it’s easy to use wire and metal to make transformers and achieve high voltages, which as you say are needed for low losses over long distances.

            Modern power electronics allow DC voltage transformation, and while this is still much more expensive than AC voltage transformation, it’s worth it for long distances because losses are much less than for AC. This is partly because the whole cross section of the wire is used (not just AC surface currents) and partly because DC lines don’t radiate energy like huge antennas. It’s called HVDC and you can search Wikipedia or the websites of the 3 major manufacturers (Siemens, ABB, and General Electric) to learn about existing projects worldwide including Murraylink in Australia.

            The breakeven distance for choosing HVDC over AC transmission was around 800 km last time I checked, but perhaps this is decreasing as technology advances and becomes cheaper. And I know at least one company that’s doing DC-DC voltage transformation at solar-panel level to make really efficient rooftop systems.

            If you want to export energy under the sea to ASEAN countries (and I’m a strong advocate for this) you need to use HVDC because AC transmission dissipates a massive amount of energy in the conducting seawater surrounding a subsea cable. Don’t both trying more than 50 km this way. Existing HVDC technology is capable of GW-scale links from Australia to Indonesia at a realistic technical stretch compared to existing planned projects.

            Hmmm but that’s another story…

          • Pixilico 3 years ago
  3. technerdx6000 3 years ago

    North Queensland has so much solar potential it is ridiculous. There is enough land and sunlight that only a fraction of the North could power the whole WORLD

    • DJR96 3 years ago

      An area the size of Moreton Bay or Port Philip Bay could power the whole country.

  4. john 3 years ago

    During the day sure Solar can totally replace any power need and export to the south however more developments like the Kidson solar pumped hydro storage need to be implemented on a larger scale.
    Most of the state has large solar resources especially west of the Great Dividing Range where there is higher elevation to a lesser degree south but more importantly less clouding.
    Storage has to be built as well to ensure the abundant resource is not curtailed because of lack of immediate demand.

    • Mike Westerman 3 years ago

      It would help a lot if Wivenhoe PHES was run to capacity and Mt Byron was built. That would provide 1GW of storage for 6h in the SE.

  5. Radbug 3 years ago

    And the railway infrastructure in North Queensland is so rudimentary it’s a national scandal.

  6. Joe 3 years ago

    Can we give Bananaby some extra shovels…plenty of sodding to be done for new Solar Farms.

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