Solar on a massive scale

Broken Hill Solar
Broken Hill Solar

AGL has achieved financial close for two utility-scale solar photovoltaic projects that are set to be the biggest of their kind in Australia. Energy Source and Distribution looks at the 155MW solar project that will meet the needs of more than 50,000 homes in New South Wales.

Australia’s biggest solar energy plants have been given the go-ahead in the New South Wales outback.

AGL Energy, Australia’s largest gas and electricity retailer, committed to proceed with the $450 million investment in July and estimates the two large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) projects will provide around 360,000MW hours of electricity each year – enough to power more than 50,000 average-sized homes.

The projects will include a 102MW solar plant at Nyngan and a 53MW solar plant at Broken Hill. Covering 375ha of land, the project will be 15-times larger than any other solar power station in Australia.

To support AGL’s delivery of the projects – which will cost around $450 million – ARENA will provide $166.7 million, with the NSW Government providing $64.9 million.

AGL managing director Michael Fraser said solar PV in Australia has come a long way in a short time.

“The Nyngan and Broken Hill solar plants will be the nation’s largest solar projects with the Nyngan plant also being the largest in the Southern Hemisphere,” he said.

“We expect these projects to create approximately 150 construction jobs in Broken Hill and approximately 300 in Nyngan. This will provide significant financial flow-on benefits to both communities.”

The projects are also expected to add nearly 2 per cent to the gross regional product of each regional economy.

Construction of the Nyngan project is scheduled to start towards the end of this year, with the Broken Hill project set to start approximately three months later. As the plants will be built in a modular fashion, they will start delivering energy to the grid in an incremental basis towards the end of 2014 and should be supplying power to the eastern Australian grid by the end of 2015.

AGL will deliver the project in partnership with ARENA and the NSW Government, together with the local councils and communities of Broken Hill and Nyngan, and project partner First Solar.

The AGL solar projects will also facilitate research supported by the Education Investment Fund. AGL will collaborate with the University of Queensland and the University of New South Wales, as well as First Solar, to implement original research that will support the future development of solar energy in Australia.

First Solar 

First Solar – a global provider of PV solar energy – was chosen to provide engineering, procurement and construction services for both solar projects, using its advanced thin-film PV modules.

The US-based company will operate and maintain both projects for AGL for five years after commercial operation starts.

First Solar vice president of business development for Asia Pacific Jack Curtis said the company is thrilled to partner with AGL.

“The solar projects are of major significance for regional NSW and the Australian energy sector. These projects will play an important part in the growing acceptance of utility-scale solar PV and we applaud the Commonwealth Government and the NSW Government for their vision and commitment to the sector,” he said.

Industry benchmark in thin film modules

First Solar’s thin-film product is different to other solar panel technology in that it uses a unique semi-conductor material, rather than crystalline silicon technology.

The CdTe thin-film solar modules deliver higher energy yields at elevated temperatures due to a lower temperature co-efficient. In fact, the company is the world-record holder for CdTe thin film module (14.4 per cent) and cell (18.7 per cent) efficiency.

Beyond temperatures of 25°C, First Solar modules produce more energy for the same nameplate watts and provide stronger plant performance in high temperature climates.

“Our technology is different in two main respects. Firstly, relative to crystalline silicon we use a lot less of the semi-conductor material and manufacture the panels in one continuous process, which means the panels cost a lot less to produce,” Mr Curtis said.

“Secondly, the technology is less affected by heat at the plant level, which results in more energy being produced at a system level. Essentially, it’s a temperature co-efficient advantage. When you put any solar panel in an operating environment it will degrade during the course of the day, as the operating temperature gets hotter. As it gets hotter all solar panels degrade on a temporary basis in accordance with how hot it gets.

“Our semi-conductor technology actually enables our panels to degrade about 50 per cent less over the course of that day. So what you find in environments where the operating temperature is higher than 25°C, our technology will produce more energy over the course of the day.”

With these combined benefits, First Solar estimates the performance characteristics of its modules result in a 1-1.5 per cent increase in conversion efficiency factor, when compared to conventional solar modules in real world conditions.

A “sea of solar panels”

In what Mr Curtis describes will look like a “sea of solar panels”, the two sites will cover around 375ha.

“There have been a couple of similar metrics, like it would cover the area of the Sydney CBD and North Sydney, or the equivalent of 200 Sydney Cricket Grounds,” Mr Curtis said.

“It will be a pretty significant site to see when it’s completed. In regards to some of the sites that have been built in the US that are 550MW, you can’t see where they end. The scale of it is awesome.”

A changing perspective:

Despite the project’s landmark technological aspects, perhaps its most impressive attribute lies in its ability to promote utility-scale solar as a legitimate and viable source of energy generation within Australia, particularly within the private sector.

“We’re really starting to see proactivity in the private sector. Whether it’s utilities, retailers or the large institutional banks that have funded power projects in the past –– what the Nyngan and Broken Hill projects have done is prove to the industry this technology is ready to be comercialised. These projects have validated the concept that solar is a bankable source of generation – utilities will purchase electricity from it and banks are interested in financing it,” Mr Curtis said.

“This program has unleashed a lot of the potential that solar has promised for so long. Now that we can see it and more easily understand it, the private sector can get over its initial apprehensions and really start to adopt it as a much greater contributor to the renewable energy mix in Australia and market it as a legitimate power generation source.”

It’s an important step forward for the renewable side of the Australian energy spectrum, which, for a long time now, has been dominated by wind. 

It’s an important step forward for the renewable side of the Australian energy spectrum, which, for a long time now, has been dominated by wind.

“Solar has quickly come down the cost curve to the point where it now has a very credible trajectory to being competitive with wind in the next three-four years,” Mr Curtis said.

“But what’s really held up the development of the solar industry is the familiarity with large-scale solar assets and how they operate. These projects will validate the idea that the private sector wants to get involved with solar energy projects.

“From here, energy companies like AGL will increasingly view solar as a viable and bankable source of generation and, as such, they will be willing to invest in it, rather than just buy electricity from it.”


Key project facts:
Capacity/generation Nyngan Broken Hill
MW (AC) 102 53
Annual GWh (at plant boundary) 233.4 125.8
AC Capacity factor (at plant boundary) 26 per cent 27 per cent
Scheduled construction start January 2014 July 2014
Scheduled construction end June 2015 November 2015
Peak Direct construction jobs created 300 150
Design details  
Site area (ha) 460 200
Solar Field area (ha) 250 125
Number of modules (approximately) 1,350,000 650,000
Number of posts (approximately) 150,000 75,000
Number of inverters 81  42
Kilometres of cable (approximately) 4600 2300
Environmental benefits  
Equivalent NSW homes powered @7MWh/yr 33,300 17,900
Equivalent cars off the street 58,000 31,000
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