Ensuring the success of utility-scale solar

AGL partnered with the Federal Government’s Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), the NSW Government, First Solar and local councils and communities to deliver Australia’s two utility-scale solar projects.

To succeed, collaboration was key.

A perfect match

In January this year, the two solar power plants in Australia were officially opened. AGL developed the ground-breaking projects in western New South Wales, in partnership with First Solar – a leading global provider of photovoltaic (PV) solar energy solutions.

The Broken Hill and Nyngan solar plants have a combined capacity of 155 megawatts and include more than two million of First Solar’s thin film PV modules. The projects, born from the Solar Flagships Program established by the Federal Government in 2009, brought together AGL as the developer and owner and First Solar as the technology supplier and construction contractor. First Solar will also provide operations and maintenance (O&M) services for a period of five years.

First Solar is a leading global provider of comprehensive photovoltaic (PV) solar energy solutions, with over 13 gigawatts of PV modules installed worldwide. First Solar is one of the largest provider of utility scale PV projects in the Australian market, and has been deploying its photovoltaic modules in Australia since 2002.

We spoke with Jack Curtis, First Solar’s Regional Manager for Asia-Pacific, about the process of developing one of Australia’s largest solar plants with AGL.

“It was such a positive experience,” said Mr Curtis.

“Even though it was a relationship where we were contracted to them [AGL] to perform our scope, we always felt we were treated as a partner.

“When problems arose they were always solved collaboratively – I think that’s what ensured that [the projects] were such a success. If the projects were delivered in a more fractured environment or manner, they wouldn’t have been as successful as they are.”

Changing opinions

AGL’s Nyngan and Broken Hill projects are leading-edge developments for Australia and the entire Southern Hemisphere. The Nyngan Solar Plant contains 1.36 million of First Solar’s PV modules and spans 250 hectares, and the Broken Hill Solar Plant contains 677,760 modules and spans 140 hectares. Annually, the two plants combined will produce approximately 360,000 MWh of renewable energy, enough to power more than 50,000 average Australian homes.

According to Mr Curtis, solar energy has been historically viewed as either suitable only for niche applications or dependant on large subsidies. However, in recent years, companies like First Solar have driven down the cost of solar energy to the point that it is increasingly capturing a large share of the global power generation market on the strength of economics alone.

In addition to the reducing costs, the successful adoption of solar energy in Australia has demonstrated that solar is a proven and bankable asset class that can be rapidly deployed with minimal risk.

Building a renewable appetite

With this change in attitude comes new opportunities for renewable energy in Australia.
The success of the collaboration between AGL and First Solar with the Broken Hill and Nyngan projects has increased Australia’s appetite for utility-scale solar. According to Mr Curtis, it’s important to make sure that this appetite does not come at the cost of producing high quality projects.

“While driving adoption and deployment – as well as reducing costs as quickly as possible – are good goals, you need to make sure you’re doing it in a way that delivers quality solar projects,” he said.

“Whether they’re residential, commercial, distributed or large utility scale like Nyngan and Broken Hill, it’s key that they’re done with the right level of quality, the right level of safety, and built in a way that they will last and perform as they’re intended to.”

According to Mr Curtis, the future of solar in Australia is looking bright. With the increasing affordability and reliability of renewable energy technology (particularly solar PV), both the public and private sector is actively looking to solar as a viable option for renewable energy. Solar has the capacity to become the “renewable generation source of preference for energy retailers in the next two or three years,” Mr Curtis said.

Solar has shown great success internationally, and First Solar is looking to bring this interest and success to Australia.