2017: the year the states stepped up for solar, storage

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Given the polarising debate that has played out in the political realm and media throughout the year, the Australian renewables sector could be forgiven for having a ‘doom and gloom’ outlook. However, a robust pipeline in the large-scale sector is surging forwards, and the residential and C&I segment has never been stronger.

The National Energy Guarantee (NEG), announced in October, has undoubtedly left few within renewables in an ebullient mood. However, there are plenty of reasons for optimism, with various state governments and government bodies or state-owned industries, providing fertile soil for the growth of solar and storage.

South Australia

Where better to start than with South Australia’s record-breaking, ‘history-making’ Tesla battery? Elon Musk’s 100 MW/128 MWh promise was delivered ahead of schedule, discharging 70 MW onto the grid, the day before it’s official launch in Jamestown.

Three times the size of its nearest competitor, the Tesla storage facility is truly a laboratory of grid level storage writ large. In weeks following its grid connection, its performance in responding within milliseconds to support an increasingly unreliable fleet of coal generators has been charted by researchers from Melbourne’s Australian-German Climate and Energy College and is being watched closely by industry observers far and wide.

“South Australia is now leading the world in dispatchable renewable energy, delivered to homes and businesses 24/7,” said state premier Jay Weatherill, whose government had come under intense political pressure after its state-wide 2016 blackout. Having previously participated in an intensely awkward doorstop with Federal Energy Minister, Josh Frydenberg, Weatherill seems intent to use the challenge posed by its high levels of renewable penetration as a virtue rather than a liability.

“While others are just talking, we are delivering our energy plan, making South Australia more self-sufficient, and providing back up power and more affordable energy for South Australians this summer,” said Weatherill. The disparity between the Coalition Federal Government and Weatherill’s SA Government‘s sentiment in respect of renewable energy policy is palpable, and the gulf between the two appears to be widening.

“The world’s largest lithium-ion battery will be an important part of our energy mix, and it sends the clearest message that South Australia will be a leader in renewable energy with energy storage.” Paired with the Hornsdale Wind Farm, the Neoen owned and operated battery, makes South Australia a world leader in dispatchable renewable energy, as well as grid-connected wind and solar – which regularly achieves penetration levels above 60% in the last eight weeks.

SA’s utilities also appear to be marching to the beat of the government’s pro-renewables drum. SA Water closed out 2017 with a sway of pro-solar and renewable initiatives and plans to reduce its energy costs to zero by 2020 through deploying rooftop, floating and other renewable technologies.

Victoria

The trend to energy policy differentiation in favour of renewables continues across the Nullarbor, with the Victorian government becoming the first Australian state to have its renewable energy target written into law. The Renewable Energy (Jobs & Investment) Act 2017, legislates the Victorian Renewable Energy Target (VRET), committing the state to 25% renewables by 2020, rising to 40% by 2025.

To meet these targets, Daniel Andrew’s Labor government is offering commercial contracts in support of up to 650 MW of renewable energy generation, with the reverse auction process now underway. As reported by pv magazine Australia, it is taking an industry-leading approach to community engagement as a part of the scheme.

Echoing the sentiment of the South Australian premier, Victoria’s Andrews stated: “In the absence of policy certainty and leadership from Canberra, it is up to states like Victoria to fill that void to make sure that we are doing everything we can do to drive the transition.”

At the 2017 All Energy Australia event, Victorian Energy Minister Liliana D’Ambrosio took attendees through the state’s multifaceted plan to facilitate renewable development in the state and bring down emissions. The program includes the VRET, the state’s large-scale auctions, microgrids, pumped hydro, water-to-energy, digitization, energy efficiency and smart meters.

“I am very pleased by our progress from last year and this, due to a massive amount of work we’ve done to demonstrate our transition and by taking all of the community with us,” said D’Ambrosio. “Everyone wins in this endeavor. It is not an easy one, but history will look back with a very important eye to what we actually did to ensure that our environment, our broader health, and economic well being were all a part of this journey.”

Queensland

In the Sunshine State, Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was returned to government this year with a Parliamentary majority, after the November state election. On confirmation of the election win, Palaszczuk said that one of her “first actions” would be to veto Federal Government loan for the proposed Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin.

The Adani election commitment was a part of a wider pro-renewables strategy, which set Labor apart from the conservative side of Queensland – including One Nation. As a part of the policy package, Palaszczuk has pledged $150 million in funding for renewable deployment, including rooftop PV on schools and a CSP project.

“We are committed to our transition of at least 50% renewable energy in Queensland by 2030,” said Palaszczuk. Through the Powering Queensland’s Future policy, the re-elected Labor government would establish a new, publicly owned generation company, vowing to deliver 1 GW of renewable energy generation. The aptly named Clean-Co would oversee significant investment into ‘Clean Energy Schools’ ($90 million), solar thermal generation and storage ($50 million), as well as roll out clean energy solutions to remote and isolated communities.

The additional $150 million in funding for renewables pledged by Palaszczuk during the election comes on top of the 400 MW/100 MW renewables and storage tender Queensland launched in October.

New South Wales

The NSW “renewable energy advocate” Amy Kean recently told the ABC that the state has some 37 PV power plant projects currently approved or seeking approval. Across all renewables, Kean’s office reports that some 10 GW of projects are currently at various stages of development in state.

Rooftop PV is also surging forwards, with one in seven homes – according to the Kean – featuring a PV array and large commercial rooftop systems contributing significantly to generation in the state. Kean’s office reported that renewables accounted for 19.6% of NSW’s generation in 2016.

The state government itself signed its first PPA for large scale solar in December of this year, with French developed Neoen, for the 24 MW Dubbo Solar Project. Larger PPAs for solar projects in NSW have also been signed by EnergyAustralia and AGL.

On a policy level, NSW has an “aspirational” clean energy target, but nothing like the goals that neighbouring Victoria or Queensland are pursuing. Rather, it is pursuing a number of smaller scale initiatives that aim to facilitate renewables, rather than promote a large scale energy transition.

Recommendations by the state’s Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal calling for solar FITs to be doubled, made earlier in the year in response to surging wholesale prices, was welcomed by NSW Energy Minister Don Harwin. The Minister has not echoed some of the price and reliability scaremongering of his federal Liberal Party Colleagues.

Western Australia

WA saw a change in government in 2017, with Labor’s Mark McGowan sweeping aside eight-year incumbent Liberal Colin Barnett. The state’s new Energy Minister, Ben Wyatt, has indicated that he is not initially inclined to travel down the route of a state-based renewable energy target.

“Ultimately my preference is always to break to a national model,” said Wyatt. “I don’t think individual state models are as efficient and as effective for private sector investment as a national model.” Despite this preference, Wyatt has also hinted that a “non-national regime” could be a possibility post-2020.

Quite separate from the National Energy Market, WA remains a laggard regarding large scale solar deployment. After inaugurating Australia’s first PV power plant, the 10 MW Greenough River project, little development has taken place. There are plans to double Greenough’s size, and Indian-Australian developer Sun Brilliance’s 128 MW Cunderdin Solar Farm continue to move ahead – Australia’s first merchant utility-scale PV project.

As it currently stands, the NEG will not apply to the WA grid, leaving it at somewhat of a loose end when it comes to policy beyond 2020.

The state-owned utility Synergy has moved to close aged coal and gas generators in 2017, with plans to retire 436 MW of generators in the state’s Midwest and Kwinana, south of Perth. The 52-year-old Muja AB power station was also closed in September, taking 400 MW of capacity offline. The Muja AB refurbishment project was a blight on the outgoing government, with the attempted extension of the plant’s life costing some $310 million, being delivered 18 months late, and having never operated at more than 20% capacity over its period of operation.

“It was in hindsight a very poor decision and it is a cost that is being carried by the bills of Synergy customers,” said in-coming Energy Minister Wyatt.

Outside of the South West Interconnected Network, the utility Horizon Power has embarked on an ambitious program of distributed renewable generation, storage, and microgrid deployment, to simultaneously bring down costs and carbon emissions. Horizon Power CEO Frank Windsor has led the utility on a course of innovation in terms of renewable deployment, smart meters, and new technology, in what he hopes will prove to be an example not only for the country but the Southeast Asian region.

Northern Territory

Similarly to WA, vast parts of the NT provide ample opportunity for innovative micro-grid or offgrid PV+storage solutions. And indeed, it appears that the NT is set for an extensive policy overhaul at the hands of Chief Minister, Michael Gunner.

Outlined in the Roadmap to Renewables report, is an eleven step recommendations list, devised to move the state away from its 96% reliance on gas and coal. Integral to the proposal is an investment of $4.5 Million into household co-contribution grants. These grants of up to $1,000, can be used for the installation of a range of energy-saving technologies, including PV systems and battery storage.

Investment will also occur at a commercial level, with $750,000 being set aside for the Territory’s Power & Water Corporation, in a bid to redesign the system’s model. Accompanying the financial contributions will be a grass-roots educational program, working with community groups to increase awareness of smart energy consumption, illustrating the Minister’s pragmatic understanding of the challenges ahead.

Tasmania

In April 2017 the Government of Tasmania announced its Battery of the Nation initiative with support and funding from ARENA. This will see approximately 15 of Tasmania’s dams transformed into pumped hydro storage, with state-owned Hydro Tasmania close to completing feasibility studies early 2018. 30 potential pumped storage sites have so far been identified.

Pumped hydro storage could deliver up to 2.5 GW of generation, nearly double Tasmania’s current output. It will provide energy security for Tasmanians as well as significantly contribute to the NEM.

Tasmania produces almost 100% renewable energy from hydro and wind resources. However, unprecedented  low rainfall in 2015, along with the failure of the Basslink cable in December 2015, placed significant stress on Tasmania’s energy system for the six months the interconnector was inactive.

A report on the feasibility of greater interconnection released earlier in the year confirmed the viability of a second cable across the Bass Strait. The Tasmanian government recently announced that a business case study will be drawn up for a second interconnector.

To improve energy security in Tasmania and support a business case for greater connection with the mainland, the Government of Tasmania is investing significantly in wind energy and UPC Renewables recently announced the development of two wind farms in the states north that will deliver up to 1 GW in generation.

Hydro Tasmania will also be investing nearly $1 billion over the next ten years to upgrade its facilities as part of the Battery of the Nation initiative. Tasmanian Minister for Energy Guy Barnett said in a statement that these upgrades will increase generation by 250 GWh and extended the lifespan of some power stations by an extra 40 years.

In December 2017, Flinders Island turned on its Hybrid Energy Hub, which will deliver between 60 to 100% renewable energy generation from solar and wind technology, with batteries providing electricity storage. Previously the island used expensive diesel generation for all its energy requirements. The hub follows earlier micro grids set up by Hydro Tasmania in Cooper Pedy, King Island and on Rottnest Island in October this year.

The fallout from Malcolm Turnbull’s National Energy Guarantee has incited encouragement and dismay in equal measure. The NEG will require action from the states regarding implementation, and at this stage bringing state policies in line with the direction of the Federal Government appears a significant if not insurmountable challenge.

Since the unveiling of the NEG, state politicians have been assertive and emphatic in producing alternative policies, eager to express their autonomy in this sector and profit from continuing widespread public support for renewables. However, while growing differentiation concerning energy policy between the Liberal/National parties and the Labor/Greens appears to provide opportunities for the solar and wider renewable industry, the pluralistic nature of state programs may end up detracting from overall success.