Sunshine Energy: “A $1.5 billion project…we cannot get that kind of money from Australia”

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pv magazine Australia: We don’t know much about Sunshine Energy Australia. Is this the company’s first and only project?

Anthony John Youssef: Correct. Sunshine Energy Australia was formed and registered for this project. We now have other projects in the pipeline that we have been discussing, but at this point it is too early to talk about that.

As a newcomer to the solar scene, how do you come up with such a bold idea to develop a project of this size, which would be Australia’s biggest solar farm by a large margin?

When Man Li, now the company’s Managing Director, approached me and asked me what I know about solar and if we should come together on this idea, we agreed to establish Sunshine Energy Australia and see how we can leave our footprint in the solar sector. Initially, we were looking only to do a 200 MW solar farm on another smaller property. However, the property we were gazing did not comply with our requirements, and then I came across this much larger block. My partners and I knew we had a good backing, so we decided to go for the bigger one.

We were also speaking with [electricity transmission system operator] Powerlink, which assured us that there will be too many complications with the property we initially showed them. So, we asked them to show us a better property. Even though it was a wee more expensive, we chose this block because of its logistics. It is only around one a half hour away from the port and this will save us millions.

When reports came back that 1,500 MW could be fit there and after speaking with our investors, we decided to go for it. The Council and the government loved the idea, so we went forward and got the development approval on November 14.

Who is handling the EPC duties on the project and who are your preferred equipment suppliers – modules, inverters, trackers, energy storage?

Power China will be the main EPC contractor on the project. The company is contracted to employ local EPC companies and technical assistance that we have enough here in Australia. There will be more than 1000 local jobs created on-site, and more at the logistics and administration departments.

We had talks with a few equipment suppliers, but right now I cannot name them. I can only say that these are some of the world’s top solar providers, but we are still to make our choice. Once we get the connection agreement finalized in a few more months, we will announce the supply agreements and have the latest and the best technology installed at our solar plants.

As for the grid-connected energy storage facility, we are looking to install around 143 batteries of 4 MW capacity housed in a 40-foot shipping container. The battery is around 572 MW at this stage and the cost is estimated at $500 million, but there may be variations once the final design is completed. The energy storage technology we will use has been patented by our project head consultant, Dr Ruisong Xu.

When are main construction works expected to commence and how long will they take?

The main works are scheduled to start mid this year and be completed in two stages. The first stage of 250-300 MW is expected to be built by the end of the year and, we hope, also connected to the grid by the end of 2019. Once the first stage starts feeding electricity into the grid, we will start the second stage of 1,200-1,250 MW which will most probably be broken down in further stages.

What type of a financing structure is behind this project? Have you secured financing for the entire project or only the first stage?

The project has not received any subsidies or grants from any government locally and internationally. We have an internationally signed agreement to fund the entire project. Without going too much into detail, Sunshine Energy and its stakeholders are funding the preliminary works, and the EPC is being financed by an international stakeholder.

According to a company extract from the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Sunshine Energy Australia’s principle shareholder is Hong Kong-based Eastern Union Limited. Can you say something about this entity?

In due time, we’ll be able to divulge all shareholders, but right now we are just trying to get the project going. This is a $1.5 billion dollar project [revised down from $3.5 billion in the initial estimation before costs fell], and we cannot get that kind of money from Australia, so we had to reach out. That’s all I can say for now.

There is an online petition launched against the development by a land owner, Anthony Crombie, which has been signed by 242 people. Crombie has also taken Sunshine Energy and Somerset Council to the Planning and Environment Court in an attempt to see the development approval rescinded. Is that correct?

That is correct. I don’t know him, but as far as I’ve been told he does not have any report contradicting our application that we have been approved for. We do consider to put a statement out about everything that is happening, but we have been very busy in the last couple of weeks so we have not had a chance. I’m aware that he states in his article that we are being on the down low because of the appeal, but believe me that has nothing to do with it.

What does this appeal mean for the construction timeline? Is it possible to kickstart works despite it?

From my understanding, until there is no court order, we are allowed to proceed as we want. We are in the very early stage of the appeal, and that’s all I can say. We have not had a single court day yet and have not even had a mediation yet.

Technically, before we sent the development application, we acquired a consent from the land owners we were purchasing the properties from and this is completely legal. The agreement we have with the land owners is confidential so that’s all I can say about that.

Of course, anyone is allowed to appeal against a development in court, but they should also prove why it should not happen. Also, just to explain this, Anthony Crombie complained in his article that we broke ground, but this is not correct. What happened is that we brought our own soil and turned it over. Legally, we’ve done everything correctly and the Council and the state government are in favour of our solar project.

When we started our projects, I was being contacted by some local residents and every single one of them was really pleasant and nobody seemed to be against it until the appeal. There were some submittals that showed concern before the approval, and from my count, we have two appeals. One of them is Anthony Crombie, and the other one is signed by three people.

So, how do you expect this to end?

We believe it will end in our favour.