Long read: Australia’s top end eyes mega PV export

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From the sidelines of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes announced plans to help fund the “insane”, indeed “unprecedented”, AU$25 billion (US$17 billion) 10 GW Sun Cable Project in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT). A project to pipe solar energy from the Outback to power 20% of Singapore.

But how feasible is a project unprecedented not only in size but also in distance and technological knowhow? The cusp of state of the art is the best place to gauge the energy transition, the potential of megaprojects, the future of clean energy exports, not just in the form of solar electrons but for hydrogen too, and the gumption of technologists, investors and policymakers.

The “unprecedented” 10 GW solar installation will look to feed clean solar energy from a sunburnt tract near Tennant Creek, NT, to power Darwin, and, via a 3,750km underwater HVDC cable, to Singapore as well. Every aspect of the project is “unprecedented”, but so was the prospect of the world’s largest battery until Cannon-Brookes challenged Elon Musk to build it in South Australia via Twitter.

When dealing with what is previously considerefd unprecedented, there are several key concerns: Expense, feasibility, and will. As for the will, the projects developers, Sun Cable and 5B, possess confidence enough to match their ambition, and the NT government has already given Major Project Status to the planned $25 billion megaproject.

As it stands, Singapore relies on imported Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) for 95% of its electricity generation, leaving the city-state exposed to fluctuations in global prices. Considering the already close geopolitical ties between Singapore and Australia, it is no wonder Singapore is jumping at the opportunity to shore up a fifth of its power supply via a steady renewable source.

The solar

For assessing feasibility, a closer look at the solar proposal is warranted. Sun Cable has partnered with Sydney-based pre-fabricated solar developer and manufacturer 5B, and the company is looking to set a “land speed record” by outlaying 15 MW of its pre-fabricated, 100% portable Maverick each day. “We developed the Maverick solution precisely to allow solar deployment that is simpler, faster and smarter,” says 5B CEO Chris McGrath, “and by doing so, opening new opportunities for solar.”

5B will utilize its special large-scale variant of the Maverick solution, the Big Field Maverick (BFM). 5B and Sun Cable have already deployed a BFM array at the Tennant Creek site in July to commence detailed onsite monitoring of the solar and meteorological conditions.

5B has not yet breached the 10 MW milestone in terms of deployment of its technology, making 10 GW seem some distance away. However, the continuous fall in the cost of solar PV modules and the shift towards low cost, energy-dense east-west solutions such as Maverick means that among all the moving parts in this enormous project, solar PV is the most secure in its feasibility.

The cable

According to Andrew Blakers of the Australian National University’s (ANU) School of Engineering and Computer Science, the Sun Cable megaproject is “beyond current state of the art” due to its length and the fact that it will run undersea rather than overland. However, Blakers expects technology to advance at such a rate during the 2020s as to warrant the High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cable transmission aspect of the project feasible.

However, there remains significant risk. The cable will need to traverse volatile geopolitical and tectonic boundaries. Australia and Indonesia have had a fraught relationship in recent years, and a major tectonic shift could easily snap the cable. The singular nature of the cable means that the entire project is held hostage to the cable’s integrity. “A cable rupture would produce a major shock in such a small electricity market as Singapore,” noted Blakers.

Cost

On a megaproject of this size, the potential for blowout is high. However, according to Blakers, potential blowout is likely to be limited to the cabling due to its unprecedented nature. The PV generation “ought to be able to be accurately costed.”

The HVDC cable itself is cheaper than most alternatives for transporting large amounts of energy over vast distances. Blakers contends current state of the art “is transmission of 12 GW at 1.1 Megavolts over 3000km with loss of 10-15%.” But it is cabling itself which presents the potential for risk.

Nevertheless, the financing structure of a project this size will take some time, but with a financial close target date in 2023, there should be time enough. Cannon-Brookes has not yet specified how much his family fund, Grok, plans to invest in the project. But the outspoken billionaire insists he’s not alone, other Australian entrepreneurs, financiers and investors are going to join in on the megaproject with a solid investment picture to be laid out before the end of the year. Sun Cable would like to start construction in 2023 with a commercial operation commencement date in 2027.

Potential renewable exports

The Sun Cable project, along with several other megaprojects underway or on the table, have forced the belated discussion in Australia about the future of its energy exports.

Vanessa Petrie, CEO of Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), a think-tank that released a 10 GW Vision arguing the NT’s potential for 10 GW in renewables by 2030 (of course, this Vision was almost immediately vindicated by the Sun Cable Project), believes megaprojects like Sun Cable and the Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH) signal a new era in renewable exportation for Australia.

Blakers, on the other hand, doubts Australia will be able to develop a significant renewable energy export industry. While there is some potential export opportunity in SE Asia, such as Indonesia, argues Blakers, the potential isn’t substantial as many SE Asian countries, Indonesia and Vietnam included, have good solar and wind resources themselves. Moreover, if SE Asian countries were to seek renewable imports, it would be easier and cheaper to get them from China. “Thus, there is limited export potential,” says Blakers.

Blakers believes an extensive web of HVDC cables will traverse the planet soon. However, Australia remains far too remote to be at the centre of this web. On the other hand, China is not only centrally located, but also possesses significant renewable resources to supply “East Asia, most of Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and west to Europe.”

Hydrogen

The argument over hydrogen is not over whether clean hydrogen can play an integral role in the Australian economy domestically, but whether clean hydrogen has the potential to become a major Australian export.

Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel said in a recent interview on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that around 15-20% of Australia’s future energy will need to come from hydrogen produced via solar and wind. 15-20% of Australia’s energy needs to take the form of a high-density transportable fuel, and hydrogen is the ideal candidate. However, whether hydrogen is exportable remains debatable.

Many, including Finkel and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) believe hydrogen’s export potential is significant. “Australia has a golden opportunity to become a major exporter of hydrogen, as other countries look to transition to low carbon energy sources,” said former ARENA CEO Ivor Frischknecht.

Finkel agrees, and he would too, he’s the Chair of the Hydrogen Strategy Group. In a briefing paper at the COAG Energy Council Finkel described hydrogen as Australia’s next multi-billion-dollar export opportunity.

Blakers disagrees. While hydrogen may furnish domestic energy supplies, and potentially power the shipping of the nation’s exports, as an export in itself, Blakers argues that hydrogen’s “woeful round-trip efficiency” renders it unviable. Of course, HVDC cable transmission of hydrogen fuel does not suffer the same loss, but the distances between Australia and potential buyers, such as Japan and South Korea, are simply unfeasible, especially with China better positioned.

“Electrolysis is 50-70% efficient,” says Blakers, “then there are losses in conversion to liquid hydrogen, ammonia, methane etcetera, and transport in ships. Finally, reconversion to electricity or motive power is only 30-50% efficiency. The round-trip efficiency is only 25-30%, which is one third that of HVDC. For low-temperature heating of air and water, electricity is three times more efficient than a fuel when used in conjunction with heat pumps.”

Despite Blakers’ skepticism, there are already megaprojects underway looking to promote Australian green hydrogen for export, such as the Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH), a 6,500 km2 project in the East Pilbara, Western Australia (WA). The project is a mix of 15 GW of wind turbines and solar PV. AREH is set to power the Pilbara region and generate hydrogen for export to Japan and South Korea.

Blakers’ starker view may prove overwhelming in the long-term (AREH itself has already somewhat capitulated with at least half of its power output allocated for domestic usage). But in the near future Australia could take advantage of its slight technological advantage, the sheer hunger of countries for green hydrogen (Japan in particular), and the slightly testy relations between east Asian countries, to at least create a modest export market for green hydrogen. If only for the next decade or two.