Most trips around Australia begin in its populous, prosperous cities: iconic Sydney, bustling Melbourne and sunny Brisbane. But when it comes to clean energy, the story starts in lesser-known cities like Canberra, Adelaide and to a lesser extent, Perth. It is true that right around the country, rooftop PV uptake is truly leading the world, with more than 2 million homes featuring solar PV, totaling close to 9 GW in generation capacity. But progress in terms of large-scale PV has been in fits and starts, informed by an energy policy malaise on a national level.
All of this, along with Australia’s notoriously long and skinny grid, makes the country and its states an intriguing case study for the future of high-penetration renewables. And the nation’s capital, the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), leads in many ways. The ACT has driven the country’s clean energy agenda, despite the efforts of some federal politicians in residence while federal parliament sits, at various times fostering large-scale solar, and now going officially 100% renewable.
A close second is South Australia, which went big on wind before exiting coal. And despite a change of state government, it continues to push boldly into distributed energy, including endeavors like world-leading virtual power plants (VPPs) and battery assembly operations. And then across the desolate Nullabor Plain to Perth, rooftop PV uptake per capita exceeds the national average. Rural and remote communities are also adopting renewable microgrids and standalone solar+storage, rather than relying on traditional generation and distribution models.
However, despite the leadership shown beyond Australia’s populous southeast, big business will always continue to be done in New South Wales, Victoria and further north in Queensland, so they all must be addressed in this solar tour. Stay with the pv magazine team across the following 10 pages for a comprehensive guide to solar and storage Down Under.
Victoria: Heady cocktail of highs and lows
It has been an ambivalent year for Victorian solar on both the small and the large scale. On the small scale, the Victoria Solar Homes Rebate – the most proactive residential PV program in the country – fell victim to the law of unintended consequences, when its rollout inadvertently introduced an artificial boom-and-bust cycle into the solar economy. The industry was forced to its knees and subsequently to the streets in protest.
The low number of rebates and intermittent allocation meant that rather than encouraging solar installation, the rebate encouraged customers to hold out. As one solar installer put it, it was as if the “government has their foot on the accelerator and the brake at the same time.”
After a second solar rally led by the Smart Energy Council (SEC) outside the offices of State Premier Daniel Andrews, the government responded to industry concerns. Solar Victoria added a substantial number of rebates in September and promised continual increases every month for the remainder of the financial year. The frequency of the rebate’s open application period also doubled to bimonthly allocation.
The response represented an enormous victory for the solar industry and solar customers in Victoria. It also represents a doubling down by the government on its goal of pushing the state to 50% renewables by 2030.
On the large scale, Victoria tasted a not dissimilar cocktail. According to the Australia Institute’s July National Energy Emissions Audit, Victoria has almost doubled its grid-scale wind and solar capacity in the last 14 months. However, grid and transmission constraints, especially in the western part of the state, continue to force major curtailment events.
In September, the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) constrained 50% of the output of five large-scale solar generators, four of which are located in Victoria, due to system strength issues. Effectively then, 50% of four of the state’s larger solar farms had their renewable energy wasted.
Australia’s grid and transmission infrastructure is as outdated as its rules and administration. The killer combo is quickly becoming the bane of many solar developers’ existence nationwide.
Action is being taken to bring the grid up to speed with Victoria’s renewable ambitions. New rules have been introduced to improve transparency between applicants and generators, while providing a heads-up to developers about likely development congestion and curtailment events. Upgrades to crucial infrastructure, notably the Victoria and New South Wales interconnection (VNI), are being streamlined. And the potential 800 km interconnector between South Australia and New South Wales, which links in with the Victorian network, has also been fast-tracked.
AEMO has also published an assessment of strategic investments in western Victoria’s transmission network, which could see up to 6 GW of wind and solar farms coming online in the next decade.
Another solution – not yet widely considered in Victoria – would be to follow the lead of South Australia, which last month announced a Hydrogen Action Plan (HAP). HAP is a strategic plan to take advantage of the state’s more-than 50% renewable energy mix, so it can become a significant green hydrogen producer and exporter.
If Victoria followed South Australia’s lead, the state could turn its high curtailment rates into an advantage. Subsidizing electrolysis converters at locations prone to curtailment events would mean that instead of simply wasting 50% of a solar farm’s energy, as was lost in the most recent curtailment, that 50% – or indeed any overcapacity – could be used to produce hydrogen. Such a solution could prove a sustainable way to develop the hydrogen economy while long-awaited upgrades to infrastructure take place – and without solar developers losing out.
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