THe deserted outside Tennant Creek, deep in the Northern Territory, is not the most obvious place to build and transmit Singapore's future electricity supply. Although few in the southern states have yet to take notice, a group of Australian developers is betting that it will change.
If they are right, they could have far-reaching consequences for the Australian energy industry and what the country sells to the world.
Known as Solar cable, promises to be the largest solar farm in the world. If developed as planned, a series of panels with a capacity of 10 gigawatts will be distributed over 15,000 hectares and will be supported by battery storage to ensure that it can supply energy 24 hours a day.
The transmission lines send electricity to Darwin and plug into the NT network. But most would be exported through a high voltage direct current submarine cable that winds through the Indonesian archipelago to Singapore. The developers say they will be able to supply one fifth of the island's electricity-state electricity needs, replacing its increasingly expensive gas energy.
After 18 months of development, the $ 20 billion Sun Cable development had a quiet appearance in the Top End three weeks ago in a series of events organized to highlight the NT's solar potential. The idea was embraced by the NT government and attracted the attention of the software billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, which is considering its involvement through its private investment company Grok Ventures.
The NT plan follows an equally ambitious proposal for Pilbara, where another group of developers is working on an even larger hybrid wind and solar plant to power the local industry and develop a green hydrogen production center. On Friday, project developer Andrew Dickson announced the scope of the proposal Asian hub for renewable energy it had grown by over a third, from 11 GW to 15 GW. "To our knowledge, it is the largest wind-solar hybrid in the world," he says.
These developments are still in the early stages of planning. Both teams say it will take four years for finances to freeze, with production expected to start in the middle and end of the next decade. But renewable energy observers are cautiously optimistic and could help stimulate a new way of thinking about Australia's energy exports, one that better aligns with the country's commitment to the climate agreement. of Paris, rather than expanding a trade in fossil fuels in contrast to it.
Opponents of Australia who have taken significant action on the climate crisis often point out that the country is responsible for about 1.4% of greenhouse gas emissions, ranking 15th on a table of polluting nations carbon. A recent report from the Institute of Science and Politics Climate Analytics points out that this underestimates the contribution of Australia, which increases by 5% if fossil fuel exports are included.
This last figure should increase over the next decade. Australia is the world's leading exporter of coal and rivals in Qatar as a leader in the sale of liquefied natural gas (LNG). C is a bipartisan support for a significant expansion of both industries, even though government economists anticipating the proceeds of coal exports will fall.
Ross Garnaut, former adviser to Labor governments who is now professor of economics at the University of Melbourne and president of Hub for the energy transition between Australia and Germany, states that there is another way to go. In a recent conference series which is transformed into a book, exposes his analysis of how Australia, with the best renewable energy resource in the developed world, could expand its energy production by significantly reducing global emissions.
Garnaut emphasizes the transformative reduction in the cost of capital for renewable energy and energy storage over the past two decades. Since most of the cost of clean energy developments is capital (fuel is free), he says the transformation has radically changed the ability of clean projects to compete with fossil fuels. Given that capital costs are lower in developed countries, Garnaut says Australia can, if properly managed, be the low-cost energy center in a future carbon-neutral world.
This would make the natural home for growth in mineral processing for a world that increasingly evaluates production powered by solar, wind and other clean sources. Industries that will thrive under Garnaut's vision include energy-intensive family operations such as aluminum, iron and steel and new opportunities in silica, lithium, vanadium, nickel, cobalt and copper.
"This will be the channel through which energy production in Australia will significantly reduce emissions in the rest of the world. It will also be a basis for a new era of economic expansion and prosperity," he says.
Garnaut believes that exporting electricity through high voltage cables and green hydrogen will be part of this clean energy future, although you'd expect them to come mostly later. Sun Cable's chief executive, David Griffin, is optimistic about the possibility that his company will help feed Singapore from the outback in less than a decade.
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He says the project will use prefabricated solar cells to capture "one of the best solar radiation reserves on the planet". But he states that the main transformation that makes the farm possible is the advent of the high voltage direct current submarine cable, which he describes as the "largest unknown technological development". The Sun Cable submarine link in Singapore will travel 3,800 km.
"It is an extraordinary technology that will change the flow of energy between countries. It will have profound implications and the extent of these implications has not been widely identified," says Griffin.
"If electricity is transmitted over very large distances between countries, then the energy flow changes from liquid fuels – oil and LNG – to electrons. Ultimately, this is a much more efficient way to transport energy. The incumbents will not be able to compete. "
Supporters of Sun Cable believe that Singapore, as a regulated electricity market that mostly operates in pipelines from Malaysia and Indonesia and is shipped as LNG, is ripe for competition.
On the other side of Pilbara, the Asian proposal for Hub for renewable energy has taken another move. The developers – a consortium of InterContinental Energy, CWP Energy Asia, Vestas wind energy company and financiers of the Macquarie Group – started with a plan to send energy to Indonesia via submarine cable. This has been abandoned in favor of green hydrogen – a driven change, says Andrew Dickson, from a reduction in costs and a growing international and local interest that suggests a much larger market.
A expanded hub proposal released this week it says it will be spread across a vast area – 6,500 square km, or about half the size of a large Sydney – and will create 3,000 construction jobs and 400 operations. About two thirds of the 15GW capacity will be reached with giant wind turbines and a third of solar panels. The developers claim that up to a fifth of the total capacity is destined for large industrial energy users in the Pilbara, potentially including new and expanded mines and mineral processing. But most of the electricity generated will be used to run a hydrogen production hub.
Hydrogen would be sold on the domestic market and exported, most likely to Japan and South Korea, which expressed a desire to shift energy consumption in that direction. Dickson claims that the production of green hydrogen at large volumes could open the possibility of using it to replace coking coal in steel production. It could allow an expanded version of the "green steel" model adopted at Whyalla by British industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.
Dickson points to recent assessments by the chief Australian scientist, Alan Finkel, and the International Energy Agency as proof of the potential of hydrogen. "People are realizing, after several decades of promises, that now may be the time to make it become a thing," he says.
Griffin and Dickson both refuse to comment on the role the federal government could or should play in the development of green exports, although voluntarily that some local parliamentarians and state governments are in favor. Both point to the fact that their proposals are off-grid and helped them to isolate them from politically charged debates that fuel renewable energy against fossil fuels.
Roger Dargaville, a professor of renewable energy at Monash University and a member of the Energy Transition Hub, points out the amount of work he is looking at as the future of clean exports will look like. A recent project in which it was involved suggested a 40 gigawatt undersea power cable in Indonesia – much larger than initially proposed by the Asian Renewable Energy Hub – would be profitable by 2035 if the country adopted a low-emission target .
Dargaville believes that future exports will almost certainly be a mix of hydrogen, wired electricity and refined minerals before shipment. He says no one should underestimate the extent of what would be needed to replace the current Australian fossil fuel industries (the coal and LNG industries are worth more than $ 100 billion a year and take tens of thousands) and that the challenges policies and technology will be significant. But he stresses that nobody should exchange where the international markets are taking us.
The only question is whether it is in the period of time that climate scientists say it is necessary. "It's not really yes or no, it's only when."
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