The desert outside Tennant Creek, deep in Australia’s 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 are betting that will change.
If they are right, it could have far-reaching consequences for Australia’s energy industry and what the nation sells to the world.
Known as Sun Cable, it promises to be the world’s largest solar farm. If developed as planned, an array of panels with a capacity of 10 gigawatts (GW) would be spread across 15,000 hectares and be backed by battery storage to ensure it can supply power around the clock.
Illustration: Mountain People
Overhead transmission lines would send electricity to Darwin and plug into the Northern Territory grid, but the bulk would be exported via a high-voltage direct-current submarine cable snaking through the Indonesian archipelago to Singapore.
The developers have said it that would be able to provide one-fifth of the city-state’s electricity needs, replacing its increasingly expensive gas-fired power.
After 18 months in development, A$20 billion (US$14.1 billion) Sun Cable had a quiet coming out party in the Top End three weeks ago at a series of events held to highlight the Northern Territory’s solar potential. The idea has been embraced by the territory’s government and attracted the attention of software billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, who is considering involvement through his Grok Ventures private investment firm.
The Northern Territory plan follows a similarly ambitious proposal for the Pilbara, where another group of developers are working on an even bigger wind and solar hybrid plant to power local industry and develop a green hydrogen manufacturing hub.
Project developer Andrew Dickson on Friday last week announced that the scale of the proposed Asian Renewable Energy Hub had grown by more than a third, from 11GW to 15GW.
“To our knowledge, it’s the largest wind-solar hybrid in the world,” he said.
These developments are still at relatively early stages of planning.
Both teams said that it would be four years before they lock in finance, with production scheduled to start mid-to-late next decade.
However, renewable energy watchers are cautiously optimistic that they could help spark a new way of thinking about Australia’s energy exports — one that better aligns with the nation’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, rather than broadening a fossil fuel trade at odds with it.
Opponents to Australia taking significant action on the climate crisis often point out that the nation is responsible for about 1.4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, placing it about 15th on a table of carbon-polluting nations.
A recent report by science and policy institute Climate Analytics makes the case that this underplays Australia’s contribution, which increases by 5 percent if fossil fuel exports are included.
The latter figure is expected to increase over the next decade. Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal and rivals Qatar as the leader in selling liquefied natural gas (LNG).
There is bipartisan support for a significant expansion of both industries, although government economists anticipate export earnings from coal would fall.
Ross Garnaut , former adviser to Labor governments who is now a professor of economics at the University of Melbourne and chairman of the Australian-German Energy Transition Hub, makes the case that there is another way ahead.
In a recent lecture series that is being turned into a book, he laid out his analysis of how Australia, with the best renewable energy resource in the developed world, could expand its energy production while significantly reducing global emissions.
Garnaut points to the transformative reduction in the capital cost of renewable energy and energy storage over the past two decades. As most of the cost of clean energy developments is capital (the fuel is free), he said that 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 said that meant Australia could, if properly managed, be the center of low-cost energy in a future zero-carbon world.
It would make it the natural home for growth in minerals processing for a world that increasingly values production powered by solar, wind and other clean sources. Industries that would flourish under Garnaut’s vision include familiar energy-intensive operations, such as aluminum, iron ore and steel, and new opportunities in silica, lithium, vanadium, nickel, cobalt and copper.
“This will be the channel through which production of energy in Australia will greatly reduce emissions in the rest of the world. It will also be a foundation for a new era of economic expansion and prosperity,” he said.
Garnaut believes exporting electricity through high-voltage cable and green hydrogen would be a part of this clean energy future, although they would mostly be expected to come later.
Sun Cable CEO David Griffin is bullish about the possibility of his company helping power Singapore from the Outback in less than a decade.
He said that the project would use prefabricated solar cells to capture “one of the best solar radiance reserves on the planet.”
However, he said that the major transformation that makes the farm possible is the advent of high-voltage, direct-current submarine cable, which he described as the “greatest unsung technology development.”
Sun Cable’s underwater link to Singapore would run 3,800km.
“It is extraordinary technology that is going to change the flow of energy between countries. It is going to have profound implications and the extent of those implications hasn’t been widely identified,” Griffin said.
“If you have the transmission of electricity over very large distances between countries, then the flow of energy changes from liquid fuels — oil and LNG — to electrons. Ultimately, that’s a vastly more efficient way to transport energy. The incumbents just won’t be able to compete,” he said.
Sun Cable’s backers believe Singapore, a well-regulated electricity market that runs mostly on gas piped from Malaysia and Indonesia and shipped as LNG, is ripe for competition.
In the Pilbara, the Asian Renewable Energy Hub proposal has taken another tack.
The developers — a consortium of InterContinental Energy, CWP Energy Asia, wind energy company Vestas and financiers at the Macquarie Group — began with a plan to send energy to Indonesia via underwater cable.
That has been dropped in favor of green hydrogen — a shift driven by falling costs, and growing international and local interest that suggests a much bigger market, Dickson said.
An expanded hub proposal released last week said that it would be spread across a vast area — 6,500km2, or about half the size of greater Sydney — and create 3,000 construction and 400 operational jobs. About two-thirds of the 15GW capacity would be met with giant wind turbines and one-third by solar panels.
The developers say that up to one-fifth of the total capacity is expected to go to large industrial energy users in the Pilbara, potentially including new and expanded mines and mineral processing.
However, most of the electricity generated would be used to run a hydrogen manufacturing hub.
The hydrogen would be sold domestically and exported, most likely to Japan and South Korea, which have expressed a desire to shift energy consumption in that direction.
Dickson said that producing green hydrogen at large volumes could open up possibilities, such as using it to replace coking coal in steel production.
It could allow an expanded version of the “green steel” model adopted in Whyalla by British industrialist Sanjeev Gupta.
Dickson cited recent appraisals by Australian Chief Scientist Alan Finkel and the International Energy Agency as evidence of hydrogen’s potential.
“People are realizing, after several decades of promise, that now could be the time for it to be a thing,” he said.
Griffin and Dickson declined to comment on the role the Australian federal government could or should play in developing green exports, although they volunteered that some local lawmakers and state governments are supportive.
That their proposals are off-grid has helped insulate them from politically loaded debates that pit renewable energy against fossil fuels, the two said.
Roger Dargaville, a senior lecturer in renewable energy at Monash University and member of the Energy Transition Hub, underlined the amount of work that is going into examining what a future of clean exports would look like.
A recent project he was involved in suggested a 40GW sub-sea electricity cable into Indonesia — much larger than that initially proposed by the Asian Renewable Energy Hub — would be viable by 2035 if that country adopts a low-emissions target.
Dargaville believes future exports would almost certainly be a mix of hydrogen, cabled electricity and minerals refined before shipment.
He said that no one should underestimate the scale of what would be necessary to replace Australia’s existing fossil fuel industries — the coal and LNG industries are worth more than A$100 billion per year and employ tens of thousands of people — and that the political and technological challenges would be significant.
However, he added that no one should mistake where international markets are taking us.
The only question is whether it is in the timeframe climate scientists say is necessary.
“It’s not really yes or no, it’s just when,” Dargaville said.
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