A proposed solar thermal power plant in South Australia’s mid-north has been contracted to supply all the state government’s power needs.
Work on the $650m SolarReserve facility will start in 2018, creating 650 construction jobs and 50 ongoing positions.
The state government said the 150 megawatt plant, to be ready in 2020, would dispatch energy to the grid even when the sun was not shining.
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The chief executive of the Australian Solar Council and Energy Storage Council, John Grimes, described the government’s commitment as a win for the Port Augusta community.
“Solar thermal in Port Augusta means jobs for regional South Australia,” he said. “It means zero emissions baseload power.”
The South Australian premier, Jay Weatherill, said the solar thermal plant was “the biggest of its kind in the world”.
“Importantly, this project will deliver more than 700 jobs, with requirements for local workers,” he said.
For more than five years, Port Augusta residents campaigned for solar thermal alongside the city council, unions, local business, health groups, climate groups and renewable energy groups from across Australia as part of the Repower Port Augusta Alliance.
Gary Rowbottom, a former coal-fired power station worker and chairperson of Repower Port Augusta, said: “Building solar thermal with storage in Port Augusta will create new jobs, on-demand solar power, reduce emissions and put downward pressure on power bills.”
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Solar thermal has been supported across party lines with the federal government committing $110m of equity in the May 2017 federal budget to building solar thermal with storage in Port Augusta.
Solar thermal technology uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s light at the top of a tower, heating molten salt which is stored and the heat used to operate a steam turbine.
Solar Reserve has a track record in solar thermal, already operating the 110MW Crescent Dunes project in Nevada and recently announcing a 450MW tower for Chile.
“This, in addition to our state-owned gas plant, and the world’s largest lithium ion battery, will help to make our energy grid more secure,” he said.Weatherill said the maximum government load was 125MW, meaning the plant would be able to supply other customers.
Energy experts said the new plant was an important step in understanding how solar thermal could contribute to the energy mix in future.
Wasim Saman, professor of sustainable ernergy engineering at the University of South Australia, said solar thermal was a more economical way of storing energy than using batteries.
“The significance of solar thermal generation lies in its ability to provide energy virtually on demand,” he said.
But Dr Matthew Stocks, a research fellow in the research school of engineering at the Australian National University, said solar thermal also had limits.
“One of the big challenges for solar thermal as a storage tool is that it can only store heat. If there is an excess of electricity in the system because the wind is blowing strong, it cannot efficiently use it to store electrical power to shift the energy to times of shortage, unlike batteries and pumped hydro,” he said.
“It is not yet clear whether it will deliver a better outcome than wind and solar with electrical storage.”
The government contract with Solar Reserve would last for 20 years, and was the “lowest cost option” of shortlisted bids for the project, he said.
The government will pay a maximum of $78 per megawatt hour.
Australian Associated Press contributed to this report