As South Australia is fighting for its renewable energy future, large scale solar projects, in their latest installment combined with battery storage, are pushing ahead. Notable announcements in March included Lyon Group establishing a $1 billion Solar Storage farm, and the go-ahead of First Solar's $100 million Manildra solar project.
In a month with South Australia dominating the renewable news airwaves, the financial close of First Solar's 42 megawatt (MW) solar farm in Manildra was good for only smaller ripples. Yet it means that the construction of now eight of the twelve projects selected last year under ARENA's large-scale solar competitive round is secured.
They also include the Parkes, Griffith, Dubbo, EMU, Darling Downs, Collinsville solar farms, and the Kidston Solar Project.
The Manildra project, which ARENA supports with $9.8 million, reached the milestone after First Solar entered a 13-year power purchase agreement with EnergyAustralia.
Adding to this, in early March the Queensland Government announced the inclusion of three of the projects - the Whitsunday, Oakey and Longreach solar projects - in the State's solar 150 program. As this secures a 20 year revenue guarantee, the construction of these three projects is now also almost secured.
The ARDR was told that the White Rock solar farm is also close to reaching this milestone.
With the construction of all twelve ARENA projects investment totalling over $1 billion is about to flow into large-scale solar projects adding almost 500 MW of solar power to Australia's electricity network.
Yet, in March the big story on renewables broke in South Australia, where the Australian Lyon Group announced a 1$ billion solar storage project.
The company says it will install 3.4 million solar panels and 1.1 million batteries in the Riverland, north-east of Adelaide. This will combine a 330 MW solar farm with a 100 MW battery storage capacity that could provide up to 400 MW hours of electricity.
The news came after a swathe of major energy announcements from the state which, of course, included AGL's launch of Australia's largest operating virtual power plant, which was spiced up by a clash between the SA Premier and the federal Minister for Environment and Energy.
Prior to that the State Government released of a grand plan for the state's energy future.
The South Australian Power for South Australians plan contains several major initiatives designed, as the Government puts it, to "take charge of our energy future".
Gas will play an important role, as large gas resources in the state's Cooper Basin are still waiting to be explored. According to the Government, they alone could "potentially supply Australia's energy needs for more than 200 years". Accordingly the plan provides incentives for their exploration.
The plan also includes a new government-owned 250 MW gas-fired power plant which is to provide an emergency back-up for the state's grid.
A key initiative is also a new $150 million Renewable Technology Fund, which as its first project is funding grid-scale battery to store solar and wind generated power.
The Government is pursuing this with urgency, expecting both the gas-fired power plant and the battery facility - "Australia's largest" - to be ready this summer.
Straight after releasing its energy plan, the Government announced a two week Expression of Interest period, which according to Reneweconomy attracted 90 proposals.
Lyon Group was founded in 2003 as an Australian partnership of companies, and backed by Mitsubishi of Japan and Magnetar Capital, a US hedge fund, has since become a principal investor in several major renewable energy projects.
The new Riverland Solar Storage Project will build on its 33 MW solar PV plant/1.4 MW battery storage system that is about to become operational Cooktown in far north Queensland.
And last year it announced it would go ahead with the Kingfisher Solar Storage Project, a 100 MW solar plant with a minimum 20MWh battery storage facility in the north of South Australia.
The Kingfisher project was to be the largest solar and battery storage facility in the world, but this superlative will now be owned by the Riverland plant.
While Lyon Group is also participating in the tender, it says the project is not dependent on its outcome.
However, only if selected the government will write contracts for the facility to be available at peak times.
The Australian Science Media Centre has provided a few expert reactions to Lyon Group's project which also show that opinions on renewable energy in Australia remain divided.
Thus Dr Evan Franklin from the Australian National University said that "a solar PV plant teamed with battery storage is a fantastic combination of technologies".
He believes that this will be step towards solar PV and wind farms of the future, which will provide predictable and dispatchable power.
"A large PV facility teamed with, for example, a 100 MW / 200 MWh battery system, similar to some of the recently announced or planned projects in South Australia by various proponents, would almost certainly be capable of dealing with a repeat of the problems experienced on February 8 this year."
And Associate Professor Martin Sevior from the University of Melbourne, said:
"Provision of fast acting, high-power systems like this provides resilience against catastrophic events, like the state-wide blackout event last September. The location of the system in the Riverland region of South Australia provides geographical resilience as well."
But Ian Hore-Lacy, a senior research analyst at the World Nuclear Association, is not convinced:
"A 100 MW battery system of undeclared capacity (MWh) is not going to be much help in a 3 GWe system even if it turned out to be 400 MWh. Spending a lot of money on more wind or solar with a low capacity factor will make the provision of reliable dispatchable power less economic, and erode the state’s energy security."