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Home to the world’s biggest battery, the state is a renewable energy powerhouse – something that looks unlikely to change under the new government, reports Brian Donaghy in Adelaide
The state of South Australia is something of a poster child for the clean energy transition. It sourced 48% of its power from wind and solar energy in 2017, one of the largest clean energy penetrations in the world, and is within a whisper of hitting its 2025 target of 50% renewables, with the help of large-scale battery storage, including the world’s largest lithium-ion battery.
The contrast to what is happening at the federal level is stark, according to the Climate Action Tracker website. Although Australia committed to a 26–28% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared with a 2005 baseline in the Paris Agreement, Climate Action Tracker said the government in Canberra was not doing anything to change course, continuing to rely on coal for energy and downplaying renewable energy.
South Australia will lead and show the world how a sensible transition can be done
Fears that South Australia might do a U-turn on the transition rose in March after the Labor government of Jay Weatherill was unseated in state elections. The new Liberal premier, Steven Marshall, told reporters that a plan to install batteries in 50,000 homes, creating the world’s biggest virtual power plant, "is not part of our agenda".
Other signals from the new government, however, have been more reassuring.
“The transition is under way, and the transition will continue,” the new energy minister, Dan van Holst Pellekaan, told the Australian Energy Storage Conference in Adelaide in May, assuring his listeners that the Liberal government would mean more batteries, not less.
“South Australia will lead and show the world how a sensible transition can be done," he said.
Professor John Spoehr, who is pro vice-chancellor overseeing research impact at Flinders University in Adelaide, believes the momentum surrounding renewables in South Australia is now unstoppable. Spoehr, who is also director of the Australian Industrial Transformation Institute, said the state will remain a global renewables showcase.
We can derive both a price reduction and industry development dividend from rapid adoption of renewables
"Battery storage has added much-needed stability to the system . . . South Australia is now well-positioned to be one of the world's leading test beds for renewable energy technologies,” said Spoehr. "We can derive both a price reduction dividend and an industry development dividend from rapid adoption of renewables."
South Australia's only coal-fired power station closed in Port Augusta in May 2016. Four months later a powerful storm took down powerlines, blacking out most of the state.
In the face of fierce criticism from the federal government, the state declared it would spend up to A$500m to reclaim control of South Australia's energy supply. It would install the world's biggest battery, set up its own diesel generator back-up station and give the green light to a 150 megawatt (MW) solar thermal power station near Port Augusta.
Tesla won the tender to provide the 100MW battery, and the government then announced that it would provide 5 kilowatt (kW) solar panels and 13.5 kilowatt hours (kWh) of Tesla Powerwall batteries for up to 50,000 homes, with the first 1,100 installed free in Housing Trust homes (equivalent to social housing).
Van Holst Pellekaan has not ruled out continuing with Labor's 50,000 target, but said this would depend on the success of the initial stages and the provision of private finance.
Once mocked by conservatives in Canberra, no one is sneering at the battery any more
Meanwhile AGL Energy is continuing to extend Australia's largest existing virtual power plant (VPP), aiming to connect 1,000 homes in Adelaide by the end of the year.
The company has offered participating households the opportunity to upgrade their battery systems to the latest technology from Tesla, SolarEdge and LG Chem. An AGL spokesperson said the response has been "overwhelmingly positive”.
The spokesman added that the total capacity will depend on the mix of hardware that makes up the final 1,000 batteries but the energy storage system output would be rated at a peak 5MW with a minimum of 10 megawatt hours (MWh) of storage capacity.
He added that the results of the trial would be shared with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena) and the industry.
"We expect VPPs comprising a range of distributed energy resources will become common across the National Electricity Market [the grid that covers eastern and southern Australian states] in the future," the AGL spokesman said.
Tesla’s giant lithium ion battery, instigated by the previous Weatherill government, has been officially operating since 1 December last year and has already proved itself. When the Loy Yang power station in the neighbouring state of Victoria suddenly went off line less than a month after it was commissioned, the battery delivered 100MW into the national electricity grid in 140 milliseconds.
The battery responds so quickly to a surge that it beats traditional generators to the punch when prices start rising
Once mocked by conservatives in Canberra, Australia’s capital, as too small, and about as much use as a big banana, no one is sneering at the battery any more. It responds so quickly to a surge in demand that it beats traditional generators to the punch when prices start rising. The game of holding back supply until prices reach astronomic levels doesn't really work.
The battery is owned and operated by the French company Neoen, at its Hornsdale wind farm, 200 km north of Adelaide. The state government has the right to some 30% of the power if required for grid stability.
But Tesla’s big battery is far from the only one in town. On the Yorke Peninsula, an A$30m 30MW/8MWh battery is expected to be fully operational next month. Built by South Australia's power network provider ElectraNet, and operated by AGL, the battery will help ensure grid stability, but it will also keep the lights on during an outage in its own area.
Meanwhile, GFG Alliance, an integrated mining, metals and energy group run by British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta, is planning to use a combination of solar, pumped hydro and energy storage to power its Whyalla steelworks, which it recently rescued from closure.
GFG, which took a majority stake in Zen Energy last year, has also struck eight-year deals to provide power to five other major South Australian mining companies, promising to cut their bills by 50%. Its new lithium ion battery, to be built near Port Augusta at the top of the peninsula, is expected to be a 120MW/140MWh facility.
The closure of the coal-fired power station was a blow, but it also brought to fruition the need to change
Some 30km north of Port Augusta, US-based SolarReserve is pressing ahead with the Aurora solar thermal power plant, which was given the nod by the Weatherill government in August last year.
It will be Australia's largest solar thermal plant, generating more than 500 gigawatt hours (GWh) of baseload power annually. Its molten salt storage is said to have a 40-year life, and will have the capacity to pump out a full load for up to eight hours.
Aurora received a major boost recently from one of Australia's biggest mining companies, the Adelaide-based OZ Minerals. OZ and SolarReserve are to share the operational costs of 35km of a new transmission line to run, via the solar thermal plant, to OZ Minerals' Prominent Hill and Carrapateena mines in the state's north.
Just south of Port Augusta, Sundrop Farms is using solar power to grow tomatoes in greenhouses on degraded land. Its concentrated solar tower also powers a thermal desalination plant so that seawater can be used for irrigation. Sundrop now grows 15m kg of tomatoes a year.
Port Augusta's mayor, Sam Johnson, says: "The closure of the coal-fired power station was an A$168m blow to the local economy, but it also brought to fruition the need to change, and market forces have come together to make it happen."
Little wonder Professor Spoehr believes the energy transition is unstoppable.
Brian Donaghy is an Adelaide-based freelancer who has written for outlets including The Scotsman, Reuters and The Irish Times. He is the author of Cents and Sensibility, the case for a universal basic income in Australia.
This article is part of the in-depth battery storage and microgrids briefing. See also:
South Australia Tesla SolarReserve renewable energy GFG Alliance Neoen solar power battery storage clean energy transition