Australia Gets Big Solar, Starting Small

Australia has a big new solar power plant. “Big” relative to what Australia used to have when it came to utility-scale solar, which was, more or less, nothing.

The 10-megawatt Greenough River Solar Farm in Western Australia is up and running, becoming the largest solar-power producing array in the country. “Solar Power Gets Jolt of Energy as Western Australia Officially Flips Switch on Country’s First Large-Scale Solar Project,” says the press release headline.

Greenough River Solar Farm

image via Greenough River Solar Farm

Strange, isn’t that, the Australia is just getting going on utility-scale solar? It’s not really a fair comparison, given the population difference between the two countries, but the U.S. has 74 installations that are 10 MW or bigger, and a couple of dozen that top 25 MW, according to a project list [PDF] compiled by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

The point isn’t that Australia should be where the U.S. is; it’s just surprising that a country well known to have a sunny climate hasn’t done more in the way of utility-scale solar.

But Greenough River could, in fact, be the start of something big, as government support finally moves beyond distributed solar — where Australia has done pretty well of late — and puts some juice into utility-scale solar. Think of Greenough River as a small but significant signal of what’s possible and what’s ahead.

Greenough River Solar Farm

image via Greenough River Solar Farm

The Western Australia state-owned power utility Verve Energy and GE Energy Financial Services own the new plant 50-50, but it was First Solar that developed the project (using its thin-film panels, of course) and First Solar that will operate it.

And First Solar has some serious plans brewing in Australia.

In June, the Arizona-based solar manufacturer and project developer said it had won a deal to provide engineering, procurement and construction services for two government-backed utility-scale solar projects in Australia.

The developments are part of an Australian government program called Solar Flagships, the country’s first foray into really big solar generation. The two projects that First Solar will help build under the program — a 106-megawatt (MW) plant at Nyngan and a 53-MW plant at Broken Hill, both in New South Wales – will cost around $450 million, with the federal and state governments chipping in $130 million of the cost.

And even cute little Greenough River – oops, we mean utility-scale Greenough River – might become bigger.

“With this landmark project now complete, partners Verve Energy and GE Energy Financial Services are now evaluating the possibility of expanding the plant to up to 40 megawatts to satisfy growing demand for renewable energy,” Verve Energy CEO Jason Waters said in a statement.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Australia is behind most of the developed world in most things so the fact that it is still nearly 100% dependent on dirty coal is no surprise.

    • Pete Danko

      Dan — Thanks for the comment. Do you think Australia will wimp out on its 20% renewables by 2020 goal?
      Pete