Australia’s biggest solar energy plants have been given the funding go-ahead, clearing the way for the installation of 2 million solar panels at two sites in the NSW outback.Power company AGL on Wednesday committed to proceeding with the $450 million investment in the plants, which will supply 50,000 homes with electricity and potentially pave the way for more such ventures in the future.Nyngan, north-west of Dubbo, will host the larger of the two plants, with a 102-megawatt capacity, while a 53-megawatt plant will be built near Broken Hill. Both should be supplying power to the eastern Australian grid by the end of 2015. All up, the two sites will cover 375 hectares, or about 185 times the playing surface of the Sydney Cricket Ground.”The scale of it is truly awesome,” said Federal Minister for Climate Change Mark Butler. ”This project is 15 times larger than any other solar power station in Australia.”The project will source more than half its funds from government assistance. The federally-funded Australian Renewable Energy Agency will provide a $166.7 million grant, while the Education Investment Fund will contribute $40.7 million to assist the University of Queensland and University of NSW in developing the technology for deployment elsewhere. The NSW government will provide $64.9 million in grants, with AGL providing the remaining funds of less than $200 million. Some 450 jobs will be created during the construction phase.
The government is committed to retaining the renewable energy target, now set at 41,000 gigawatt-hours a year by 2020. Senator Simon Birmingham last week told the Clean Energy Week conference in Brisbane that the Coalition would also back that goal.However, AGL chief executive Michael Fraser said the Coalition’s plans to review the target in 2014 still leaves a cloud over the industry. AGL has already put plans for a $500 million wind farm near Silverton in NSW’s west on hold.Longer term, the governments and businesses involved say Australia has the scope to capitalise on its abundant solar resources in overseas markets.US-based company First Solar, which has operated the first large-scale solar plant in Australia, in Western Australia, since last October, will provide engineering and construction services for both projects, using its advanced thin-film photovoltaic modules.