Australian Outback to Solar Power Asian Cities

ON 08/11/2020 AT 05:08 AM

A $16 billion project is in the offing to export Asutralian solar power to Singapore and then other cities in Asia through the sea. Experts are questioning the fiscal viability but believe it is possible.


Continuous bush fires, an iffy record on environmental protection, and receding coral reefs have forced the Australian government to take a relook at its expanding coal industry and the harm it brings to the environment.

In a bid to redeem some of the harm, Australia has plans to capture its abundant solar power and transport it via sea cable to Singapore, and then to other ASEAN countries, traversing 2,800 miles (4,500-km) of the seafloor, including a deep trench.

The project costing about $16 billion is being funded by two Australian billionaires, Mike Cannon-Brookes and Andrew Forrest. Cannon Brookes has called it “insane” but said the engineering “all checks out”. The power project has got government approval just late last month.

This new project, owned by a Sun Cable company, is ambitious and pioneering in the way it will harness solar power for trans continental distribution. The plan is to eventually build a pan Asian power grid supplying cheap energy sources to millions and weaning away the over-dependence of the region on coal and other fossil fuels for power.

A 10-gigawatt solar farm and an energy storage facility of up to 30 GWh in the Northern Territory will be supplying the power. The average daytime temperature is 89.5 degrees Fahrenheit here. Solar panels, covering 30,000 acres, would generate electricity, more than three times the amount destined for Singapore. The surplus would be consumed by storing power during the Australian day and being transmitted in the evenings.

The solar modules will be built in a factory in Darwin designed by private Australian firm 5B. The company is backed by AES Corp and has raised A$12 million capital.

The project will be operational in 2027. It will combine the world’s largest solar farm, the most massive battery, and the longest submarine electricity cable. 

It will be designed by computers using artificial intelligence, according to David Griffin, a solar and wind farm builder who said he came up with the idea while driving through Australia’s hot, dry interior.“Millions of calculations are needed,” he said. “No one has combined those technologies into a single project of this nature before. It is beyond a human’s ability to design it.”

A regional power grid similar to what exists in Europe has been under discussion by the ASEAnNcountries for the past 15 years.

Sun Cable might just be the answer. The longest under submarine power cable under construction is the 435-mile Norway-to-Britain North Sea Link, which will become operational in 2021.

Sun Cable has a long, arduous journey with a deep-sea trench of 10,000 feet to surpass. The distance will have to be charted and the sea cable strong enough to withstand rough seas and ship passages and anchors. Some of the terrain is just 5000 feet deep, so the cables will have to be buried.

 A loss of 5 to 10 percent of electricity is expected on the journey.

“From a technology perspective, it is feasible,” said Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of the Nanyang Technological University’s Energy Research Institute in Singapore. “The question is: Will it make economic sense?”

A spokesman for Singapore’s Energy Market Authority said the attraction of cleaner energy and a regional power grid needs to be balanced with potentially higher costs. “EMA has had meetings with Sun Cable to discuss their proposal, but discussions are in the early stages, and we are unable to share details at this point,” the spokesman said.

The investors in the project are confident that they would be able to supply electricity at feasible rates. Sun Cable has given itself three years to demonstrate that it is financially viable before raising the money needed for construction.

The two billionaire investors are also confident.

“I am hopeful we will build 50 cables to Asia, but the first one is always the hardest to get done,” he said in a telephone interview. “We can show the world, ‘Look what Australia can do.’ We can export sunshine to Asia.”

Solar power export has the potential to change the geopolitics of the area. It will wean Australia away from its dependence on coal energy and exports.