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Solar's struggle to climb tower of potential  

‘A German company has announced plans to build one of the largest wind farms in the world near Broken Hill in far western NSW. The company, called Epuron, says the $2billion wind farm could produce enough clean power for 400,000 homes. But confusion over clean energy targets set by state and federal governments is threatening to derail the plan.”

That was how Tony Jones introduced a story on the ABC’s Lateline program earlier this month.

Strange, that such an ambitious project by a global player in the wind-power industry could be announced and in jeopardy at the same time. It should be more likely that such a company would get everything in place before making such a large announcement.

Even stranger, according to Epuron Australia’s managing director, Andrew Durran, it has yet to monitor wind levels over a full year in the chosen area. It hired Canberra company Windlab to model the wind resource at the site, has six years of data from a wind monitor in the area, and has had its own monitoring system in place for a few months. On this basis, Durran says it offers “a very good wind resource over quite a broad area”.

Was this an opportunistic gambit to win promises of financial support from the major parties during the federal election campaign? Or a ploy to try to get the states and the Commonwealth to integrate their incentives and targets for renewable energy? Or both?

Whatever, it didn’t please the NSW Government. Agriculture Minister Ian Macdonald was noticeably underwhelmed.

“NSW isn’t a high wind state where you could reliably guarantee, efficiently, wind power into the grid to meet both economic and target needs,” he said.

The project’s estimated output is based on the fact that wind farms generate less than 20per cent of their installed capacity on average over a year. If the estimated cost is correct and if it includes connecting the turbine network to the national grid it will cost at least twice as much as a coal or gas-fired power station of similar capacity. The potential for absolute emissions savings is difficult to estimate because a dependable back-up source coal or gas at the moment would have to be running continually to ensure continuity of supply.

This new plan in the far west of the state brings to mind another renewable energy project in that part of the world.

When EnviroMission floated on the stock exchange in 2001, it said it expected to begin building a 1km-high solar tower near Mildura in 2003 and to have another four standing tall around the country by 2010.

A 5km-diameter transparent skirt around the tower would heat the air beneath up to 35degrees greater than the ambient temperature. As this hot air rushed up the hollow tower, it would turn turbines at its base, generating about half as much electricity as Epuron’s proposed 500 wind-turbine project. At the current price estimate of a bit under $1billion, its cost-power ratio is on par with the wind farm but the company makes the reasonable claim that it would operate more reliably, even at night, because there will always be a heat differential between the ground and an altitude of 1km.

What has happened to EnviroMission? It has agreements with landholders and construction partners, it has improved its technology and building methods, but it hasn’t got any plans to start building and its shares are worth about 12c.

Spokeswoman Kim Forte says they missed out on federal and state money earlier this year when the bulk of clean energy funds went to a photovoltaic solar project in Victoria and to “clean” fossil fuel projects. Its corporate future is now focused on a merger with a United States associate company, with an eye to the 30per cent tax write-offs available for renewable energy projects in the US.

“Our mandate is for developments in Australia and we are now seeking a mandate to develop outside Australia,” Forte says.

Unlike the Epuron project, which acknowledged its potential failure on the day it was announced, EnviroMission’s project began in an uplifting aura of hope and wonder but has faded slowly ever since, mainly because of its largely experimental status as an energy generator and a construction challenge. Perhaps it is this experience over six years which has left Forte more willing to speak her mind than most renewable energy promoters. “Windmills, we all know, don’t work,” she says, referring to the variability of their output and the distance between high wind provinces and grid connections.

“You know what their real value is? A government publication can have a windmill on its cover.”

And geothermal energy is 20 years off, if it’s lucky.

“The Victorian Government is tossing money at exploration for hot rocks. I think they need to walk out of their offices and look up there is the biggest hot rock. It’s absolutely daft.”

She insists that the company is still positive that it will get a solar tower up somewhere, somehow, sometime, but it’s a tough grind.

“What you are hearing here is dismay at the lack of real policy to support a much-needed industry.”

Six years from now, Epuron’s wind farm and EnviroMission’s solar towers could both be generating electricity in the desertificating far western plains of NSW. Or both could be dusty proposals on shelves, still waiting for sufficient subsidies and guarantees for their boards to give the go-ahead.

If the latter is the case, at least Epuron can say they foresaw that possibility from the start.

Simon Grose is a science and technology writer.

The Canberra Times

24 October 2007

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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