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Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock

Felicity Bradstock is a freelance writer specialising in Energy and Finance. She has a Master’s in International Development from the University of Birmingham, UK.

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South Australia Turns to Solar Energy for Economic Survival

  • Australia is developing large-scale wind and solar energy projects, including the southern hemisphere's largest wind farm in Queensland.
  • Farmers in drought-affected regions are embracing renewable energy as an alternative source of income.
  • Environmentalists express concerns about Australia's continued reliance on coal and urge a more rapid transition to renewable energy.

Despite its longstanding reliance on coal, Australia is steadily transitioning away from fossil fuels to greener alternatives. The government has made ambitious pledges to close the country’s coal mines and expand its wind and solar energy operations. This includes the development of the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere, as well as massive solar power and battery projects. However, environmentalists worry that Australia may not be as successful at leaving coal behind as it hopes, potentially to the detriment of its green transition. 

In Queensland, the Spanish renewable energy giant Acciona is currently developing the biggest onshore wind farm in the southern hemisphere, covering around 36,000 hectares. The project is located around 200km south-west of Brisbane in an area that has been plagued by drought in recent years. 

Many farmers in the region have become more open to using their land for renewable energy projects as a means of bringing in alternative revenue. As farming is hit hard by unpredictable weather and regular periods of drought, solar and wind energy operations offer a stable source of income for many farmers. An increasing number of farmers see income diversification as key to the survival of Australian agriculture. It is thought that farmers are receiving as much as $40,000 annually per turbine from Acciona, which is thought to total around $162 million split between 10 landowners in the region, for a 25-year lease. Further, it does not prevent the farmers from continuing their traditional farming operations on the land, giving them the best of both worlds. 

Acciona’s turbines are giant, soaring around 285 metres into the sky and making them visible for miles around. This has led some farmers who are not hosting wind turbines to condemn the construction of the massive turbines on surrounding farmland, suggesting they ruin the landscape. 

The French energy company Engie is also establishing renewable energy projects in the region, developing a 1.9 GW wind and solar energy project called The Plains in New South Wales (NSW). However, getting support for the project has not been easy, with community complaints having forced the company to cut the number of turbines from 97 to 47. To garner more community support, Engie has said it will offer a $1000 energy bill rebate to the neighbours of its planned wind and solar projects. This includes not just those who live directly next to new projects but also those affected by higher traffic or with visual sightlines. The rebate is only available for consumers who switch to Engie as an energy provider. Anna Hedgcock, the head of portfolio growth and commercial at Engie, explained, “Developers have to be on the front foot regardless of what state or federal governments are doing. It is absolutely imperative if you are going to deliver a good project that is accepted by the community.” 

Australia is also rapidly developing its solar energy capacity and gaining support from landowners across the country. In South Australia's Riverland region, many landowners are finding it extremely difficult to earn revenue from land on which nothing will grow. This has led many landowners to make deals with solar energy producers looking to put solar panels on their arid land to produce clean energy. Wine producers in the region are also supporting the development of a wide range of solar projects, from small-scale operations to cover their energy costs to major projects capable of exporting energy to the grid. In 2023, a CSIRO poll of 6,700 people showed that most respondents were willing to live close to renewable energy developments, with solar energy projects gaining the most support at 88 percent of those surveyed. 

To support the rollout of solar and wind energy projects, Australia also hopes to increase its battery capacity to provide a stable renewable energy supply across the country. In May, RWE, a leading international renewable energy supplier, announced plans to develop Australia’s first eight-hour battery near Balranald, NSW. The firm’s eight-hour lithium-ion battery storage will be used at its 249 MWac Limondale Solar Farm, one of the largest solar farms in the country. RWE will connect its BESS to existing grid infrastructure to ensure it can deliver a more stable supply of solar energy at all hours of the day and night. The project is expected to be completed by 2025. 

While these projects demonstrate the strides made in Australia’s renewable energy industry in recent years, environmentalists are concerned that if the government doesn’t expand the country’s green energy capacity more rapidly it may continue to rely on coal energy for several years to come. Despite big promises that many of Australia’s coal mines would be imminently shut down, the government appears to be backtracking on its pledges by extending the life of Australia’s biggest coal mine for at least two more years to 2027. In May, the government agreed with the facility’s operator, Origin Energy, to keep its 2.88-GW Eraring plant running beyond the scheduled closure date of August 2025, with the potential of a longer extension to 2029 if needed. The NSW Premier stated, “The people of NSW now have certainty that the NSW government has a plan to ensure we have reliable energy while we transition the workforce and the economy to net zero.” This demonstrates Australia’s continued dependence on coal and suggests that it must rapidly increase its renewable energy capacity if hopes to undergo a green transition. 

By Felicity Bradstock for Oilprice.com 

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on June 02 2024 said:
    This course of action isn't motivated by lack of energy resources since Australia has vast coal and gas reserves to last for centuries but for farmers in drought-affected regions to bolster their incomes by letting part of their lands for solar and wind companies rather than suddenly embracing renewables.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Global Energy Expert

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