The year 2020 has been abuzz with news on several fronts. The Covid-19 pandemic and the recent US elections have left the world economy very stressed. Despite this, several positive developments have taken place, especially to boost green energ, with many renewable energy projects moving faster. 

A very ambitious AUD 22 billion project to transport solar power from Australia to Singapore and further into Indonesia has also seen a lot of progress. Called the Australia-ASEAN Power Link (AAPL), this project proposes to combine the world’s largest solar farm and the largest battery storage system to produce solar energy primarily to be transported to Singapore through a high voltage direct current (HVDC) subsea electricity cable. Energy transition is fundamental to achieving sustainable green economic growth goals. Australia, abundant with renewable energy resources, has also upped its game to meet it climate change objectives.

The company developing this combined generation plus transmission project is Sun Cable (founded in 2018), and it is being backed by two of Australia’s very successful business leaders who are also big renewable energy enthusiasts – Andrew Forest and Mike Cannon-Brookes. Sun Cable’s chief strategy officer, Dr Fraser Thompson, gave a presentation on this project at Global Transmission Report’s conference on Power Transmission in Asia on December 7, 2020.

The AAPL involves the construction of a 10 GW solar farm paired with a 22 GWh battery storage facility over an area of 12,000 hectares near Elliott in the Northern Territory (NT) in Australia. The developers intend to tap into the incredible solar energy resource of this region, which also has particularly low daily and seasonal variability. Sun Cable will deploy prefabricated solar arrays to be built in a proposed factory in Darwin.

So who will eventually use the electricity produced at this solar farm? In Stage 1 of the interconnection, the developers propose to build a 750 km long, 3 GW, 525/600 kV overhead transmission line to Darwin; two voltage source converters (VSCs); and a 3,750 km long, 2.2 GW subsea electricity cable to Singapore, with approximately 106 km of the cable proposed for NT waters. The proposed overhead line will be located within the existing Adelaide-Darwin railway corridor.

In Stage 2, the export transmission system will be further extended to Indonesia and then eventually perhaps to the larger ASEAN Power Grid.

To put this project in some perspective, China completed a 2.2 GW solar farm in the northwest province of Qinghai in October 2020. India’s largest solar farm has a capacity of 2.25 GW and is located in Bhadla district in India’s western state of Rajasthan. The US’s largest solar farm is the 579 MW Solar Star project, which is located north of Los Angeles. When this project was completed in 2015, it was the world’s largest solar farm.

The world’s longest undersea cable is the 580 km long, 700 MW NorNed interconnector between Norway and the Netherlands, operational since 2008. Two more large-scale HVDC undersea interconnectors are under construction in Europe – the 720 km, 1,400 MW North Sea Link between Norway and the UK to be operational in 2021; and the 760 km, 1,400 MW Viking Link between the UK and Denmark to be operational by 2023. 

Given the scale and magnitude of the AAPL project, it certainly dwarfs most of the large-scale renewable energy and transmission projects that have been proposed across the world. The developers cite technological advancements leading to falling solar power generation costs and cable costs as the main reasons behind making this project feasible.

The AAPL project has also received the government’s attention. The project has received a significant boost as it was granted  “Major Project Status” by the NT government in July 2019 and by the Australia Commonwealth Government in July 2020. This means that the government will provide extra support to the project for approvals through its Major Projects Facilitation Agency. The AAPL is apparently one of the 22 projects across all sectors to receive this status. The developers have already submitted an environmental impact statement (EIS) referral to the Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority (NTEPA). They hope to receive all the major environmental and regulatory approvals by 2022. Sun Cable has awarded the undersea cable route survey contract to Guardian Geomatics Pty Limited.

Once completed, the AAPL project will establish Australia as an exporter of clean energy and transition it away from being a major coal and gas exporter. At the same time, the project aims to help Singapore achieve its 2030 renewable energy targets.

Singapore currently generates about 95 per cent of its electricity from natural gas. In recent years, its reliance on imported liquefied natural gas (LNG) has increased significantly. While LNG will continue to play a major role in Singapore’s energy mix in the near future, the government hopes to ramp up its solar energy-based electricity production. However, availability of space and good solar resources could be two big issues for Singapore. This is where Sun Cable developers see the advantage of their location over any project in Singapore.

According to Sun Cable, the proposed generation site near Darwin features Annual Global Horizontal Irradiation (GHI) of 2,292 kWh/m2, compared to Singapore’s GHI of 1,580 kWh/m2. This means there is 31 per cent more solar energy available at site compared to that in Singapore. Massive land and year-round availability of solar energy make the location chosen by the developers very suitable for development of such a large project. Further, the export of renewable energy through the AAPL will help  meet up to 20 per cent of Singapore’s electricity demand and earn about AUD 2 billion in export revenues per year.

As of now, the developers expect to begin construction by the end of 2023. Connection to the load centres in the NT is planned for 2026 with the link to Singapore completed in 2027 or 2028.