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By Holly Tancredi, Assistant Editor, Energy Magazine

The Australian Market Energy Operator (AEMO) recently celebrated one of the best quarters of renewable energy output to the National Electricity Market (NEM). During the October-December 2022 quarter renewable energy contributed 20 per cent of total generation. One of the latest renewable energy projects sending its first energy generation to the grid is the New England Solar farm – the country’s largest hybrid solar and battery energy storage (BESS) facility. Located in one of New South Wales Renewable Energy Zones (REZs), the New England Solar farm is continuing to decrease the NEM’s reliance on coal-fired power, whilst helping preserve its culturally- significant sites.

In January 2022, the New South Wales Government declared the New England REZ a part of its Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap, to support the State’s net zero by 2050 aims. The REZ is preparing for an 8GW capacity, to deliver $10.7 billion in private sector investment, and support 830 operational and 1,250 construction jobs. In January 2023, the Federal Government announced the REZ would share in a $7.8 billion funding deal to fast-track upgrades to renewable energy projects for integration into the NEM.

The New England Solar project, developed by AC Energy Australia (ACEN) is set to have a generation capacity of 720MW and provide 1.8 million MWh of electricity, whilst supporting the reduction of 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 each year. Across the project’s two separate construction stages, over 1.5 million solar panels will be installed.

With project approval from the Federal Government received in 2020, and the first construction stage beginning in March 2021, ACEN has now celebrated its first major operational milestone. The project formally registered to send its first 5MW of renewable energy to the NEM and was approved by the AEMO.

Anton Rohner, CEO, ACEN Australia, said the achievement represented Australia’s ongoing energy transformation.

“When both stages of the solar project are complete it will produce enough clean, renewable electricity to power more than 250,000 homes in New South Wales,” Mr Rohner said.

“It is an exciting time for our construction team and our contracting partners, who have worked very hard over the past two years to install, build, and connect the solar project.”

Mr Rohner acknowledged and thanked the project landholders, First Nations partners, neighbours and the local community for their support over the planning, assessment and construction phase of the project.

Discussing the project with the Clean Energy Regular (CER), Project Manager New England Solar, Sarah Donnan, said that the location of the farm is ideal due, to its proximity to the already established transmission lines operated by Transgrid. The transmission is also linked to Transgrid’s switching yard which is connected to the Queensland-New South Wales interconnector. This will allow for the AEMO to have greater flexibility for where the renewable energy generation will be sent.

The best of the BESS’

Alongside the solar farm, a 200MW/2hr BESS is planned to support the solar project, with work beginning 2023. The BESS will be the first in New South Wales to feature advanced grid forming inverters which will act as a Virtual Synchronous Generator (VSG). A VSG mimics the operation of a traditional synchronous generator, but can support and stabilise grid frequency. A VSG can support low inertia problems and underdamping problems of grid-connected inverters and is becoming a more common technology in renewable energy projects.

Since late 2022, ACEN has applied to modify and expand the BESS project from its originally approved capacity limit of 200MW to 1400MW. The modification would increase the BESS to supply 700MW/4hr – equivalent to supplying around 250,000 homes with on-demand energy.

Ooralla’s Traditional Owners

ACEN has ensured a strong, respectful connection between the development and the Traditional Owners, the local Anaiwan people, since the project’s conception in 2018. The location of the solar farm project in Uralla is referred to as Ooralla by the Anaiwan people.

In a short documentary film, Ooralla: A Collection of Cultural Stories from First Nations, ACEN captured the stories from Aboriginal representatives, sharing knowledge of, and raising awareness of, the Aboriginal cultural values in the region. The film was provided to the Armidale and Region Aboriginal Cultural Centre and Keeping Place and is available on the solar project’s website.

During the project’s archaeological surveys in 2018, and shared in the short-film, a culturally-significant Grinding Groove site was found.

The Grinding Groove site is believed to be where Aboriginal people met to trade, celebrate events, and learn from each other. ACEN is undergoing work to create access tracks to the site, ensuring Aboriginal groups can access during the project’s operation. This is less common by developers, who often fence off the sites leaving them inaccessible during project’s operation.

The Grinding Groove site is also undergoing further study by the University of New England. Further surveys found artefacts in situ, including axes and stones which were able to be protected and preserved in the Keeping Place, Mount Blue Hole, Cathedral Rock; a significant initiation site, as well as the traditional track walked by Aboriginal people from Dangar’s Fall to the McClay Valley. The historical land of Ooralla is well respected and protected, ensuring the traditional history can be shared, remembered and preserved.

Record grid penetration

AEMO’s Quarterly Energy Dynamics report for October – December 2022 highlighted the increasing value that renewable energy penetration into the grid has fostered, reducing reliance on coal power, and decreasing electricity prices. The quarter also experienced the lowest output from coal-fired generation since the start of the NEM.

Grid-scale wind and solar produced a fifth of total NEM generation across the quarter. Whilst AEMO reported a slight increase of total energy generation across Q4, it noted the large increases in renewable energy output were offset by the decrease of fossil-fuel generation. 200MW of total renewable energy generation was from new grid-scale solar that had begun production post Q4 2021.

The renewable energy penetration across Q4 reached a new record – 68.7 per cent on 28 October, exceeding the previous record of 64.1 per cent earlier in 2022. The report results were well-received by the Climate Council, who called renewable energy the NEM’s Most Valuable Player. Dr Jennifer Rayner, Head of Advocacy, Climate Council, said the cheaper wholesale electricity, generated by the record high levels of wind and solar, were supporting the country during a cost of living and climate crisis.

“State and Federal governments are making positive steps to increase investment in renewables and storage, but we must keep ramping up the effort so we can reach 100% renewables by 2030,” Dr Rayner said. “A fully renewables-powered grid will help tackle the cost of living and climate crises together in the best two-for-one deal Australians will ever see.”

The consistent records hit by grid-scale renewable energy represents the speed at which the NEM is transitioning. Not only are coal-fired power stations reducing energy outputs, but grid-scale renewables are necessary to support and stabilise the grid. The New England Solar Farm will continue to progress this transition and support more affordable and climate-friendly energy to its region and represents how Australia can transition to renewable energy, and support the preservation of land and history.

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