Special report: Why did Whyalla solar fall over?

The saga behind the failure of the Whyalla solar thermal project is like a tragic comedy played out over nearly a decade. It's like a combination of Hollowmen and Yes Minister all rolled into one.

On Friday Climate Spectator reported that a government agency (ARENA) had withdrawn $60 million in funding for a solar thermal mirror dish project planned for Whyalla in South Australia called Solar Oasis. This project planned to employ a technology held by a small company called Wizard Power, which is now in administration.

According to the government, they withdrew funding because the proponent had failed to demonstrate timely progress on a range of measures necessary for the project to proceed to construction.

The story that has run in the media to date is that government was, to a large degree, responsible for many of the delays besetting the project. And that this is yet another example of the Australian government abandoning a promising solar technology which will probably be commercialised overseas.

The alternative perspective is that this is yet another illustration that renewable energy is a hopeless waste of time.

The reality is far more complex. In fact it is so convoluted it can’t be adequately told in a single article.

Still it is a tale well worth telling because it holds important lessons for Australian politicians, public servants and the energy industry. It provides an insightful example of a broader, long-running saga of failure in Australian government attempts to support renewable energy via one-off grant programs that select projects via tenders. 

It is a story of:

-- Politicians seeking big bang announcements and dramatic breakthrough technologies, in defiance of decades of experience that energy technology progresses through incremental improvement;

-- Technological proponents desperate for funding who have mutated their plans and projects to fit what politicians wanted, but with little demonstrated evidence that they could deliver;

-- Risk averse bureaucrats asked to evaluate and manage projects for which they had little technical expertise and experience; and

-- Precious little in the way of on the ground changes.

Throughout it all there has been constant chopping and changing of programs, funding and personnel. We've been left with little in the way of continuity or any obvious long-term plan or strategy for how technologies would be incrementally progressed through to commercial readiness, or closed off as a dead end.

2004 – The Energy White Paper

The history of the government’s involvement in the Whyalla Solar Project actually extends all the way back to the 2004 Energy White Paper.

The 2004 White Paper rejected the idea of market mechanisms to indirectly decarbonise our energy supply through creating price signals that would leave it to the private sector to determine how best to achieve emission reductions.  This included rejecting a recommendation from an independent review panel (the Tambling Review) to expand the existing Renewable Energy Target; and also rejecting the recommendation of several government departments, including Treasury, that they implement a price on carbon. 

Instead the White Paper decided that the Australian government should focus on developing new technology breakthroughs that would deliver step-changes in cost or reliability (not be intermittent) of low emission power.

This included two initiatives that ended up awarding funding to Wizard Power to progress its solar thermal big dish technology: the Renewable Energy Development Initiative (REDI); and the Advanced Energy Storage Technologies (AEST) program.

2005 – 2009 Prototype big dish shows promise

In December 2005 $3.5 million was announced to develop a second generation big dish prototype under REDI. This actually led to something physically on the ground – a large 500 square metre solar concentrating dish (photo below) built at ANU, which achieved its first on-sun test in June 2009.

The ANU Big Dish (SG4)

Graph for Special report: Why did Whyalla solar fall over?

Source: Australian National University Solar Thermal Group

This prototype demonstrated that the technology has genuine promise. The dish produced is very effective at concentrating the sun – 2,200 times average and peak of 14,100 times – and therefore heating fluids to 600 degrees or more. High temperatures allow for higher power generation efficiency which means you need less mirror concentrators, which are expensive, to produce the same amount of power. 

However of critical importance, and what distinguished the ANU/Wizard Power technology, was that the method of constructing the dish allowed for multiple replicas to be built of equivalent performance using mass-produced mirrors. Essentially it would support mass-production of dishes that to date had needed to be produced through manual adjustment of individual mirrors to realise good concentration levels. This offered the potential for possibly large reductions in the cost of solar thermal energy.

Unfortunately, while this provided a proof of concept, Wizard Power didn’t provide funding to continuously, or at least regularly, operate the dish in producing power for extended periods. This would have helped to test the durability and performance of the technology over extended periods.

2007 – 2009 using energy storage funding for next stage – 4 dish power station

The logical next stage would have been to take the same process to build a dedicated power station that would have involved a few dishes producing power every day. However the government had no program in place at the time to support the next logical step. Instead, it had decided that renewables weren’t much good without energy storage and so there was a few million dollars for that under AEST.

So as all Australian renewable energy technology developers do, they improvised. In 2007 they were awarded $7.4 million to build four dishes in Whyalla that would test the use of ammonia for energy storage, but also coincidently progress the dish technology. 

But, according to Wizard Power's former executive chairman, Tony Roby, after doing further investigations, they concluded ammonia was less attractive than molten salt alternatives for energy storage, at least within a five-year timeframe. So they asked government for a variation to the project in 2009.

2009 – Four dishes becomes three hundred

It was at this point in time that the Renewable Energy Demonstration Program came along. To fit in with the requirements of this program the ambitions for the Whyalla solar project grew from a modest and imminently achievable four dishes, to instead building 300.  

We’ll explore the saga behind this next stage in another instalment which illustrates why in 2013 we still don’t have even one dish built in Whyalla, let alone 300. 

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