In January of this year, Sun Cable signed a development agreement with the Northern Territory government. The deal moved the company’s dream of achieving their flagship Australia-ASEAN Power Link (AAPL) project that much closer to reality. While the plan remains in progress, it is already one that provides a vibrant illustration of solar’s immense potential as an energy source, and also as a national asset for Australia as the world pursues a transition to renewable-only energy.
The Particulars of the Plan
Sun Cable’s vision with the AAPL project is to build one of the world’s largest solar farms. From the Northern Territory location, the energy generated at the site would be transmitted into Darwin, beyond to Singapore, and to other markets around Asia. This project is already immensely impressive in scale and scope when looked at from a local context, but its offshore elements are also striking.
From 12,000 hectares of solar arrays the 3GW worth of dispatchable electricity shall be in a transmission system that can travel overseas via 3,750 kilometres of high-voltage digital (HVDC) submarine cable. With AU$22 billion of funding behind it, this is already an audacious project – but it really just scratches the surface of what Australia can do when it comes to harnessing its natural resources in an eco-friendly way.
The Groundwork of the Future
Although Australia is famous around the world for its coastal cities and communities – few tourists will have made a trip to Australia without a pitstop at Bondi Beach in Sydney, St Kilda Beach in Melbourne, or a similarly iconic strip of seaside around the country – in reality, Australia is a profoundly dry continent in comparison to others. Almost 20% of Australia is desert. Furthermore, a further 15% – given it receives so little rain – could effectively be classified as such.
It’s true there’s a misconception surrounding deserts and their value from an agricultural perspective, as it’s not actually impossible to utilise such land for growing food and other crops. But it’s also true that in order to do so – and overlooking all other complications a desert climate can give rise to in comparison to ideal farming land – water must be present. Accordingly, until irrigation occurs, such land offers little prospect of use in ways that lush, hydrated ground could. For a long time, the vast desert land of Australia has been regarded as a great source of beauty and symbolism for the nation, but due to its natural condition, it is also of little use to its predominantly coastal-based population. The possibility of solar farms changes all that.
Yet it’s not only the potential to use this land but in turn the demand for what it produces. Asia is the world’s fastest-growing region. Pre-pandemic, it accounted for over two-thirds of global growth in 2019. The region already holds over 4.5 billion people, and the years ahead will see its rapidly growing economies in India and Indonesia firmly establish their place among the biggest in the world.
As a dynamic and developed nation, Australia is well-placed to seize upon the opportunities this regional economic growth will bring, but it’ll also face new challenges. As other Asian nations grow their wealth and offerings, a number of industries they currently look to Australia for will see a decrease in demand. In turn, while the mining industry has long been the backbone of the nation’s economic growth, eventually demand for many products it provides will decline as the world goes green.
In place of this decline will come a capacity to service the growing markets of Asia in fresh ways, with a variety of new goods and services. But with nations across the region seeing the rapid growth of their middle class, so too shall that mean an immense increase in demand for energy. And Australia seeking to service this market is not only about positioning itself to capitalise on opportunities, but also play its part to negate the consequences of such growth.
As the World Economic Forum has noted, “The inexorable growth of the middle classes in Asia will put enormous stress on global resources.” Building an energy export industry locally won’t solve all the problems in this space, but it’ll indeed help.
An Appetite for Construction
There’s no doubt Australia is already a great country. There’s so much to be proud of in what gets done daily across the Great Southern Land. But just like a championship football team that’s still looking for ways to improve even if they’re the champions, there’s a number of areas across the national landscape where we’ve still got work to do, and not yet quite seized upon the opportunities available. Unquestionably, the more effective utilisation of our natural resources given the sheer size of the Australian continent is a key example of this.
For many years – and indeed even decades! – Canberra and Co have flirted with a number of major projects and ideas that in the minds of advocates are seriously overdue. Some of them, such as a high-speed rail link along Australia’s East Coast would be relatively straightforward (if expensive!) to achieve, and may yet get done. Others, such as the more audacious idea of building an underwater tunnel between Victoria and Tasmania are perhaps set to stay in the ‘dream factory’. Putting more large solar installations in place across the colossal amount of remote and arid land for the benefit of Aussies who live in far more hospitable locales may sound like a radical idea, but in reality, it’s a logical move that can grow national wealth and provide a service to meet rapidly growing demand in the energy market internationally.
Light at the End of the Mining Tunnel
Australia has long been a titan of providing mineral resources to meet global demand. By many measures building an identity as a ‘solar superpower’ is just the next chapter in this journey of providing energy resources to the world. The key difference though is this form of energy would be clean, green, and unlimited. The Sun Cable AAPL project can be seen as the first step in this new era. Australia could soon be making use of its status as a land of sun and sand for the mutual benefit of this nation, and for Asian markets abroad that desire solar power.
There’s no doubt making this shift in a bigger way with other substantial solar farm projects will require commitment from the private sector. Also, boldness from the public sector, leadership of any – and ideally all – political persuasions that are ready to draw up a big vision for the future of Aussie green energy, and then stick to delivering it. The transition won’t be quick or easy, but with the cost of renewables continuing to plummet and the rising demand for them globally, the Sun Cable story is a blueprint for the Great Southern Land. Now we need to build with it.
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