“Sunshine for sale:” NT plans massive hubs to support solar, battery and hydrogen

The Northern Territory Government has unveiled plans for a massive renewable hydrogen zone as well as a new rechargeable energy hub as it seeks to seize a large share of Australia’s opportunities for renewable hydrogen exports and restructure its local electricity grids.

The plans are set out in three key documents released this week, which focus on what is needed to live up to its promise to reach 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and to grow a multi-billion dollar market for renewable hydrogen, which it hopes will repeat its success in LNG.

The documents make it clear that the NT has some of the best solar resources in the world, especially in the southern part of the territory. “Sunshine for sale”, it boasts.

This has long been recognized, but NT’s efforts to reach 50 percent renewable energy – first announced in 2017 – have been halted by divisions around network design and market rules, and how to accommodate new technologies in aging networks and controversy over a number of blackouts.

So far, more than 45 MW of solar cells have been built on a large scale, but not connected, because local regulators are afraid of what might happen when they do. Some of the photovoltaic plants have been idling for almost two years, and lawsuits are threatened over new rules.

The new document recommends a three-step process to facilitate the transition, and recognizes that a lot of battery storage will be needed to accommodate solar cells, especially as no significant wind resource has been identified.

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It now envisages an energy mix of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, coming from small solar cells (15 percent), large solar cells (26 percent), with battery storage (9 percent) that will provide overnight and critical grid services.

The remaining 50% of electricity production comes from more efficient and flexible thermal energy, which replaces the existing less flexible plant and includes equipment that can be powered by renewable hydrogen.

This is how it imagines an average day to look in 2030.

It looks at 320MW solar – 80MW from rooftops, 60MW engaged in large scale solar and another 180MW in large scale solar from a new hub for renewable energy.

There will also be a need for more battery storage – a total of 110MW. Home and business supply 10MW / 40MWh, with end-use batteries providing an additional 100MW / 560MWh; so it plans batteries with up to six hours of storage.

An additional 100 MW “hi spec” batteries (and presumably short-term storage) will be needed for network security. Virtual power plants and demand management will also play a role.

The rollout is expected to be stable over the next eight years, but the government says the good news is that it will result in cheaper electricity costs. It estimates savings of about $ 30 million a year compared to following a Business As Usual scenario, in which aging gas plants were replaced with the same technology.

But it hopes the gas plants will not burn fossil fuels in the long run and will instead turn to renewable hydrogen, driven by large arrays of solar panels – and possibly wind farms, if the resource can be strengthened – from the southern part of the territory.

Sun Cable has already planned a massive solar park of up to 20 GW and more than 40 GWh of battery storage in the NT, primarily to supply cheap solar energy to Singapore, but also to support low-emission production and industries in the NT with cheap power.

It remains to be seen what role the massive project will play in the NT’s own hydrogen plans, and its mission to reach 50 percent renewable energy in the grid (given its large scale will be more than 20 times the required capacity of the local grid) .

The NT government recognizes the long-term storage potential for renewable hydrogen and is looking to create a “renewable hydrogen zone” that would extend from around Tennant Creek down to Alice Springs.

“Renewable hydrogen can be produced in arid areas of the territory using either water collection technology, such as that developed by Aqua Aerem, or by exploiting groundwater resources where available,” it says.

“Although hydrogen production is water-intensive, even export size production utilization is comparable to other existing industrial water allocations.

“Renewable hydrogen can be produced in places with the best wind and solar resources and then hydrogen is transported to the deep-water port of Darwin in the form of ammonia or compressed hydrogen gas by truck or gas pipeline.”

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