Building a $14 million solar farm is an expensive way to send a message about electricity prices, but Doug and Lyn Scouller said they were left with few options.
In Normanton, 500 kilometres north of Mount Isa in north-west Queensland, Scoullers built a solar farm big enough to power an area almost twice the size of Tasmania, in a move to prove to stakeholders the benefit of positioning power generation sites at the end of the grid.
“We suffer from an unusual amount of blackouts out here. Sometimes I’ve experienced it in Karumba up to 13 times a day … and it’s purely because of the losses,” Mr Scouller said.
“The power actually comes from Rockhampton up the coast to Townsville and up to us, and it’s the old story the longer the extension lead, the less power you get at the end.”
The five-megawatt, 16,000-panel farm produces electricity that is fed back into the grid at Normanton.
By producing power locally, Mr Scouller said he believed he would save on the losses, and subsequently put a downward pressure on electricity prices.
“I just believe we’ve got a lot of losses in the network and if we start to produce power where the power is used, we will reduce those networks and it will ease the pressure on increasing power prices,” he said.
Test case for Australia
In 2016, the Normanton Solar Farm received an $8.5 million grant from The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (AREA), and is now being used as a test case to generate data about fringe-of-grid energy investment.
Calculations made before the plants construction will be compared with new data to determine whether the Scouller’s planned reduction in transmission loss will eventuate.
But not everybody is convinced.
Greg Elkins, the Ergon Energy engineer who led the commissioning, said his preliminary research showed that end-of-line power generation might increase the transmission loss.
“The requirement of very long transmission lines means that there are a lot of losses in just having the line turned on,” Mr Elkins said.
“Putting energy at the remote end can actually cause that amount of [required] power flow to have the line online … to increase.
“It’s kind of like a freight train – the amount of energy required to take the freight train from Townsville to Normanton is travelling every minute, and whether the power is supplied in Normanton or Townsville, that freight train still needs to run every time.”
While there are plans for expansion, the Normanton Solar Farm does not yet have a battery system. Another reason why Mr Elkins said he believed changes in transmission loss would be limited.
“Most of the generation from the solar farm is during the day where consumers typically use it during the night, so the excess solar generation has to flow back to Townsville — that’s one of the reasons why the losses will be minimal,” he said.
Mr Elkins said the only way to remove the losses entirely would be to turn off the Townsville to Normanton line, which he said might cause more problems.
“The only way to remove those losses would be to turn that line off which would then produce more unreliable power,” he said.
Despite the difference in opinion, the Scoullers are adamant their business will work, even if it does take eight years to secure a return.
“[I’m] extremely confident — we did a lot of pre-planning, a lot of calculations, a lot of engineers — no doubt at all,” Mrs Scouller said.
Mr Scouller agreed.
“It’s just pure mathematics and physics — if you generate out of here, you reduce those losses almost to zero,” Mr Scouller said.
An electric ‘I do’
The project bought no shortage of challenges.
In February, a stand-off with Ergon Energy delayed the switch-on of the farm, and about the same time Mr Scouller was diagnosed with cancer.
But at the weekend the couple hosted the ultimate celebration, and were married on the same day the farm was fully commissioned.
“We had family travelling from all over, so we wanted to celebrate with a bang,” Mr Scouller laughed.
And the newlyweds said Normanton would not be their last solar farm.
“I think it’s a bit like a marathon runner — you forget how hard you were hurting halfway through the race. Once you’re finished, you want to have another go,” Mr Scouller said.