Chipping away at the Australian potential

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History may record 1996 as the year wind power developers finally cracked the Australian market. The concrete shell of recalcitrant electricity companies has been steadily chipped away, with project announcements last month that will double Australia's (minimal) wind power capacity in the next twelve months. New wind turbines are scheduled for installation in the states of New South Wales, and Queensland, where a contract for wind turbines has just been signed, and in the island state of Tasmania.

Tenders will be called "later this year" for a 750 kW wind farm development on King Island, according to the Tasmanian state government. The remote Bass Strait island is in the middle of the "roaring forties," with 30 metre hub height average annual wind speeds of 9.5 m/s and electricity costs from the island's existing diesel power station of A$0.20/kWh. Wind power has become viable since the removal of the federal government's diesel fuel rebate last year, a cut in a fossil fuel subsidy which increased the fuel costs for the island by A$500,000 per annum.

The A$2.5 million wind project, however, is still considered "research and development." Up to five turbines will be located at the Huxley Hill site near the 4.8 MW diesel power station. Initially the wind farm should contribute about 20% of the island's electricity with plans to increase that capacity in the future and for operators to gain experience with the wind-diesel system.

ministry doubts

The development is proceeding thanks in part to a recent visit by Tasmania's energy minister, John Cleary, to wind farms in North America and Europe, which seems to have inspired him. However, he is apparently not totally convinced by the benefits of wind. Speaking for the Tasmanian minister, Adrian Wild said that although there is potential for private sector companies to package wind energy solutions for other remote places in South Pacific, "in terms of majority of the state's power reticulation, wind power is still significantly higher [in cost]" than other options. The state has one of the best wind regimes in the country, but is almost entirely powered by large hydro-electric projects.

Although not ruling out further wind power development, the minister has been quoted as saying the next capacity will most likely come from combined-cycle gas plants and possibly the proposed A$500 million undersea "Basslink" high voltage transmission link to Victoria. The link has been proposed as part of Australia's move towards a national grid.

"With the possibility of gasÉwind power, coal and an electricity link to the mainland, careful assessment of the options is critical," according to the minister. In a significant departure from the past, however, power planning in the state has recently moved from the narrowly focused Hydro Electric Commission (HEC) to a new state planning body.

In Queensland and NSW

In the northern state of Queensland, a contract for the first utility scale commercial wind project was awarded to Danish wind company Vestas on September 23. The A$2.5 million contract is for a 750 kW wind farm for Thursday Island off the northern tip of Queensland. The Far North Queensland Electricity Board (FNQEB) characterises the project as "a pretty big deal" which will see the first utility wind project in the state.

The project is finally coming to fruition after an expression of interest announced two years ago. At that time, the FNQEB said it hoped to have the equipment installed "in the second half of 1995." Power costs are over A$ 0.22/kWh on the island which has an average annual wind speed over 6 m/s (7.5 m/s from April to September).

Meanwhile, a memorandum of understanding has been signed by New South Wales (NSW) electricity retailer EnergyAustralia, the state's Sustainable Energy Development Authority (SEDA), Newcastle University and the NSW regional development authority to build a wind farm project in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney. The aim of the project is to first focus on a 500-600 kW development while assessing the feasibility of a utility scale wind farm "in the order" of 35 MW, according to EnergyAustralia's Neil Gordon.

The group hoped to have the pilot capacity on-line by mid 1996, which Gordon described as a "challenging" time frame. The pilot plant will "probably" consist of a single turbine but "we are leaving our options open," he said. Wind data indicates the potential sites have wind speeds in the order of 6 m/s, similar to the rest of the NSW coast but not as good as the Victorian coast.

EnergyAustralia will be developer and owner "and maybe the operator as well," says Gordon. SEDA may provide money for the feasibility stage of the project. Gordon adds that the company's green pricing scheme, "Pure Energy" is a key driver and the means to establishing a market for clean energy. The initial responses to the scheme, being offered on trial to 50,000 customers, has been promising with 2000 respondents making "very positive noises" in the first few weeks, says Gordon.

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